Lessons from Lively Picket Lines
The heat was scorching in Louisville, Kentucky, last Thursday. But what the windless day lacked in gusts, it made up in guts.
The union-made placards read: “United for a Strong Contract.” That resonated with auto workers at Ford who hadn’t been part of a contract rally for as long as anyone can remember.
And the picket line came alive when they broke away from the tedious repetition of “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!” and used their own chants.
“We ready, we ready, we ready for a strike…” An auto worker led a syncopated chorus, breaking the monotony of the boring chants printed on the back of their placards.
(For some ideas on chant-writing, like rhyming your boss’s name if possible, see here.)
Picket lines can be dramatic places, when scabs try to cross. But most of the time, the drama is muted, and if the strike is a long one, it can get, well, dull. But that doesn't have to be.
DON’T JUST WALK THE CIRCLE
As auto workers prepare to strike the Big 3 at midnight September 14, they’ll draw on each other’s creativity to maintain spirited picket lines for days or weeks. During the last Big 3 strike, at General Motors in 2019, workers produced their own rap tracks and music videos.
Acting up on the picket line not only gets your point across to the public, but also brings members closer together while they’re having fun.
Here are some ideas gleaned from Labor Notes books and reporting to make members want to spend more time with their fellow strikers than just their assigned picket shifts.
PICKET SIGN PARTIES
Handmade picket signs are better than pre-printed ones. Assemble your materials and turn your group loose.
In the 2018 Red for Ed movement of grassroots strikes, teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma organized sign-making parties in members’ homes and local rec centers. Members came up with slogans like “Don’t make me use my TEACHER voice” and “STRAIGHT OUTTA SUPPLIES.”
The American Postal Workers Union in the Twin Cities did a sign-making workshop as part of a barbecue. Stewards circulated flyers in the workplaces urging members to bring their families. A hundred turned out, with children playing a big role in making the signs.
“The sign-makers, of course, showed up the next day to picket,” recalled Peter Rachleff, “looking for ‘their’ signs in the union van. Over 400 people showed up at two locations, including families.”
If rain is in the forecast, maybe follow the example of one Los Angeles teacher and decorate umbrellas instead of traditional picket signs!
PROPS AND COSTUMES
Red shirts are great on the picket line, but you can think bigger, with creative visual symbols and props.
When members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild began gearing up for a contract campaign at the Washington Post, they already had their slogan: “We Make the Post—The Post Makes Money—We Make Peanuts.” They passed out peanuts on picket lines and built a repertoire of “peanut songs” such as “The Post Is Playing a Shell Game,” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
But the peanut campaign really took off when a Guild member came across a Mr. Peanut costume (complete with top hat and cane) on eBay. To the delight of Guild members and the chagrin of management, Mr. Peanut joined informational picket lines in front of the Post, and even attended a bargaining session. Member volunteers took turns wearing the outfit.
“Not only did our members love to see Mr. Peanut on our picket line,” said Guild Organizer Calvin Zon, “but passersby stopped to pose for pictures with him. Mr. Peanut really opened the door for the public to take a look at our literature.”
Here are some other low-cost props and symbols that union members have used to dramatize their messages:
- A giant Union Busting License or subpoena delivered to the boss
- A skeleton symbolizing the “bare bones” benefits package
- A huge greeting card containing a message for management and signed by employees
- Oversized Band-aids with a message such as “your contract offer makes us sick” (crutches, Ace bandages, slings, and other medical items can be used, too)
- An inflatable plastic dinosaur denoting outmoded management policies
- Cardboard coffins or gravestones symbolizing “the death of workplace justice”
- A milk carton with a slogan like “2 percent belongs on a milk carton, not on my paycheck”
- A “Justice-Mobile” made from a huge cardboard box cut into the shape of a car
- Bags of dirt left outside the office of a CEO who treated his employees “like dirt”
- Kites instructing the boss to “Go fly a kite”
- Police crime scene tape wrapped around an area where an outrageous offense against workers has taken place
- Red capes and devil horns worn by employees as they welcome co-workers to “the gates of Hell”
You can easily supply your “special effects” box with a few visits to your local dollar store or party supply store. And there are countless novelty websites.
A holiday can lend inspiration. Postal workers protesting at Halloween time dressed as zombies and made signs like “Cutbacks drain the life from the post office” and “Let our post office remain undead.” Many workers have asked their boss to “show us some love” on Valentine’s Day, compared him to Scrooge or the Grinch at Christmas, or written their own lyrics to familiar carols. (There’s no obvious holiday near September 14, but maybe auto workers could use “Equal pay this Equinox” or “Let the tiers Fall.)
It’s even better when your creative prop generates an activity that picketers can enjoy. New York University graduate workers created a piggy-bank piñata representing the surplus the employer was refusing to spend on workers. Besides a good visual, this gave them the fun of smashing it open.
AT&T Mobility retail workers decorated toilet seats to demand that the company stop flushing their sales commissions down the toilet. Workers would “flush” mock dollar bills with the CEO’s salary—and face—on the front; on the back there was space to write what they wanted from bargaining, like “Respect,” “Better health care,” or “A better work-life balance.”
MAKE A PARADE
The California Faculty Association used street theater to give members’ contract issues high visibility. Instead of just showing up at their rally, members organized a procession to the site. They encouraged everyone to wear a costume and bring drums and noisemakers.
“Someone pushed a trash barrel representing the ‘[employee] suggestion box,’” CFA representative Nina Fendel said, “and we even had a vampire complete with mask and cape.
“It was fun to see how people’s personalities changed when they put on a costume. Normally reticent members were calling out to the crowd to join in the parade.”
Later, members found out the university chancellor was scheduled to speak at a conference at a hotel. To dramatize the lack of health benefits, they organized “The Inside Game.” They made a banner that read “Families need benefits too,” designed so that it could be folded up and carried inside a briefcase. CFA members, dressed like conference participants, entered the hotel and got into the room where the chancellor was speaking and unfurled their banner at the back. Some members brought their children, who held up their own signs.
BRING YOUR TALENTS
Song and dance bring life to a picket line. If you can play a musical instrument, bring it! If your kid or your buddy is in a marching band, a salsa band, or a drum crew—invite them to play. (Noise-making instruments that anyone can pick up, like tambourines, cowbells, and kazoos, are great to bring, too.)
In their strike against Los Angeles United School District, striking teachers James Adams and Sean Longstreet rewrote well-known songs such as the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” and handed out lyric sheets so their co-workers could sing along:
What would you do if I walked out of school
Would you stand up and walk out with me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
About saving LAUSD!
Those picket lines were also full of dancing, from conga lines to breakdancing—which kept spirits high despite the torrential rains that drenched L.A. the week of the strike.
Many of the ideas in this article come from the “Creative Tactics” chapter, by Julie McCall, in A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.