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  Issue No 85 Official Organ of LaborNet 23 February 2001  




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Scabbing Through the Ages

Neale Towart looks back at how popular culture has treated those workers who have not considered themselves part of the collective.


"A mean, low scurvy fellow; a scoundrel" was one of the original meanings of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary who trace it to 1590. In 1786 the OED records the word scabbed as being used to refer to a "mean and contemptible" act.

The use of the word directly regarding workers seems to stem from the USA in around 1811 as " a workman who refuses to join an organised movement on behalf of his trade".

Scabs have long been the target and subject of union songs. Mark Gregory notes Jack London's famous description of scabs:

"When God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.... the modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children, and his fellow men for an unfilled promise from his employer, trust, or corporation"




Banjo Paterson knew a great deal about and was sympathetic to the struggles of workers in the Australia he was writing in. He may have been a lawyer but his attitude to scabs is as hostile as that of any militant unionist as he proved in his poem "The Bushman's Song" better known as "Travelling Down The Castlereagh"

I asked a cove for shearing once along the Marthaguy/ "We shear non-union here" says he. "I call it scab," says I




Joe Hill's work was a mainstay of the Wobblies, before and after his "murder" by US authorities in a frame up murder charge in 1915.

This union satire of the popular folksong was written by Hill in response to a strike involving 35,000 shopmen of the Harriman and Illinois Central Railroad System (which included the Southern Pacific), Sep 1911 through 1915, and was first published in the 11 Jul 1912 edition of the Industrial Worker "Little Red Songbook."

The Workers on the S. P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn't strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.

Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S. P. line.

The workers said to Casey: "Won't you help us win this strike?"
But Casey said: "Let me alone, you'd better take a hike."
Then some one put a bunch of railroad ties across the track,
And Casey hit the river bottom with an awful crack.

Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blessed spine;
Casey Jones was an Angelino,
He took a trip to heaven on the S. P. line.

When Casey Jones got up to heaven, to the Pearly Gate,
He said: "I'm Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S. P. freight."
You're just the man," said Peter, "our musicians went on strike;
You can get a job a'scabbing any time you like."

Casey Jones got up to heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers of the S. P. line.

They got together, and they said it wasn't fair,
For Casey Jones to go around a'scabbing everywhere.
The Angels' Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stairs.

Casey Jones went to Hell a'flying;
"Casey Jones," the Devil said, "Oh fine:
Casey Jones, get busy shovelling sulphur;
That's what you get for scabbing on the S. P. Line."

A lot has been written about Hill. For biography and songs this is a good place to start.

The IWW in Australia included the Casey Jones song in their songbook.




Bitter disputes were common from 1917, and the IWW was often seen as the "worst element". They believed in "direct action". There influence waned with the rise of an official Communist Party. Verity Burgmann's excellent Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (Cambridge University Press) is a fascinating look at the IWW.

The IWW is still going and the Australian branch is on the web, with Direct Action.

In 1919 an Australian version was written, in response to actions that took place in Broken Hill during the strike. It was simply "Scab's Hymn". "Blue Whiskers" scabbed at the Central Mine on 7 September 1918

On the seventh day of September we called a one-day strike
As a protest 'gainst the censor, Lieutenant Colonel Dyke,
But Blue Whiskers, the double scab, with legs upon his chest,
Was not prepared to stop away for one day's rest.


Blue Whiskers kept his popper running,
Blue Whiskers scabbed a second time,
Blue Whiskers got a wooden medal
For scabbing on the diggers at the Central Mine.

The unions got together and said it wasn't fair
For Blue Whiskers to go around a-scabbing everywhere.
The 'Wobblies' union local, number two, they were sure there
And they threatened to throw 'Bluey' down the Central stair.

Blue Whiskers will hit the bottom flying,
Blue Whiskers will break his scabby spine,
Blue Whiskers will fire in his alley
And he'll do no more scabbing at the central Mine.

(Warren Fahey collected this song in Broken Hill in 1974)

Warren Fahey has been crucial to sustaining and recovering Australian folk music over the years. This song and other classics are included in his recent collection Ratbags and Rabblerousers: a century of Political Protest, Song and Satire. Published by Currency Press in December 2000. 400 pages of songs and story for $32.95




The scab theme was played hard during the MUA Patrick dispute of course, and many songs were written and performed around that. The following were written by Peter Hicks and Geoff Francis.

The Fighting MUA (tune of Wild Colonial Boy)

There was a foolish stevedore and Patrick was his name,
It was owned by a scab named Corrigan, to our great nation's shame,
He was a liar and a cheat, a puppet some may say,
But never could he bluff or beat, the fighting MUA.

It was the night that Patrick's came, like burglars at their trade,
With guard dogs, scabs and Canberra spies, coming to their aid,
While Peter Reith and his 'little mate', fanned the flames all day,
In London, Cooktown and Dubai, they'd smash the MUA.


So come away, my comrades, on the wattle we'll have no stains,
We'll scorn to live in slavery, bound down in iron chains,
We'll link our arms and stand and fight, forever we shall try,
We'll fight beside our fighting mates, the fighting MUA.

The judge in England said he could not countenance this lot,
A nasty scheme was all worked out, a filthy dirty plot,
And comrades from around the world, will now come to our aid,
To fight and organise beside the fighting MUA.

(from: Warren Fahey. Ratbags and Rabblerousers, p 360)

The Slimy Patrick's Scab

Tune: works well with "The Sydney Market Boys"

There's vampire bats and sewer rats, there's pubic lice and crabs,
But the lowest form of life on Earth is the slimy Patrick's scab.
There's vampire bats and sewer rats, there's pubic lice and crabs,
But the lowest form of life on Earth is the slimy Patrick's scab.

An hour before the sun comes up, he crawls out of his pit,
You wouldn't get too close to him for the smell of slime and other little bits,
Beneath the cloak of darkness he sets off, all clad in black,

To serve his wretched masters goes the slimy Patrick's scab.

And when his treachery is done, on his knees he crawls back home,
His kids don't want to know him, so he eats his tea alone,
They haven't been to school for days, they're ashamed that he's their dad,
"Tell me, what's your father do?". "He's a slimy Patrick's scab."

(from:Mark Gregory's website of union songs, articles, books, recordings and links to other song and union sites.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 85 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Tony Abbott � Workers' Friend?
The new Workplace Relations minister relives his own union background and explains why he�s really just another worker at heart. Honestly.
*  Politics: The Politics of Petrol
Australia might be burning, but is it a fire that can be brought under control?
*  Organising: The Battle of Campsie
SDA delegate Maria Kavaratzis recounts how the Campsie Big W has been transformed into a union shop.
*  History: Scabbing Through the Ages
Neale Towart looks back at how popular culture has treated those workers who have not considered themselves part of the collective.
*  International: Diary of a Showdown
The Korean Metal Workers Federation recounts a week which culminated in violent attacks on workers outside the Daewoo factory.
*  Economics: Debt Dumping Campaign Enters New Phase
The millennial deadline might have passed, but Jubilee 2000 is not giving up the fight for debt cancellation for the world�s fifty-two poorest countries.
*  Health: The Real Drug Wars
As Africa attempts to deal with the HIV crisis, access to the medicines that can relieve victims� suffering is emerging as a major humanitarian issue.
*  Satire: Liberals Claim Triumph in Queensland
John Howard has claimed the Liberal Party�s decimation in Western Australia and Queensland as a triumphant vindication of his party�s embracing of the national competition policy.
*  Review: Beyond a White Australia
As we ponder the One Nation renaissance, a new book challenges the current debates around xenophobia and the perceived threat of danger from Asia.

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