Socialist Worker

Why picket lines matter and how to organise one

As hundreds of thousands of workers prepare to strike over pensions on 28 March, Paul McGarr looks at what picket lines are for—and argues for them

Issue No. 2294

Strikers block a lorry at Bore Steel in Walsall in 1980. Pickets can convince others not to cross their picket line—and make the action stronger  (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)

Strikers block a lorry at Bore Steel in Walsall in 1980. Pickets can convince others not to cross their picket line—and make the action stronger (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)


Picketing may seem a very strange thing to do at first.

You’re on strike so you won’t be working.

Yet some people will argue that you should get up and travel to your workplace to stand outside it. Why?

Striking is not something you do as an individual. It is action you take collectively with other workers to try and have an impact on your boss or the government.

You want to make the strike as effective as possible. That means making sure that every­one who should be on strike is out.

Making the strike as visible as possible can boost its impact too. A picket line can help achieve these things.

Pickets can talk to anyone tempted to try sneaking into work. They can argue that all workers should respect the democratic decision to strike.

There is a long, proud tradition in the trade union movement of shaming people who break strikes.

This is because anyone who breaks a strike is weakening the action that a majority have decided upon—and undermining their struggle.

In the north east of England, where I grew up, strikebreakers were called blacklegs.

Often today they are called scabs.

Other union members may genuinely forget the strike is on. A picket line can stop them going into work.

Some workers may fear that they will be disciplined if they strike.

You need to explain that this is a lie and they can’t be disciplined for joining a strike covered by a legal ballot.

Workmates who are not in the union might think they have to go in to work.

But if they join the union on the picket line they can strike without being disciplined.

Legally

This is why having union membership forms on a picket line is always a good idea.

You can also, perfectly legally, turn away outside workers—such as post workers, delivery workers and contractors.

This can increase the impact of the strike, and it is always a tremendous morale booster.

A picket line can also be a fantastic organising focus. It brings strikers together to discuss the strike, assess its impact, address any arguments and so on.

In many cases you can get even more people out on strike than members of the striking unions.

You can ask workers in unions not on strike in your workplace to respect your picket line. This is perfectly legal—you can’t be disciplined for it.

It’s true that workers not on “official” strike have less legal protection if they refuse to cross a picket line.

But there is no legal requirement to tell management who will be striking.

You should advise workers to refer any such questions from management to local union officials and refuse to answer.

In many workplaces it is practically impossible to know who is on “official” or “unofficial” strike.

In a school there is no reason why all teachers can’t strike, regardless of their union. Managers are likely to assume them to be in the striking unions.

If enough people refuse to cross a picket line it is hard for management to do anything about it. It is illegal for bosses to take disciplinary action against one such worker unless they take it against all of them. The key is numbers.

The bosses and the government characterise pickets as bullies. The truth is that pickets defend the democratic, collective decisions of workers.

The real reason the bosses hate picketing is because they know it makes strikes stronger—and that effective picketing can make workers’ victory more likely.


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