TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 120: Should a union member who considers a strike unjust be a scab?

I am a unionized factory worker. There is going to be a strike, and I am trying to decide whether to take part or break ranks and accept an offer to continue working—be what we call a “scab.”

Negotiations went on for two months, until management claimed they had gone as far as they could and presented a final offer many of us wanted to accept. But when we met to vote, the president argued that the company could give us a lot more, and a motion to accept the offer was defeated. The old contract still had three weeks to go. We could have gone back to the table. But the negotiating team said that would be useless, and the majority voted to strike when the old contract runs out unless by then management agrees to everything in our last offer. Nobody expects that, and everybody thinks the strike will be a long one.

Maybe the company could give us everything we are demanding, but our president admitted its offer was better than most of the agreements made at other companies. Besides, this strike is going to be hard on some of us. Some people will be able to manage with their strike pay and what they can make at temporary jobs. The younger people without families don’t have the bills to pay, and many older ones have wives or husbands who work elsewhere. But husbands and wives who both work here and those of us who have big house payments and wives who stay home and take care of the kids will not be able to make ends meet. We can’t afford a strike.

If we do go out, everybody in the union will be assigned times for strike duty. People who don’t show up won’t get any strike pay. But the strike duty will involve carrying signs or passing out leaflets claiming that the company refused to bargain in good faith, the strike was unavoidable, and so forth. Since I see things differently, I really don’t want to be involved in that.

Something else also is bothering me. Yesterday morning the stewards passed the word that starting Monday we are going to soften up management by working to rule for the two weeks until we go out. That officially means doing everything exactly according to the book, but it really means a slowdown. Without doing anything a foreman can show is a violation, the workers take turns delaying things so the line has to be stopped every few minutes. Tools disappear; somebody puts a part in the wrong way; a compressor begins leaking oil, and nobody notices until it shuts down. One day, everybody qualified for certain essential jobs calls in sick; another day, there are long lines at the infirmary to get specks removed from eyes, little cuts cleaned and bandaged, “bruised” toes X–rayed, and so forth. Many people actually enjoy playing these games and make life miserable for anyone who doesn’t. But I don’t want to get involved in this sort of thing when I am not enthusiastic about going on strike anyway.

The managers are planning to keep the plant in limited operation for one eleven-hour shift, as they’ve done before, using nonunion employees with experience on the line. But this time they also are trying something new. They called in a group of us at the end of the shift this afternoon and offered to make us foremen from now until the strike ends. Temporary promotions to nonunion jobs often are necessary to fill in for someone who is on vacation or off work for some other reason, and union rules provide that membership terminates with a temporary promotion and automatically resumes (without affecting seniority) when the promotion ends. This offer means that I and the others would help the regular foremen deal with the slowdown and, of course, work as scabs during the strike.

I don’t know whether to accept. If I do, most of my fellow union members, many of them relatives or lifelong friends, will think I’m a Judas and treat me accordingly. I live in this town, and people who are my neighbors might never forgive me. But for the reasons I’ve explained, I don’t want to go along with the slowdown and the strike. Besides, there is a big difference between strike pay and what I would make working eleven hours a day as a foreman, and my wife and I really could use that money.


This question involves two distinct issues. (1) Would it be right to break ranks with fellow union members and accept the opportunity to work during the strike? (2) Would it be morally acceptable to participate actively, in the ways described, in the slowdown and strike? The answer to (1) depends in part on whether the strike will be just. Unless the questioner judges that the strike probably will be unjust, he almost certainly should not accept the opportunity to work during it. But even if he reaches that judgment, he perhaps should refuse to work. If he judges that the strike probably will be just, the answer to (2) depends on the moral character of the specific acts of participation in the slowdown and strike. But if he judges that the strike may be or certainly will be unjust, the character of those acts as material cooperation in a possibly or certainly unjust common action also must be taken into account.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Sometimes neither side in a dispute is in the right, and one may not cooperate fully with either. And even if one side is acting rightly, one’s other responsibilities can limit or even rule out involvement on that side. So, do not take it for granted, as you seem to, that you may either take part in the strike or accept the offer to continue working, for involvement on either side would raise moral questions that must be considered separately. I shall first discuss whether you should accept the offer to work during the strike, then whether and to what extent you may participate actively in the slowdown and the strike.

Like members of other communities, members of a union ought to cooperate for their common good and not act contrary to it. A strike can be just and necessary for the union’s common good. Of course, unless convinced after careful reflection that a strike would be just, union members should not vote for it. But if a union, by due process, justly decides to strike, all members ordinarily should obey that decision, not act contrary to it by accepting the employer’s offer to work during the strike. While it often is hard to tell whether a decision to strike is just (see CCC, 2435; LCL, 770–71), union members, including those who opposed the decision, should begin by presuming that they owe it obedience, and should set aside that presumption only if they reach a well-considered judgment that striking probably is unjust—that is, more likely unjust than just.

Can that condition be met in this case? Perhaps. You foresee a lengthy strike, imposing severe hardship on you and some of your fellow workers and quite possibly doing severe injury to various other participants in the company—owners, suppliers, customers, and so on. These adverse effects could make striking unjust, as other factors, such as unlikelihood of success, also might. Moreover, among the reasons you offer for opposing the strike is that the union’s president admitted that the company’s offer “was better than most of the agreements made at other companies.” That may mean you think the offer was fair, and those who voted against accepting it acted unreasonably, motivated by greed aroused by the presi~dent’s argument “that the company could give us a lot more.” If so, you should consider whether you have such clear and convincing evidence that, had it been available to you at the time, you could not have voted in good conscience to go on strike. Almost certainly, you should not accept the offer to work during the strike unless conscientious reflection leads you to believe it was wrong to vote as the majority did (even though some people did so guiltlessly due to an honest mistake).

