Pinkerton agents escort strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

A strikebreaker (sometimes pejoratively called a scab, blackleg, or knobstick) is a person who works despite a strike. Strikebreakers are usually individuals who were not employed by the company before the trade union dispute but hired after or during the strike to keep the organization running. Strikebreakers may also refer to workers (union members or not) who cross picket lines to work.

Industrial Workers of the World stickerette "Don't Scab"
Industrial Workers of the World stickerette - "The Scab" by Jack London (attributed)

The use of strikebreakers is a worldwide phenomenon; many countries have passed laws outlawing their use to give more power to unionized workers. As of 2002, strikebreakers were used far more frequently in the United States than in other industrialized countries.[1]

International law

The right to strike is well-established in international law.[2] In particular, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes: "The right to strike, provided that it is exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country."[3] The International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association and other ILO bodies have interpreted all core ILO conventions as protecting the right to strike as an essential element of the freedom of association as well as the freedom for workers to organize and established principles on the right to strike through rulings.[4] For example, the ILO has ruled that "the right to strike is an intrinsic corollary of the right of association protected by Convention No. 87."[5]

The European Social Charter of 1961 was the first international agreement to expressly protect the right to strike.[6] Similar to international law, the European Union's Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers permits EU member states to regulate the right to strike.[7]

Striker replacement (hiring workers to replace striking workers during the course of a strike) is not banned or restricted by international law. However, the ILO has concluded striker replacement, while not in contravention of ILO agreements, carries with it significant risks for abuse and places trade union freedoms "in grave jeopardy."[5][8] Regarding permanent replacement rather than just replacement for the duration of the strike, the ILO has held that "this basic right [to strike] is not really guaranteed when a worker who exercises it legally runs the risk of seeing his or her job taken up permanently by another worker."[9]

National laws

Strikebreakers outside the Chicago Tribune during a 1986 strike



In most European countries, strikebreakers are rarely used. Consequently, they are rarely if ever mentioned in most European national labor laws.[6] As mentioned above, it is left to the European Union member states to determine their own policies.[7]

North America


Strikebreaking is also known as black-legging or blacklegging. American lexicographer Stephanie Smith suggests that the word has to do with bootblacking or shoe polish, for an early occurrence of the word was in conjunction with an 1803 American bootmaker's strike.[19] However, British industrial relations expert J.G. Riddall notes that it may have a racist connotation, as it was used in this way in 1859 in the United Kingdom: "If you dare work we shall consider you as blacks..."[20] Lexicographer Geoffrey Hughes, however, notes that blackleg and scab are both references to disease, as in the blackleg infectious bacterial disease of sheep and cattle caused by Clostridium chauvoei. He dates the first use of the term blackleg in reference to strikebreaking to the United Kingdom in 1859. The use of the term blackleg for a strikebreaker was, however, previously recorded in 1832 during the trial of special constable George Weddell for killing and slaying Cuthbert Skipsey, a striking pitman, near Chirton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.[21] Hughes observes that the term was once generally used to indicate a scoundrel, a villain, or a disreputable person.[22] However, the Northumbrian folk song Blackleg Miner is believed to originate from the 1844 strike, which would predate Hughes's reference.[23] David John Douglass claims that the term blackleg has its origins in coal mining, as strikebreakers would often neglect to wash their legs, which would give away that they had been working whilst others had been on strike.[24]

Hughes notes that the use of the term scab can be traced back to the Elizabethan era in England, and is much more clearly rooted in the concept of disease (e.g., a diseased person) and a sickened appearance.[22] A traditional English proverb, which advises against gossip, is "He that is a blab is a scab".[25]

John McIlroy has suggested that there is a distinction between a blackleg and a scab. He defines a scab as an outsider who is recruited to replace a striking worker, whereas a blackleg is one already employed who goes against a democratic decision of their colleagues to strike, and instead continues to work.[26] The fact that McIlroy specified that this should be a "democratic" decision has led the historian David Amos to question whether the Nottinghamshire miners in 1984–85 were true blacklegs, given the lack of a democratic vote on the strike.[27]

Strikebreakers are also known as knobsticks. The term appears derived from the word knob, in the sense of something that sticks out, and from the card-playing term nob, as someone who cheats.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation, 2002.
  2. ^ Brudney, James J. (2021). "The Right to Strike as Customary International Law". Yale Journal of International Law. 46 (1) – via FLASH: The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History.
  3. ^ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 8 (1d).
  4. ^ ILO principles concerning the right to strike 2000 ISBN 92-2-111627-1
  5. ^ a b International Labour Organization, Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining: General Survey of the Reports... 1994.
  6. ^ a b c d Human Rights Watch, Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards, 2000.
  7. ^ a b Maastricht Treaty on European Union, Protocol and Agreement on Social Policy, February 7, 1992, 31 LL.M. 247, paragraph 13 under "Freedom of association and collective bargaining."
  8. ^ Committee on Freedom of Association, Digest of Decisions of the Committee on Freedom of Association, 2006.
  9. ^ "ILO Definitive Report - Report No 278, June 1991, Case No 1543". International Labor Organization. 1991. Retrieved 7 March 2023.
  10. ^ Sugeno and Kanowitz, Japanese Employment and Labor Law, 2002; Dau-Schmidt, "Labor Law and Industrial Peace: A Comparative Analysis of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan Under the Bargaining Model," Tulane Journal of International & Comparative Law, 2000.
  11. ^ Parry, "Labour Law Draws Roar of Rage From Asian Tiger," The Independent, January 18, 1997.
  12. ^ Körner, "German Labor Law in Transition," German Law Journal, April 2005; Westfall and Thusing, "Strikes and Lockouts in Germany and Under Federal Legislation in the United States: A Comparative Analysis," Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, 1999.
  13. ^ Ewing, "Laws Against Strikes Revisited," in Future of Labour Law, 2004.
  14. ^ Wet allocatie arbeidskrachten door intermediairs, Article 10
  15. ^ Logan, "How 'Anti-Union' Laws Saved Canadian Labour: Certification and Striker Replacements in Post-War Industrial Relations," Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, January 2002.
  16. ^ Quebec Labour Code Section 109.1
  17. ^ Getman and Kohler, "The Story of NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co.," in Labor Law Stories, 2005, pp. 49-50.
  18. ^ Getman and Kohler, "The Story of NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co.," in Labor Law Stories, 2005, p. 13.
  19. ^ Smith, Household Words: Bloomers, Sucker, Bombshell, Scab, Nigger, Cyber, p. 98.
  20. ^ Riddall, p. 209.
  21. ^ Tyne Mercury, 10 July 1832
  22. ^ a b Hughes, p. 466.
  23. ^ Amos, David (December 2011). "THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE MINERS', THE UNION OF DEMOCRATIC MINEWORKERS AND THE 1984-85 MINERS STRIKE: SCABS OR SCAPEGOATS?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. p. 289. Retrieved 21 December 2016. The song, Blackleg Miner, is thought to originate from the 1844 Miners' Lockout in the North East Coalfield.
  24. ^ Douglass, David John (2005). Strike, not the end of the story. Overton, Yorkshire, UK: National Coal Mining Museum for England. p. 2.
  25. ^ Apperson, George Latimer; Manser, Martin H (2007). Dictionary of Proverbs. Wordsworth Editions. p. 57. ISBN 9781840223118.
  26. ^ McIlroy, John, Strike: How to fight and how to win, page 150 (London, 1984), quoted in Amos, David (December 2011). "THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE MINERS', THE UNION OF DEMOCRATIC MINEWORKERS AND THE 1984-85 MINERS STRIKE: SCABS OR SCAPEGOATS?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. pp. 293–4. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  27. ^ Amos, David (December 2011). "THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE MINERS', THE UNION OF DEMOCRATIC MINEWORKERS AND THE 1984-85 MINERS STRIKE: SCABS OR SCAPEGOATS?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. p. 294. Retrieved 21 December 2016. If we use McIlroy's interpretation can the Nottinghamshire miners of 1984-85 be seen to have been 'blacklegging' as against 'scabbing'? However, there is one contentious point in McIlroy's interpretation, the breaking of the 'democratic process'. It is because there was some debate over the democratic process in the 1984-85 miners' strike that the question is raised as to whether the working Nottinghamshire miners were scabs at all.
  28. ^ Schillinger 2012, pp. 104, 120.

References and further reading

United States