What is wrong with crossing a picket line?

What is wrong with crossing a picket line?

Since being brought to the attention of people striking on November 30, the no-strike union Voice has come in for some stick on Facebook and Twitter. They take exception to this, and argue in a blog that their views and their right to not strike ought to be respected. For them, and others who might be of a similar view, here's a quick guide to what exactly is wrong with crossing a picket line.

The context of this is, of course, the upcoming strikes on 30 November. 20 unions are striking, and around 3 million workers will be not only withdrawing their labour but taking to the streets and protesting in one of the biggest trade union days of action in recent history. It's been a long time coming - especially compared to the unrest in other countries or even the speed of the bosses' attacks in this country - but for now this is the focal point of the fightback against cuts in Britain.

In the run up to the strikes, there has been a lot of disinformation in the media and from the government. The most surreal example of this so far being Francis Maude saying that he'd let us have a fifteen minute strike in return for taking their latest pensions offer seriously. However, there are two problems with this. First, as PCS points out, the latest "offer" on pensions is a cheap attempt at divide and rule, essentially offering older workers better terms if they screw over younger ones. Second, perhaps deliberately because he's playing up to the media, Maude fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of a strike.

Philip Parkin, the General Secretary of Voice, shows the same misunderstanding. He says, in the blog responding to the hammering his union has received online, that "here was me thinking that it [the purpose of a strike] was to draw attention to a cause." Except that, as the General Secretary of a trade union, he really ought to know better than this.

If you want to draw attention to a cause, you need a protest or a stunt. Colourful banners and inventive chanting will make people look twice and give you the opportunity to say "here, look at this..." You can do that easily enough without having to lose a day's pay or to form picket lines outside your workplace on a cold November morning. But, as the demonstration on March 26 exemplified, that is pretty much all you will achieve. On that day, half a million people voiced their anger on the streets and drew attention to their cause in the most spectacular fashion. At the end, the government still said "We're not going to change the basic economic strategy."

Instead of protest, as a way to force concessions from the state and the bosses, anarchists argue for direct action. The reason for this is quite simple - peaceful protest doesn't work.

The most potent and powerful form of direct action is the strike, and its purpose is quite clear - to cause economic disruption to the bosses in order to shift the balance of power in favour of the workers. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, and Solfed lay out the basic economics of it here. "The idea behind strike action is simple and powerful: if the terms and conditions of work are not acceptable to workers then no work shall be done."

Much of Europe is currently seeing vigorous strike action in response to austerity measures. The rhetoric from politicians, mainstream media and captains of industry make one thing clear: bosses are terrified of strikes. Few topics muster the same hysterical, blustering condemnation than the threat of strike action. Even nominally left wing newspapers such as the Guardian are only supportive of strikes once they’re safely in the past. This fear is well founded. Their wealth and power derives from our labour. This is never more clearly illustrated than when we withdraw it, disrupting the economy and shaking the foundations they rely on.

A strike is a direct challenge to capitalist society – a society where we sell our lives hour by hour to a boss who will profit off of us. Denying them this and their control over our day to day lives is a challenge to their domination of society, and is an expression of our collective power as workers. Where normally we feel powerless and out of control of our own lives, collective action such as strikes show us the potential for change.

Returning to the main point of this post, then, the reason why we don't "respect" the right of Voice members to cross picket lines should be equally obvious. However, for those such as Philip Parkin who don't comprehend even the basic precepts of union activity, WiseGEEK spells it out;

A "scab" is a derogatory term used to describe a strike breaker. The term is actually an old English insult, and has been in use to describe a despicable person since at least 1590. In the 1700s, someone who refused to join a labor union was called a scab, and by 1806, the word had reached its modern usage. More temperate labor activists and unions use the term “strike breaker” to refer to a scab, but the word is often used in speeches and literature which are designed to fire up the strikers.

Whenever workers refuse to work in order to gain concessions, it is called a strike. Strikes were an important part of the early labor movement, which agitated for safer working conditions, better pay, and more reasonable hours. These early strikes were often brutally put down, and workers had a choice between going back to work and starving. Labor unions attempted to help with this by organizing workers who paid dues which could be used to support them during a strike. A single scab could greatly weaken the cause of the union.

In response to more organized labor, companies started to recruit people who were willing to break the strike. These people might be existing employees or outside contractors. By crossing the picket line of strikers marching and holding signs for better working conditions, the scab hurts the cause of the workers. For this reason, the term “scab” started to become widespread, as a scab was someone who behaved dishonorably in 18th century culture, and retaliation against scabs could sometimes be brutal.

Parkin asks whether "the 78% of Unison members who voted against striking or did not vote at all are “scabs”" or "the 70% of ATL members who voted against striking or did not vote at all are “scabs”," but this is a strawman argument. There is a significant difference between arguing that strike action isn't right in given circumstances or voting to that effect and actively crossing a picket line. The former is simply putting across a point of view. The latter is an active betrayal of ongoing action, allowing the boss to continue production despite the strike and thus taking their side. Moreover, there is a whole world of difference between voting against an action and advising members to walk through picket lines when disputes are ongoing, as Voice does.

So here's my final word for Voice general secretary Philip Parkin: yes, your union has come in for abuse. But rightfully so. Yours is a scab union which facilitates members stabbing their co-workers in the back and undermining the only effective method of forcing the government onto the back foot over pensions or cuts more generally.

Have whatever opinion you like but at least have the courage of your convictions and don't go whingeing when those you're stabbing in the back call you on it.

Posted By

Nov 15 2011 22:02


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Sophie Ziv
Aug 25 2012 10:18

lol, I'm reading this and I have got to point out, as a teacher, that tons of student teachers join all of the teaching unions when they are on the final year of their course or at least on a PGDE course here in Scotland, because there's a union fair where you are encouraged to join them all (it's free at this point) and then decide later which one you want to stick with. I joined them all, including Voice, and then cancelled that one later when I figured out what it was about. But the point is simply that non-politicized teachers (and even anarchist communists, briefly!) could easily, easily be a member of Voice without knowing what it really means, because if you don't know anything about industrial action, you might think they sounded nice (their prop is very nicey nicey sounding). So I would absolutely recommend talking to Voice members unless you know they are politicized against industrial action. In fact I would imagine that many of them are so politically unaware that they would see reason pretty easily, once it was pointed out to them that they had been duped. I mean sure, don't jeopardize your campaign by giving them sensitive info until you know they're onside, but the idea that all members of Voice are dyed-in-the-wool scabs (or paedophiles,I'd like to point out that I really don't find that joke funny) is just basically misinformed.