04. Blocking roads and turning a corner

Submitted by R Totale on April 13, 2021

Junior doctors closed the road outside Downing Street. Firefighters brought traffic to a standstill in Parliament Square. Construction workers with a giant inflatable rat shut down Park Lane. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, explains why blocking roads has become a great way to make bad employers change direction.

On a cold wintry day in 2015, a young electrician was sacked on the Crossrail project after he had raised complaints about unsafe access routes on the building site. His union, Unite, attempted to negotiate his reinstatement but the Bond Street station contract was run by two of construction's notorious blacklisting companies and they didn't want to know.

At short notice the Blacklist Support Group called a protest outside the site entrance. When around 30 people had turned up, one of these concerned members of the public pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing and we waited for the lights to change. Once the traffic was safely stopped, we walked into the road, taking our banners with us. And stayed there. This was Oxford Street. During evening rush hour.

In less than a minute, one of the most famous shopping roads in the world was in total gridlock. Suddenly everyone wanted to know us. Shoppers cheered our speeches about taxpayers’ money being paid to firms that mistreat their workforce. Bus drivers stuck in the jam took our flyers apologising for the delay but explaining about the major safety issue on a London transport project. Importantly, people were instantly posting photos of our banners and placards to Twitter and Facebook. We were trending within minutes.

The Met's finest finally arrived half an hour later - the police vans couldn't get through the traffic. Were we nicked? No. We have a democratic right to protest in this country and blocking a road does not result in instant arrest. Instead police officers are required to ask everyone present a series of questions, known as the 'five steps'. “Can we assist your protest? Do you realise that there are consequences if you continue?”

During the few minutes it takes to talk through the series of warnings, we continued to entertain the ever increasing crowd of shoppers who were now watching the spectacle unfold. We were peaceful and polite throughout and just before the 5th and final warning, we took a democratic vote whether to finish our protest. It was unanimous. Partly because we had achieved our aims of raising publicity and partly because it was absolutely freezing cold. Not a single person was arrested.

The whole thing was caught on video from start to finish and uploaded to YouTube, appearing on media websites almost immediately. Civil disobedience is all about publicity, it is pointless if no one knows about it.

The outcome of our mischief? The employer rang the Unite union official even before we took the vote tosuspend the protest and the electrician was immediately reinstated on full pay pending further negotiations. We went to the pub to celebrate our 30 minute victory.

Somewhere in that episode there is probably a few lessons to be learnt. Be bold but act collectively. We're not looking for martyrs. We don't want anyone arrested or to lose their job. But done properly, low level civil disobedience can have a huge impact on a dispute and give a big morale boost to union members.

One person standing in the middle of the road risks getting run over. When an organised group takes to the tarmac, it can quickly set a campaign on the right road.