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


Attached files


Nov 15 2011 22:26

Philip Larkin should be forced to change his surname as it's a disgrace that he could, in any way, be associated with the great Jim. Scab unions, brrrr.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 15 2011 22:41

Ehh...while VOICE is indeed shit, what union in the UK isn't a scab union? Certainly non of the public sector unions which will be striking on the 30th haven't at some point or another told their members to go work when another union in the workplace is striking, regardless of a picket line being present or not.

Fall Back
Nov 15 2011 22:46

I don't think amalgamating all unions together as if they're the same is really helpful for understanding them. Unison might be shit and play a reactionary role, but there's a clear difference between them and a union whose prime purpose is scabbing.

Industrial, trade, craft, "company" and scab unions might all be ultimately reactionary, but they are reactionary in very different ways, and it's helpful to look at the differences and politics behind each.

I mean, for a start the basic motivations for joining a normal TUC union are fairly sound, but those for joining Voice are basically that you're a scab. Just on a basic level, if you're organising in a workplace with a Voice presence, you'd avoid them like the plague, and be careful when around their members.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 15 2011 23:01

I think those are all very good points Fall Back, but it doesn't alter the fact that most (if not all) TUC trade unions are scab unions. Sure there's important qualitative differences regarding the why and how, but the problem isn't VOICE but trade unionism and the trade union form (God, have I become a left communist? wink ) I'm worried all the furor over VOICE is obscuring that basic truth.

Jim, what members do and what their unions tell them to do are different things. The CWU (or whatever it was before the CWU) did discipline their own members who wanted to continue supporting the Grunwick strikers...

Nov 15 2011 23:54

Chilli, in general I agree with you. While Voice is an out and out scab union, all the other unions without exception have also undertaken and facilitated mass scabbing. So it's just slightly different levels of the same thing.

Postal workers, most of whom will be CWU members, have a clause in their contract effectively giving them the right to refuse to cross picket lines, which is a legacy of their historic militancy.

Joseph Kay
Nov 16 2011 00:01

But there's a practical difference right? You can approach e.g. Unison members about not crossing picket lines (generally speaking), but you'd never do that with someone in Voice.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 16 2011 08:06

JK, I mean, maybe, maybe not.

In theory, you'd never approach someone who votes Tory about not crossing a picket line, but I do know Tories who've struck. Even VOICE admits that it's been losing members who want to strike and the 30th (and it "respects their decision"). So I think it's very possible that people's knee-jerk anti-strike sentiments can be easily altered if they feel an issue directly affects them. It might just be that short one-on-one conversation that changes their mind, or at least opens up the space for them to begin re-thinking how they approach strikes, unions, etc.

Serge Forward
Nov 16 2011 08:37
Chilli Sauce wrote:
In theory, you'd never approach someone who votes Tory about not crossing a picket line, but I do know Tories who've struck.

Yep, who someone votes for is often irrelevant. I've no qualms about advising a Tory voter not to cross a picket line. In fact, I've personally witnessed a Conservative Party member (who a few years later became an MP) respect a picket line while on the same day, a Labour voter (possibly a party member) scabbed. I even once received a phone call from a Tory councillor asking if the IWW could organise a bunch of migrant workers who were being treated like shit eek

Nov 16 2011 09:10
Joseph Kay wrote:
But there's a practical difference right? You can approach e.g. Unison members about not crossing picket lines (generally speaking), but you'd never do that with someone in Voice.

I would! Most people are not in a union because of their political affiliation but because it is the union one of their colleagues asked them to join. I bet lots of their members won't even know about their no strike policy.

Especially on a day like N30 many people who might be reluctant to strike will want to take the day off anyway because their own children's schools will be shut, and they may have childcare issues etc

Joseph Kay
Nov 16 2011 11:33

You really think people join an obscure scab union whose cardinal rule is to never take industrial action just cos their collegues are doing it? This isn't about voting Tory, it's about actively choosing to join a union (with higher dues than the others apparently) which is committed to crossing picket lines. It's hard to imagine any Voice member being anything but actively opposed to industrial action, if they weren't they'd be an ex-Voice member! I'm not saying never talk to any of them ever, but if I was mapping out my workplace and knew someone was in Voice they would very definitely be in the 'actively opposed' category unless something pretty clear indicated otherwise. The same isn't true for say Unison members, who could be anything from militants to scabs.

Fall Back
Nov 16 2011 12:00

Also, "scab union" means something specific - it doesn't just mean a union that has scabbed. It's not useful to take a term with a specific historical meaning and just throw it around.

