The picket line can rightly be called the central ritual of the labour movement. More than branch meetings, negotiations, or even mass rallies and marches, it incarnates the power of workers through their ultimate weapon: strike action, the withdrawal of their labour.
It is a profoundly unifying experience – for the picketers. Testimony after testimony has referred to the solidarity that it generated during this strike. On the pickets, workers have been meeting colleagues who they did not know before, or who they were not aware were in the union. They have been able to feel their shared purpose and determination: making friends, vocalising common issues and concerns that had previously been dealt with individually, in silence. Many, in this strike, were new members of the union; many have been standing on picket lines for the first time in their lives.
But a picket is also divisive – and deliberately so. It draws a physical line around the workplace. The decision to cross or not to cross this physical line then draws a symbolic line, between the striker and the non-striker – or in more combative terms, the strike-breaker, the scab. Picketing has not always, historically, been limited to the central aim of ‘peaceful persuasion’: the practice has had its rough moments, with violent confrontations between strike-breakers (or employers’ security people) and pickets. Like violence between police and protestors on demonstrations, these incidents themselves have then become points of contention in the media war that inevitably surrounds an industrial dispute.
The pickets in use during the university strikes have varied in size, mood, and purpose. At one end of the range is the friendly, non-confrontational public demonstration, leafleting students, staff, the general public, handing out ‘I support the strike’ stickers. In Oxford, the central Clarendon Building picket was of this kind: a highly visible location in the city centre, with many passers-by and tourists.
At the other extreme is the ‘hard picket’, harking back to a more uncompromising era of industrial struggle: if not locked gates, then the linked arms of pickets – or often student supporters – physically preventing workers and others from entering the campus or building. This was practised in a few places during the strike, where confrontation was at its sharpest. UUK headquarters, the symbolic centre of the employers’ side in the dispute, was shut down by hard pickets several times, besides student occupations of the building. Sussex University, which has a militant union branch and student movement and a hardline Vice Chancellor, Adam Tickell, similarly saw ‘daily hard pickets’ blockading its main administration building. SOAS students did the same, leading to some violence – largely, it seems, directed against the pickets – on 16 March.
In between these extremes is the standard entrance picket. Here the pickets, while not attempting to physically prevent people from crossing the line, does occupy most of the space of the campus or building entrance. This compels picket-crossers into close proximity to the pickets, so that they can avoid conversation or engagement only by a clear act of refusal. It subjects them unavoidably, that is, to the power of ‘peaceful persuasion’.
Picket in the rain at Cardiff. Image: Wouter Poortinga.
Across the variety of institutions, a common theme has been the sheer numbers who turned out on picket lines – on many days in snow, rain and hail. And these numbers, it would seem, remained steady or grew during the strike, rather than tailing off after the excitement of the first few days, as some activists had feared. In Oxford, there were regularly 100 pickets across the various locations in the city centre, with another 20 or so at a second campus. This was perhaps three or four times the size of picket turnout in previous strikes. In Newcastle, picket numbers were reported as growing throughout the strike, and reaching an ‘all-time high’. Holding large central pickets, or gathering at a central location before setting off to picket elsewhere, reinforced this impression of unprecedentedly large numbers – as did the frequent rallies and marches.
But the increase in numbers picketing was only a fraction of the increase in overall membership of UCU. Oxford UCU branch saw its membership increase by nearly 40% in the run-up to the strike and during the strike itself (from 1209 in December 2017 to 1667 by 11 March 2018). Cambridge UCU’s membership, it was reported, ‘more than doubled’ in the few weeks of the strike and just before it. In some cases this radically increased union density: in KCL History Department, Richard Drayton reported, union membership went from 50% before the dispute to ‘between 80 and 90%’ by the end of the strikes (Facebook post, 20/3/2018). Much of the new joining seems to have been the spontaneous effect of the dispute itself and the impression that the union was doing something big, rather than a response to a UCU push for recruitment.
The pickets were not only bigger than those of earlier strikes. They were also more varied and creative. Singing was a common feature, with both labour movement classics and altered or parody versions of more recent songs. Some new verses to ‘Solidarity Forever’ came widely into use:
It is we who wrote the lectures late into the night
spent the weekend doing marking
got up at dawn to get class right
now you want to steal our pensions
we’re all ready for a fight
For the union makes us strong
Newcastle UCU ran a ‘picket bake-off’ competition. Oxford members, more modestly, organised a cake-sale for the strike fund. Deliveries of tea, cakes, and other refreshments – often by student supporters – were frequent and welcome. Dogs on pickets were widely encouraged, often through ‘bring a dog’ days. Certain Scottish institutions took particular pride in their bagpipers. Many members brought young children or costumes. The Dinosaur of Solidarity and other characters made their appearances – which were soon, like other aspects of the picket experience, shared around social media. A huge variety of banners and placards, often made by students, were in evidence: arcane, jokey, militant, artistic, or all these things at once. At Exeter, knitted banners or strike-related accessories had a certain vogue.
Clenched-fist crochet, Exeter. Image: Laura Sangha.
As Birkbeck historian Brodie Waddell wrote, it was this wider ‘strike culture’ that forged social bonds between strikers and students. The sociable, Carnivalesque atmosphere of the pickets was reinforced, if anything, by the cold and snowy conditions of the second week of the strike (from Monday 26 February). A British snow day, by creating a practical impediment to travel and work, and by physically transforming the landscape, breaks up the normal working routine: ordinary time seems suspended, and inverted, playful time takes its place. Striking and picketing has similar effects; the fact that strikes and snow fell together multiplied these – as well as providing good photos, and a glow of satisfaction afterwards, when warmth had finally been attained.
It was this social aspect of picketing and striking that gave strikers and supporters the most meaningful and memorable experiences. As Rhian Keyse of Exeter would write just after the strike ended:
‘Still so overwhelmed by the coming together of colleagues on picket lines during #USSStrike and the sense of joy we felt on Friday, summed up by dancing wildly to “A New England” with @_drsang et al. Feeling part of a community for the first time. Let the walls continue to fall.’
Innumerable strikers would give similar testimonies. For many, the strike had brought out fellow-feeling between them and their colleagues in a way that the everyday routine of the workplace could not, and left them with a greater sense of academic community than before. Picketing was also a learning experience: many were moved to reflect on their experiences, using their academic disciplines as tools.
These sociable, creative aspects of pickets could hardly have emerged had the strike been limited to one or two days. It was less the unprecedented numbers on the pickets than the fact that they became regular fixtures that allowed people to experiment, to come up with new and creative ideas. The many events organised around the pickets – rallies, marches, teach outs, student occupations – also benefited from the continuous nature of the action. The picket and other strike-related events were not merely ephemeral, as in a short strike. Taken as a whole, they were a continuous presence over several weeks, and in over 60 universities: occupying space, enforcing the union’s claims, providing a place for discussion, for making friends, and for learning of a different kind. The possession of these continuous physical forums, probably more than anything else, contributed to the felt solidarity of the strike, and its ability to open up long-neglected questions about the nature of higher education. They incarnated, over a period of some weeks, a model of ‘the University as it ought to be’, to hold up to the often debased reality of ‘the University as it is’.
Dancing with the Dinosaur of Solidarity, Herriott-Watt. Image: Mike Just.
[Featured image at top: Picket at UCL: James O’Leary.]