People who aren’t used to it can feel nervous at the thought of visiting a picket line. Seasoned picket line visitor and trade unionist Julia Toledo has tips on what to do – and how to show solidarity if you can’t go.
1. Think about who to go with
If you are a bit nervous, haven’t been to a picket line before, or don’t feel like you know what you’re doing – really we’re talking about going up and having a chat with people. The important question is how to make that most useful for the striking workers, for you and for the people you’re with.
Visiting a picket line as part of a group is a more powerful and interesting experience than doing it on your own. You can go to a picket line as an individual – I’ve done it on my own before when it’s been a last minute decision – but these are basically collective activities, so it’s always more powerful when we go in groups. Going as part of a group can help people who feel nervous get the best out of it.
So think about who it would be most effective to go with. If you’re in a workplace where there’s a recognised union, are there reps you can take with you? Can you suggest visiting a picket as a branch outing at your union branch committee? Can you think of colleagues who might want to go along?
Even if you’re not in a workplace with union recognition, you can still visit a picket line with colleagues. In the wake of the RMT strike and the rising levels of industrial action, there is increasing interest in strikes amongst workers who are not currently organised. If you’ve been having conversations with other workers about what a union might mean for you, are there people central to those conversations who might visit the picket line with you?
If you’re not in a workplace, or don’t work, but you’re in a local tenants group, anti-racist group or another group in the community, are there people you can take with you from there?
Finally, it may be worth thinking about other groups you could contact, to encourage them to attend. Who else do you know who might want to hear from a group of workers on strike about spreading the struggle and learning from what they have done? These might be workers who are balloting now, or people from your Trades Council, the local umbrella group for unions. You could get in touch with those people and say: ‘we’re going down to this picket line, I know you’ve got a dispute happening at the moment, do you want to come with us?’ If they don’t want to go, you’ve at least planted the seed. So it’s not just about how you can go and get the best experience, but how you can raise awareness among other people who may be interested.
2. Do a collection
Collections can be done in your workplace or any other group you’re in. Talking to people about the strike – what it’s about, seeing if you can get some money out of them – is a really good thing to do as an expression of solidarity with the workers in dispute.
If you work in a place which isn’t especially political, a ‘normal’ workplace, you will need to explain a bit about the strike to the people you’re asking to hand over their cash. Having those conversations about practical and financial solidarity with workers in struggle is a really good way of developing your own thinking around industrial issues. Talking about strikes can keep you sharp – it’s useful not just for your own development as an activist, but also for persuading people of the ideas we need to change society.
At the moment, having these conversations – particularly for those people who might not be unionised workplaces – can be quite difficult. It can be really hard talking about why people should donate to the strike fund of workers who have rejected a 6% pay rise, when in your own non-unionised workplace you only got a 2% pay rise this year – but it’s a conversation worth having. It can lead to helpful conversations about unionising in your own workplace for a better deal.
Collections can be made more complicated by the fact many people don’t carry cash any more. One way to deal with this is to send an email round to everybody in advance to give people notice. If you’re not able to use your work email system in that way, you can go round once and tell people you’ll be doing the collection on a certain date, and then you go back on the day, and they’ll have had the opportunity to bring the money.
Most unions have online mechanisms you can donate through now, whether that’s a Paypal or a bank account. But if you push the online donation in the first conversations you have, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to broaden out the discussion into what’s happening in your own workplace. My advice would be not to open with that, otherwise you’re individualising it again. Every contribution to a strike fund for workers in dispute matters, but we want to try to collectivise it. We want to go to that picket line and say ‘this is from our workplace’, rather than ‘here are a series of individual donations from people who have passively sent a tenner over the internet’.
I have done collections for the strike funds of workers in dispute where the total amount raised has been really small, as little as £15 to £20. The point is not the money – irrespective of the amount, the act of solidarity of handing something to the strike fund is important and goes down really well. I’ve handed over amounts in the past that I have personally been embarrassed by, as well as some quite large amounts from fundraisers, and on each occasion the amount of money hasn’t been what’s made people thank me; what’s made people thank me has been the fact I’ve done it in the first place.
3. Make sure you know where you’re going
This might seem obvious, but I have gone down to picket lines where there’s been nobody there, either because I’ve not got the particular entrance of the workplace right or I’ve got the timing wrong. Instead of taking people to the picket line, I’ve taken people to a deserted building. So try and find out in advance where the picket lines are going to be, what time they start, and how long they will last. Many unions were on strike last winter. UCU, the college teachers’ union, have done a lot of winter striking, and not everybody will stand on a picket line all day in the freezing cold. Similarly, with the heatwaves we have been having, people aren’t going to be standing in the blazing sun all day either.
A lot of the time you can find the correct information on Twitter or other forms of social media. Lots of union branches will have their own social media accounts, and you can message them for details, and use that to plan your activity.
4. Picketing is thirsty and hungry work – take snacks!
I always take weather-appropriate snacks to pickets. Some people bake things to take down, but what I like to take is a packet of chocolate Hobnobs, or fruit and nuts. It’s good to take cups of tea when it’s cold, or chilled cans when it’s hot. Take something that will work for all the pickets. The aim is to show solidarity with as many of the workers as possible. I’ve heard stories about when people have taken bacon sandwiches down to workers and found it has been predominantly a workforce who don’t eat pork for religious reasons. Don’t take alcohol with you, and don’t take things that people would be prohibited from consuming, or might choose not to eat because they are vegetarian or vegan.