Saying Voice are exceptionally shit obviously doesn't obscure the real role of unions - quite the opposite tbh. Of course the trade union form is problematic, but no, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of unions under capitalism if you are going to try argue that the issue with a scab union like Voice is really the same as with Unison. I don't think such arguments help with pushing anti-union politics.

Of course Voice are mostly an irrelevance, and in the grand scheme of things the major unions will play a bigger role (just on the basis of size) - but no one is saying anything else. A couple blogs and a handful of messages on a mailing list isn't a "furore". It's just about an exceptionally shit organisation that a few people have just discovered.

I mean for example if someone were to blog on how shitty and exploitative workfare is, would you reply with "Ehh...while workfare is indeed shit, what wage labour in the UK isn't a shitty and exploitative?" Same logic pretty much.

Nov 16 2011 12:01

Joseph, while it is "obscure" to us it may not be obscure in a school in which they have a recognition agreement, a rep perhaps (maybe the only one), a noticeboard, etc maybe even a newsletter or something. Most members of most unions know almost nothing about the union's policies. I'm sure that some members of it probably are committed scabs, but you should never write off any proletarian due to their political or union affiliation.

Just look at auto workers in the US in World War II - a majority of union members there voted to support the unions no strike pledge, but then and even bigger number of those same workers participated in a massive wildcat strike wave (http://libcom.org/history/world-war-ii-post-war-strike-wave). As Martin Glaberman stresses in his excellent book on the subject, "action proceeds consciousness" in many cases

Fall Back
Nov 16 2011 12:10

Targetting your organising and being careful around certain people isn't the same as writing anyone off!

Joseph Kay
Nov 16 2011 12:17

Nobody's writing people off, but if you aren't careful around potential scabs/grasses you'll get yourself sacked. A good sign someone might be a scab is if they pay dues to an organisation who's cardinal rule is 'always scab'.

Ok, let's think about this another way. You're a teacher in NUT. You're trying to organise under the radar with TAs (some of whom are Unison) and cleaners (mostly non-union, handful of GMB). You manage to organise an out-of-work meeting between the most up for it workers from these different groups to try and organise a sick-out if the head keeps the school open on N30. It would be absolute suicide to invite Voice members, as it's 100% going to get back to management. That doesn't mean you're writing them off. It might be worth careful conversations with them to gauge where they're at etc. But inviting them to such a meeting is, unless there's some major redeeming feature, a recipe for trouble.

Nov 16 2011 12:37
Steven. wrote:
I bet lots of their members won't even know about their no strike policy.

I'd very seriously dispute this. It's their cardinal rule, it's al over their literature, and is their main 'selling point' to it's members judging by their website.

Having been in and out of schools in work/research capacity for 6yrs now, I can tell you that anyone who isn't in their first year of teaching (new teachers will often join the first union they hear of) has a rough idea of the political leanings of the unions; NUT as the lefty one, NASUWT as the a-political one, ATL as the careerist/manager one, NAHT as heads etc. I'd met a lot of teachers who'd left NUT in 2008 because NUT were striking nationally over pay strike and joined NASUWT because they wouldn't strike then.

Anyone who is in Voice has almost certainly sought them out after leaving another union for being 'too political' and will likely be an ideological scab as opposed to ill-informed.

Nov 16 2011 13:09

Joseph, a quick point on your example: it would be extremely un-advisable to organise a sick out on N30 - unison are striking as well, so any support staff should just act as if they were members of unison (whether they really are not, as management have no way of knowing).

Choccy, I take your point, and you know more about teaching than I do, I guess I was generalising from local government union membership, and school support staff, where you do get people who join the GMB or weird social work no strike professional associations just because their colleagues recommended it, not really knowing anything about it other than they get representation.

Joseph Kay
Nov 16 2011 13:17
Steven. wrote:
Joseph, a quick point on your example: it would be extremely un-advisable to organise a sick out on N30 - unison are striking as well, so any support staff should just act as if they were members of unison (whether they really are not, as management have no way of knowing).

Ok, then instead of N30 I should have said 'a hypothetical NUT strike', and nothing of substance changes. Award for pedantry through!

Nov 16 2011 13:25

Well, I had to salvage some sort of victory in this discussion

Fall Back
Nov 16 2011 13:26

My experience with BASW (basically the social work equivalent, altho not quite as bad) mostly mirrors Choccy's experience of Voice.

Nov 16 2011 13:32

Yeah I think with teaching it's different as there are so many unions for essentially the same 'craft'. So a union like Voice's origins lie in providing niche representation to ideological scabs who have left the other, much more popular unions.

