The welcome return of picket lines to offices, depots and hospitals is a sign of how much politics in Britain has changed during the past year. After a long period when the media were happy to declare unions dead, strikes are now commonplace on TV news and in the papers.
But after a long absence the act of picketing can appear strange to workers that have never walked out before. Everyone knows that being on strike means not going to work—but that it shouldn’t mean staying at home either remains mystifying to some.
Well-attended picket lines are a brilliant way to show everyone that something important is happening. They are a chance to gather together workers that are often isolated by the nature of their jobs.
And they are a place where people can discuss the strike, and issues way beyond it, in a collective way—rather than stewing on problems as an individual. This collectivity gives workers power and can make them aware of their potential.
The picket line can also be a place where rank and file union members get a chance to organise themselves and plan how to make their strike more effective—and ultimately, wrestle control of their dispute away from the union leaders.
However, picket lines are potentially far more important than all of this combined. Their most important purpose is to make walkouts more effective by stopping people who should be striking from going into work.
Having a good picket line means that those who want to break the strike will have to look their colleagues in the face and explain what drives them to this act of betrayal. That prospect in itself can turn around many that might consider going into work.
Pickets can also help grow the union. In most industries there are thousands of workers not yet organised, and that understand little about unions. Some will be temporary workers or on part time or zero hours contracts. They might think the union is only for permanent full time staff.
Pickets can educate them swiftly, and win them to the strike. And, at their most confrontational, picket lines can be the site of a physical battle to prevent people from breaking a strike.
For those that can’t be won, there is an important trade union tradition of shaming people that put narrow self-interest above the will of the collective. That’s where the term “scab” comes from—someone who has peeled away from the rest.
Embarrassing and stopping people that want to help the bosses from breaking the unions is itself a democratic act. The majority of workers have decided to take a stand, and those that want to break a strike are undermining their struggle.
It’s because good picket lines make strikes effective that the bosses and the Tories hate them and legislate against them—and why we have to make them as strong and militant as possible.
Nurses’ picket lines in recent months have been joyful affairs, with sometimes over a hundred workers chanting, singing and dancing their way through strike days. Almost always they are surrounded by the constant tooting of horns from passing supporters’ cars. And they’ve attracted solidarity visits from other health workers and trade unionists.
While they have been a great centre of discussion and, to a lesser extent, organising—so far they have played only a small role when it comes to turning away strike breakers. That’s largely because the nurses’ RCN union has issued lots of strike exemptions—called derogations.
During the first strikes, union leaders said that they supported minimum staffing on the wards, and that some cancer care and emergency wards would not be part of the strike. That saw the RCN instructing lots of good union members to cross picket lines and work normally. The situation created confusion among strikers as to who was strike breaking.
And it was a green light to managers that wanted to make the walkout less effective by claiming they needed more derogations for care to be safe.
Following the anger of their members, the RCN now says that during the next strike there will be no derogations. That means picket lines must become a more effective weapon against strike breaking.
Those flouting their union’s instructions and going into work will undermine the strike and make the Tory task of destroying the NHS easier. That’s why hospital picket lines should aim to turn around those nurses planning to go into work on a strike day.
Large and militant picket lines have built a union to be reckoned with inside an Amazon warehouse in Coventry. Cars queue as pickets argue and convince many workers to turn back and join the union.
Since January Amazon workers at the BHX4 fulfilment centre have been striking to demand a pay rise, and they have marked every single day of the strike with big picket lines. These pickets have been anything but passive. Sometimes up to 100 workers line the roads leading up to the warehouse, ready to persuade those heading into work to turn around.
Striking Amazon worker Dave told Socialist Worker, “Our picket lines are an opportunity to talk to members of staff that hadn’t made up their minds about going on strike. It’s a place we can talk without managers watching or trying to feed us lies. Getting big numbers out also sends a message to the managers and head office that we remain united in our goal.”
Dave added that their picket lines can change how workers see themselves and their colleagues. “I speak to colleagues now that I didn’t even know before the strikes,” he said. “It has brought a lot of us closer together. It has also changed me as well.
“If people had told me that I would be a union member and taking part in strike action ten years ago, I would have laughed in their faces. Now I’m committed to action 100 percent.”
Dave also explained that the picket line has been the primary place where workers sign up to become members of the GMB union, often with a long line of workers lining up to join on strike days. Since workers at BHX4 took part in wildcat strikes last August, membership of the GMB at the warehouse has grown from around 30 members to over 600.
Local trade union activist Richard told Socialist Worker that he thinks that it’s what workers do on these picket lines that has resulted in more workers wanting to sign up. “These picket lines have a massive visible presence,” he said. “Sometimes there can be a queue of 20 cars waiting to try and cross the picket lines. At each one, strikers are there trying to explain why they shouldn’t go in.
“The workforce at BHX4 is really diverse, so strikers make an effort to argue with colleagues who are crossing the picket line who speak the same language as them. Earlier this month, there were strikes on the weekend for the first time, so when staff who work on Sunday got to the warehouse, it was the first time they’d seen a picket line.
“They turned back immediately and signed up for the union. I’ve seen workers in cars abandon attempts to go in and park up on the grass verge because strikers won them over. While workers aren’t getting trucks to turn around, they are certainly delaying them.
“I think the strike would be over if workers weren’t picketing in the way they are. But because there is a picket, people see that the strike is still strong, and they want to join” he added.
And these picket lines can do more than inspire those at BHX4. Workers at more fulfilment centres also plan to ballot for strikes at Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, Coalville and Kegworth in Leicestershire, Rugeley in Staffordshire and Rugby in Warwickshire.
These workers will be watching what happens in Coventry and will see that Amazon workers can organise big picket lines. And it’s not just Amazon workers who should watch what happens in Coventry. The rest of the trade union movement should take note.
There have been major picket lines during two strikes by the whole civil service this year. They often brought strikers from different government departments together and encouraged new people into union campaigning.
Charlotte works at the Department for Education in Manchester, where civil service workers have had mass pickets at their office building in the city centre. “Picket lines are fantastic for people’s confidence. You get a sense of your power.
“We had 50 people on our first picket line and it was amazing because no one knew who would turn up. Then, because we had so many, we marched together to join strike rallies.
“In the PCS union, we’ve been having targeted action—strikes by different departments at a time. Workers from Ofsted were part of that, and in Manchester that involved three pickets.
“It was great what they did, but by the end of four weeks they were feeling totally worn out and lonely. People from other departments not on strike were friendly with them, but they were going into work. The Ofsted strikers said the day when everyone was out together was the best.”
“On the picket lines you get to know people better, and you can talk with them more freely about politics. It’s a place where you can debate the strategy and tactics of the dispute.
“Straight away people said they didn’t think one day of strikes would be enough to win—but they didn’t know what would be. You can have that discussion about strategy and tactics there.
“With office workers, you don’t necessarily get to know everyone as they might be working from home, or in a different department. You get to know them on a picket line.
“And there’s also a sense of solidarity and networks that can carry on after the strike. We started with an organising WhatsApp group of about 30 people in DfE—it’s now 99 people from across departments.
“That also helps with other political campaigning in the union. Before the strikes I was pushing climate change work in the PCS. These conversations become obvious on the picket lines, and afterwards I know the people who might be interested in getting involved.”
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching