Ruminations on The Scab: RIP Jack London

Every year on November 22nd, I like to pause and reflect about the body of work from writer and rabble-rouser Jack London. Jack London, who died today in 1916, was most famous for writing “The Call of the Wild”, but he was also a brilliant union organizer and author of “The Scab”.

What is a scab? Simply, a person who purports to do the same amount of work as another person, but for less money. According to Jack London, anyone who undercuts another person, as far as wages or compensation for labor, may be considered a “scab”.

In the real world, a scab would be someone who either crosses a picket line to work or someone who agrees to do the same work for less money. “Scab” is also used to refer to workers who cave too easily to concessions or someone who offers their services for less money specifically to undercut a competitor. (In labor terms, what is a scab?)

It’s a good old-fashioned term with a rich history and those who choose to go through life participating in scabby behavoir should embrace the term and own it. Those who undervalue themselves and their labor, who choose to undercut their fellow workers, who give rebates and price cuts, you sir, are a scab.

Writes London:

In a competitive society, where men struggle with one another for food and shelter, what is more natural than that generosity, when it diminishes the food and shelter of men other than he who is generous, should be held an accursed thing? Wise old saws to the contrary, he who takes from a man’s purse takes from his existence. To strike at a man’s food and shelter is to strike at his life; and in a society organized on a tooth-and-nail basis, such an act, performed though it may be under the guise of generosity, is none the less menacing and terrible.

It is for this reason that a laborer is so fiercely hostile to another laborer who offers to work for less pay or longer hours. To hold his place, (which is to live), he must offset this offer by another equally liberal, which is equivalent to giving away somewhat from the food and shelter he enjoys. To sell his day’s work for $2, instead of $2.50, means that he, his wife, and his children will not have so good a roof over their heads, so warm clothes on their backs, so substantial food in their stomachs. Meat will be bought less frequently and it will be tougher and less nutritious, stout new shoes will go less often on the children’s feet, and disease and death will be more imminent in a cheaper house and neighborhood.

Thus the generous laborer, giving more of a day’s work for less return (measured in terms of food and shelter), threatens the life of his less generous brother laborer, and at the best, if he does not destroy that life, he diminishes it. Whereupon the less generous laborer looks upon him as an enemy, and, as men are inclined to do in a tooth-and-nail society, he tries to kill the man who is trying to kill him.

Before someone writes in complaining that this definition of a “Scab” is defamatory, consider the following:

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue.

This passage figured in a 1974 Supreme Court case, in which justice Thurgood Marshall quoted the passage in full and referred to it as “a well-known piece of trade union literature, generally attributed to author Jack London.” A union newsletter had published a “list of scabs,” which was granted to be factual and therefore not libellous, but then went on to quote the passage as the “definition of a scab.” The case turned on the question of whether the “definition” was defamatory. The court ruled that “Jack London’s… ‘definition of a scab’ is merely rhetorical hyperbole, a lusty and imaginative expression of the contempt felt by union members towards those who refuse to join,” and as such was not libellous and was protected under the First Amendment.

Jack London wrote The Scab in 1903 and died in 1916 at the age of 40…..

How Labor Scabs Work

Labor Unions in the U.S.

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4 comments

  1. David Losh

    You must mean redfin, again.

    What I have found is that redfin is a very expensive way to buy, or sell a house.

    The entire premise of redfin is that you, as the consumer, do the work, and then come to redfin when you have exhausted yourself.

    There is a whole new wave of brokers that follow the similar business model of telling clients to use redfin to search for homes.

    The system is feeding on itself.

    I don’t see that as a comparison to using a Broker. You have a perfect example in a listing you had on Capital Hill. The differences may be subtle, but the results were predictable.

  2. Marc Brodeur

    Interesting. I loved Jack London as a kid. I had no idea he was a union writer. There is always someone out there attempting to leverage the work of others. I think the word is getting out though. Zillow is notoriously inaccurate. Redfin is mostly ignorable.

  3. patricia ackerman

    The world has lost another great man. But the effects of your greatness will forever shine through the people whom you’ve helped with.