In terms of membership:
NUT - 295,000
NASUWT - 280,000
ATL - 120,000
Voice - 34,000

So that's 700,000 in unions that don't have no-strike as a cardinal rule, and will be out on Nov30. So 3-4% of teachers that are in Voice will likely have joined them for the very reason that they're anti-strike and 'non-political'.

Those four unions essentially recruit from the same 'craft', teaching, and any individual teacher could join any of those four unions (unlike NAHT which only heads can join) and only qualified teachers can join (I think ATL allows teaching assistant to join though).
Most teachers I've met will know their role in the playing field. New teachers will probably just join the most popular union at their school, or the union that had a stall at their freshers fair when they did their PGCE. But anyone with more than a year's experience have had to make a decision, especially because of the J30 and N30 strikes, whether to stay or change union, depending on whether they support the strikes,a nd that will have, on a basic level, exposed them to the nuances of the union landscape. More experienced teachers will have had this awareness from previous disputes, whether national (eg. 2008 pay) or local, even i they don't see themselves as being 'political' people.

I hasten to add I'm talking in probabilistic terms - there's obviously the capacity for people to change their minds or that one or two maybe have ended up in that union as an accident of history, but it's unlikely.

Even just a scan through the pages of the TES mag or TES forums will give you a quick view of the perception of the respective unions amongst teachers. NUT is regularly decried as being 'full of militant nutters', when we know the reality isn't even close.

Mike Harman
Nov 16 2011 15:40
local government union membership, and school support staff, where you do get people who join the GMB

Just to back this up, I nearly joined the GMB when I was working as school support staff, because recently near me there'd been some GMB workers out on strike (not in education or anything), whereas Unison were being complete shits somewhere else, is 4-5 years ago now so I can't really remember what in particular they were doing at the time.

In the end I found out there were other Unison members where I worked so joined that instead 'cos it would be stupid to join another one for the sake of it, but I had no idea GMB regularly scabbed on Unison in that sector until you brought it up on here.

Nov 16 2011 16:00

Generally agree with Chilli and Steven that all unions are scab unions. At the end of the 84 miners' strike, the NUM "led" its members across picket lines made up of miners who had been disciplined/sacked, some with the complicity of the union. There were a lot more not able to go on the picket lines because they were in prison, conditionally bailed and so on.
All trade unions will scab - that's part of their make up.

Nov 16 2011 16:00

Exactly. Often locally GMB can be more militant in disputes (see Brighton binmen, for example) but nationally it's a different picture

Nov 16 2011 16:16

Without abandoning a critique of the unions it's still possible to draw the qualitative difference between a union, PAT (now Voice), that was formed with the explicit purpose of providing representation to ideological scabs, and wants to recruit from that pool.

In teaching, the argument does not stand that people are simply misinformed about Voice, they make up 3-4% of teachers anyway, most of which likely have specifically joined to scab, it's their sole reason for existing, well, that and selling insurance wink

And Fallback's right that it's not helpful to lump a union whos historical origins are entirely about strikebreaking, as opposed to those who simply have scabbed.

In practical terms, assuming that none of the 20 unions who will be out Nov30 will sell their members out before then (sadly, it won't surprise us if some do), it's surely worth emphasising that Voice won't be there while the other 4 teaching unions will.

Joseph Kay
Nov 16 2011 16:17
baboon wrote:
all unions are scab unions.

you should have a wine column. 'this wine is the same as all the others. it's alcohol made of grapes. that's its very essence.' grin

Nov 16 2011 20:27

What's your point about the NUM and Saint Arthur crossing a picket line?

Nov 16 2011 22:11
Fall Back wrote:
Also, "scab union" means something specific - it doesn't just mean a union that has scabbed. It's not useful to take a term with a specific historical meaning and just throw it around.

That's true. NASUWT were guilty of union scabbing on J30, for example, but they're not a scab union because they weren't set up specifically to break strikes like PAT or the DUM.

Nov 16 2011 22:27

Hadn't heard of Voice, it's interesting.
Choccy, would it be right to say that the ATL is a bit scabby (as opposed to a scab union)? I remember an ATL teacher asked me to look after their kid on a day when the NUT was striking and had closed our kids' school. Only after I agreed I thought, now wait a minute...

Nov 17 2011 08:46

Come on guys, I can't believe no one has said it yet:

The only people who join Voice are scabs (and probably paedos)..

I'll get my coat.. embarrassed

Nov 17 2011 18:39
Ed wrote:
Come on guys, I can't believe no one has said it yet:

The only people who join Voice are scabs (and probably paedos)..

I'll get my coat.. embarrassed

ha ha, that's funny I meant to put on the bottom of my post that the people who join are probably just paedos who just want representation if they get caught. And as everyone knows paedos are all scabs