Tactics of resistance: what’s the point of pickets?

Workers will need an array of tactics to fight redundancies and attacks in the coming economic crash. In part two of a series looking at distinct tactics for winning battles in the workplace, Derek Fraser explains picketing – how it works, what function it serves, and whether it can still be useful in the current context.

Part One of this series, on occupations and sit-ins, can be read here.

Striking workers outside the Ritzy cinema. Keywords: what is picketing strikes
Striking workers picketing outside the Ritzy cinema in South London. Photo: Arjun Mahadevan (2016)

When most people hear the word ‘picketing’, it conjures up images of the miners’ strike of the 1980s, involving bloody scenes of police and pickets battling it out across open fields in hazy sunshine. That such perceptions continue to shape many people’s mental image of picketing only underlines the importance of dispelling this media-created picture. But what is picketing, and how can it be useful in furthering the demands of workers, especially in present circumstances of certain restrictions on the public gathering of groups of people?

Picketing is a very public demonstration of workers in dispute with their employer, and usually takes the form of a number of workers and supporters agreeing to stand outside their workplace asking other workers not to attend the workplace, to bring production to a halt. Picketing has been used throughout the history of organised labour to pressure the management of a company that workers are in dispute with. Needless to say its results have been mixed, but what is key is that it can maximize the number of workers involved in action, which gives ownership and control to those involved. Picketing has the aim of physically illustrating to the public that there is a dispute at a given workplace, and is therefore useful in publicising the dispute, bringing attention to the workers’ grievances and how the public could support their struggle. Picketing is also very useful in asking other trade unionists for support, as it gives a place for visits from delegations from nearby workplaces (which may have been contacted by the striking workers), often bringing union banners and other marks of solidarity.

The Hovis strike of 2013 gives a good illustration of the effective use of picketing at a workplace in recent times. In 2013 Hovis attempted to implement zero hours contracts on many of its workers at its Wigan plant, hoping to further casualise workers in this sector. The Hovis workers’ union, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, consulted workers and a majority voted to strike. The Hovis strike was important because of the nature of the picketing and the length of the strikes, with these being not the usual one-day strikes many workers have taken in recent years, sometimes turning strikes into a tokenistic gesture. Three strikes were planned of a week each, within a period of two months – the first in late August, the other two in September. The first to strikes went ahead with well-organised picketing of the Wigan Hovis plant which brought production to a stop at various times, and started to attract support from other local unions, who visited the picket line with messages of support and union banners. This in turn reinforced the confidence of the picketers, and discussions of what strategy was needed to take the dispute forward were had over braziers at the factory gate. The picket line became the place for the kind of democratic process to determine how the strike should go which sometimes seems absent in union meetings; people learnt on the job, so to speak.

The dispute would have ended with the third week-long strike, planned for the end of September, but 48 hours before it was due to start management approached the union and offered a deal which would mean 24 agency workers on zero hours contracts being taken on full-time, and an agreement only to use agency staff when ‘sufficient commitment by Hovis employees to work overtime and banked hours’ could not be secured for production to meet demand. Agency workers who worked 39 hours per week for 12 consecutive weeks would also in future be moved to parity of pay with permanent Hovis employees. An attempt to broaden the casualisation of the workforce at Hovis had been stopped in its tracks by effective strike action, with the help of mass picketing and the BFAWU’s success in asking other workers for support.

The recent Go Northwest bus dispute is another good example of how picketing can be used effectively to support workers in struggle and build the presence of the wider support for disputes. The dispute centred around the bus company Go Northwest suspending a Unite union representative after he criticised the company’s desire to sack and rehire all of its 500 staff at the Cheetham Hill Bus depot on much worse terms and conditions. Support was quickly mobilised over this attack on an elected union representative who had expressed concerns over the company using the pandemic to push through an attack on workers’ terms and conditions. A ‘walking picket’ was quickly organised in conjunction with the suspended union rep and workers, up to 10-20 people would walk slowly across the main entrances to the bus depot, thus preventing the early morning buses getting out of the depot. This delaying tactic, first of all illustrated to the workers inside they had the support of various trade unionists and other concerned people, it also prevented the buses leaving, showing the management the dispute would have a persistent effect. At this point it is useful to mention the context the pickets were operating in, which was lockdown laws, which restricts the rights of individuals to congregate in public, or the government’s ‘rule of six’. The police were called and did arrive, although their attitude tended to hover between being a little annoyed to a basic respect to protest peacefully. Pickets continued to peacefully picket for many weeks at 5-7am in the morning, whilst workers inside started to ballot for action if the suspension of the Unite Representative was not lifted.

After discussion between Unite and Go Northwest representatives the Unite Representative was disciplined, but not sacked like originally planned. The dispute might have ended there, if not for Go Northwest then announcing early in 2021 that it would go ahead with the very plans which had originally started the dispute, to unilaterally sack all 500 drivers and seek to rehire them with 10% wage cut and a worst sick pay policy. The workers have now voted for a further round of strike action to halt this continued attack on their union and terms and conditions.

Picketing remains a useful tool in the armoury of workers to effectively defend their interests and publicise their campaign. That we currently have laws which make this more difficult does not discount it – even during the pandemic it is still legal to picket, as was clarified recently after a legal action by Unite. What this government’s tragic handling of this pandemic has made clear is that employers may use it to attack workers terms and conditions, even their very employment and that picketing remains a highly effective tactic workers can use to defend themselves now and in the future.

Did you know: Strike Map is a new initiative to create and maintain a browsable map of strikes taking place around the country, with information on how to provide support and solidarity. Use it now to send a message of solidarity to workers in struggle.

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