Why do I say “almost certainly,” leaving open the possibility that you might rightly accept the offer to work even if you conclude that it was not wrong to vote as the majority did? Because other responsibilities could require you to continue working—for example, if your family otherwise would be compelled to suffer hardships that fair-minded fellow union members, putting themselves in your place, would regard as intolerable (see LCL, 760–61). In that case, acting contrary to the common good of your fellow union members would not be disloyal, and your relatives and friends, if fair-minded, would not hold it against you. You do indicate other responsibilities—“this strike is going to be hard on some of us,” who “will not be able to make ends meet.” But apparently this does not mean that those responsibilities are so exigent that you ought to work. Rather, you seem only to be saying they were reasonable grounds for voting to accept the proposed contract. If that is all they were, the responsibilities in question hardly can justify working during the strike unless you believe it was wrong to vote as the majority did. Moreover, you should not suppose the majority ought to have taken the hardship that the strike would involve for some as a decisive reason to forgo it, for any community’s common good often requires that some members accept considerable burdens.

Even if you judge that the strike probably will be unjust, so that it was wrong for the majority to vote as it did, you should consider your other responsibilities. Even if the union will be striking unjustifiably, nothing you say suggests it has been consistently unjust. Perhaps it has been a good association that continues to deserve its members’ support. If so, your duty as a member might forbid working for the company as a scab, since that would injure the union and reduce or destroy your capacity to participate in it and influence its future decisions and actions for the better.

Similarly, quite apart from your being a fellow union member, your relatives and friends involved in this conflict deserve your loyalty as a relative or friend. You realize that they will deeply resent it if you work as a scab and are considering the price you will pay. But have you considered that the relationships of family and friendship you share with them are great goods for both them and you, that you ought to protect these goods, and that failing to do so without a serious reason would be wrong? This obligation might well rule out your accepting the injury to these relationships that you anticipate will result from doing what you foresee will be considered a profound betrayal.

Again, you must conscientiously consider the relevant facts and, of course, make your own judgment. If the majority of the union’s members are habitually greedy and the union regularly abuses its power by enforcing their unreasonable demands, perhaps it does not deserve your support; if your relatives and friends care little for you and only want to exploit your relationships with them so that you will cooperate in their injustice, you may have an obligation to resist them. Then, provided you are not aware of anything else that makes it wrong to accept the company’s offer, your responsibility to support your family by honest work could require you to be a scab. I say “could require,” since even on those assumptions, you might have another acceptable possibility, such as reducing your standard of living, and perhaps even a preferable one, such as working elsewhere.

If you do not accept the offer to work during the strike, may you participate actively in the slowdown and the strike itself? If so, in what ways?

Whether or not they judge their union’s action to be just, union members should never do anything wrong in itself, even if it seems a necessary or highly effective means of compelling an employer to settle a dispute. In my judgment, this general norm morally excludes participating in the tactics of the slowdown you describe. To begin with, it would be virtually impossible to conduct the slowdown without lying (calling in sick when not sick, seeking first aid for feigned problems), and lying is always wrong. Inducing real minor illnesses or injuries is intentionally damaging health or bodily integrity, which also always is wrong, even if the damage intended is very slight. Deliberately misplacing tools or mistreating equipment violates the company’s property rights. Even more important, though working to rule might refer to actions that could be morally acceptable, the acts implementing the slowdown you describe will carry out the intention to work inefficiently and wastefully. That intention is bad, not only because carrying it out deprives the company of the production to which it is contractually entitled and for which it must pay, but because it is contrary to the good of work itself (see LCL, 759). Work is one of the basic human goods (see LCL, 756–57), and acts whose very object is to violate it are always wrong—though not necessarily always gravely so.

Some actions wrong in themselves also might be demanded of union members as part of their strike “duty”—for example, intentionally injuring strikebreakers or lying to law enforcement officials. But nonviolent picketing and carrying signs or distributing literature expressing the union’s view are methods of enlisting support morally acceptable in themselves. However, if you are told to carry a sign or hand out a leaflet with a message you regard as false, you could not obey without lying, since those addressed would reasonably assume that you were not only delivering the union’s message but personally asserting it.

Even if picketing union members personally convey no message they believe false, any who regard a strike as unjust help bring about what they think bad, namely, the perpetration of the injustice. Such cooperation in bringing about an injustice often is wrong, because it can lead one to intend the injustice, lead others into sin, impair one’s witness to relevant moral truth, or be unfair to those who suffer the injustice. If you judge the strike to be unjust, the participation involved in picketing, even without conveying false information, would seriously impair your witness to the truth about it. It also would contribute to the damage that the injustice would do to the company and could encourage others to will it. In my judgment, such participation would therefore be wrong.

If you conscientiously refuse both to participate in the slowdown and to perform assigned strike duty, and also conscientiously reject the company’s offer to work during the strike, your fellow union members should not allow you and your family to suffer the consequences of losing strike pay. I suggest you explain your stand to your relatives and friends, ask them for the support your loyalty to them deserves, and try to get them to join with you in demanding from the union’s wider membership and leadership either strike pay or equivalent compensation, perhaps for helping with union business unrelated to the strike. Your solidarity with fellow union members, proved by your refusal to break ranks with them even though you conscientiously object to the course they have chosen, surely would call for that corresponding solidarity with you.

If it is not forthcoming and your family responsibilities do not demand that you work as a scab, you ought to accept the hard consequences not only for yourself but for your family. In doing so, keep in mind our Lord’s promise: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.10). Having put the kingdom first, trust his assurance about the Father’s providential care with regard to the necessities of life: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well” (Mt 6.25, 32–33).