5. Snacks, collections, friends: what else to take
If you’re part of a union or organisation, think about taking their placards or flags to the picket line. Think about what it looks like for people who are passing by. At Euston, you’ve got all kinds of rail bosses walking past. So when the boss crosses the picket line, instead of seeing a few workers looking a bit sad, he or she will see a strong vibrant picket line with other representatives from trade unions, from tenants’ unions, from anti-racist campaigns. It sends a really powerful political message that these workers have support. In the union I used to work for, I took flags and banners down to the RMT picket line and we stood with those workers with our flags and their banner and it was great.
You can also take information about events or activities your organisation has got coming up that the strikers might be interested in. Pick some key events that are coming up in your local area that might be relevant to them. Is there a leaflet that you can hand out about any demonstrations that are happening in your city, for example? If you are from a tenants’ union, have you got information about it in case they want to join?
You can be imaginative in what you take down. I’ve taken cards saying good luck that everyone in my workplace has signed. I know someone in France who went on strike over pay for early years’ educators, and a group of lecturers from a nearby university came down to the picket to spend half an hour or so supporting them. Three months later when the lecturers were on strike, the nursery staff remembered what they had done, and got all the kids to put their handprints on a giant poster that said: ‘SOLIDARITY WITH THE LECTURERS’. This happened years ago, but that poster still hangs in the office of the lecturers’ union, because of what it meant to people. So it’s not just a matter of what snacks and political material you take – it’s about how you can make those interesting, impactful expressions of solidarity.
6. Start a conversation with strikers
People can feel funny sometimes walking up to a picket line and saying hello, but I’ve never done that and got a frosty reception. People have always been pleased to see me, because having solidarity when you’re in dispute is really important. You say hello, you introduce yourself, you say what union or group you are in, you hand over the collection you have done and tell them where the money has come from, you give them the snacks or whatever else you have brought. Then you can start asking questions.
Sometimes it’s hard to think about how to start those conversations, but there’s always something to ask. If you know the strike is about pay, you can start with something like ‘I know you’re on strike over pay, but what else is going on?’ or ‘How’s the strike going?’ You can also ask them about the work they do in their workplace, which everyone on the picket line will be able to talk about – that can be really interesting for you too.
Ideally, if you’ve gone in a group, you want everyone to be able to say something, rather than one of you doing all the talking. If most of the group just stand there while someone talks, it can look a bit weird – so make sure you’re introducing yourselves and giving everyone the opportunity to speak to someone.
If you have examples of other workplaces where people are fighting, you should talk about them. When people are up to their eyes in their own dispute, sometimes it’s hard for them to pay attention to what’s happening in the wider labour movement. Trades Councils are supposed to link together trade unionists in different unions, but sometimes these are ineffective. The TUC links up unions nationally, but not all unions are members. So trade unionists working in the same area might not know each other – your local RMT rep at the train station might not know the rep from the CWU workplace, the Royal Mail sorting office, down the road. If you can speak to strikers and can make that connection, you can help to strengthen the workers’ movement and help people learn from each other.
At the picket line, you can also ask what they need to win. What can you and your group do to support them? Can you get someone to write something about the strike in your organisation’s newsletter? Will they come and speak at your union branch meeting? You need to prioritise one or two things and not ask for the world, because they have a dispute to lead. Their priority is not your campaign group or your union branch, but they might do something because you have been there and shown solidarity, and it might help them too.
7. It’s not just about the picket line: remember to follow up!
Finally, it’s important to follow up with people. If you take any photos – get permission! – think where can you share them to highlight the strike. Can you write a report for a website or newsletter? If you can, send it to a striker so they can share it with the others at their workplace for a morale boost. You can also ask for their contact details to stay in touch, so you know how the dispute is going and what you can do to help, as well as building connections for future organising. Always remember to get permission before you share any photos or quotations to make sure the way you help is actually useful, and doesn’t make people feel more exposed than they want to be.
8. Can’t make it to the picket line? There are other things you can do
If you can’t go to a picket line, there are usually activities on social media that you can take part in. So, for example, people will do ‘solidarity selfies’ on social media using associated hashtags. There’s also no reason you can’t do that stuff as well as visiting the picket line. You can also reach out to union branches’ social media accounts and ask if there’s anything they’d appreciate you doing.
You may also want to ask: is there something like an event that you can organise to support the strike? It might be a fundraiser. You might know people who have got connections in music or entertainment and might be able to put something on. You could also organise a rally or a march or something like that. Having somebody from outside the strike offering to take on some of the work of making that happen can be really appreciated by strikers.
Another option is organising something called ‘delegation work’. This is when strikers tour round other workplaces or union branches, and sometimes other towns and cities, trying to raise solidarity for their strike. It’s incredibly powerful because it’s an eye-opener for strikers about the support they have, and it can help them raise strike funds too.
This piece is based on a talk given to rs21 members in July 2022. Thank you to Shannon Ó Bróithe for transcribing this piece, and to Ian Allinson for additional comments.