Hundreds of members of staff at the University of Leeds have taken strike action as UNISON members over the last 18 months – the membership continues to grow alongside this and we are approaching our 50th day of industrial action. In addition to this we always run picket lines on strike days – early in the action our picket lines were swelled with numbers as for many people, it was a new experience and one that people by and large enjoyed taking part in. However we have a lot more staff who take strike action but don’t come to the picket lines and I wanted to write a first-hand account of what it is like for those people who may be a bit nervous or unsure of what happens on a picket line. Perhaps some people have visions of The Miners’ Strike in their minds and flying pickets of the 1970s and 80s; these days, picket lines are a much different affair. They are calm and non-confrontational, and centralise around a theme of inclusion, enjoyment and solidarity with one another. We even have a quiet picket for those people who need a calmer atmosphere.
Firstly I want to say that no one wants to compel members to come to a picket line. It is your strike day and you can use it as you see fit. As long as you are taking strike action, that is the main thing. For those that can make it to campus though, we would encourage you to do so and we think you would enjoy it. The picket opens at 7:00am – you’re not expected to arrive then and can come at any point during the morning; the earlier the better but we know it’s not always easy with public transport, especially if it also a strike day for other industries. The main reason we ask for as many people to come as possible is the visibility of our collective action – there will be badges, stickers, whistles, hats and other such items to emblazon yourself with the branch logo and the more people that do this the stronger we look to management, both nationally and locally, who we are ultimately in dispute with.
Once you arrive you sign a book at the UNISON gazebo which will be placed outside the main entrance to the university on Woodhouse Lane. This is so we can see the numbers of pickets the Branch are responsible for but also so you can collect £10 subsistence pay for the day which should cover your travel into the picket and hopefully enough money for a sandwich or a coffee. At this stage you can take whatever items are on offer; there may be cakes and biscuits that people make for the picketers and indeed you’re welcome to bring something to contribute which will be shared out on a first-come-first-served basis. There will be flags and placards you can wave and we usually have a facility to create your own placard. From there you essentially go find an entrance to stand at – if you work around the outside of campus in the buildings along the public roads then its best to go there as this is likely where your colleagues will be – if you work internally then you would need to find any campus entrance to cover – we can dispatch you somewhere where numbers need boosting or if you have arranged to meet some colleagues then you’re welcome to find them wherever you have agreed to picket.
Throughout the day we usually have free teas and coffees available via the Emmanuel Centre or the Quaker Meeting House (its best to ask on the day if you’re not sure) depending on availability – similarly toilet facilities are available on these sites. We do this for the same reason we only picket public entrances to campus; if you are on strike you are not allowed on or in university property. The Emmanuel Centre is classed as neutral ground; a university Switzerland if you like.
On the picket line itself is where the day becomes special. You get to speak with colleagues you may never have spoken with before, particularly in these hybrid-working times. Some people bring family members as you’re welcome to do – dogs on picket lines is always a big favourite but cats on picket lines have yet to take off. You’ll find there are managers also out with you which gives everyone a lift. Sometimes people on campus who may be in a union that aren’t taking action will come out and offer solidarity and maybe some treats. I’ve seen lasting friendships built and maintained on the picket line, and group photos framed on office walls taken while demonstrating. As cars, vans, buses etc go by you will be buoyed by the amount of them that sound their horns in solidarity with your efforts; everyone knows what you’re doing is right and they want to acknowledge your commitment to the cause.
Members of the public walking by might talk to you about the dispute and you may have grabbed some leaflets explaining the dispute to hand out to students passing by. This isn’t something everything is comfortable doing and we won’t ask you to unless it’s something you want to do. If there are people who want to cross your picket line we don’t expect you to block their route to work and would ask you not to. At most a polite request to not cross the line and join the picket will suffice, but again, this is something for people to do only if they feel comfortable. People can join the union on the day of the action itself and be protected from any detriment.
Overall we want people to have a good time on the picket line and at the end of each day (11:30am) we gather in-front of the Parkinson steps for a rally where we will cheer and applaud the efforts of the day, nudged along by a range excellent speakers from MPs to activists, from local branch officers to rank and file members, and from representatives of sister unions, students and campaigners – you might even feel the desire to speak yourself one day. At the end many people decide to move off for a liquid lunch at their favourite hostelry but that’s an optional extra. The day can be tiring but you always leave feeling better than you did when you arrived and more importantly you leave feeling the spirit of communal strength which we all need to fight for fair pay.
So for our 50th day of strike action on the 29th September… see you on line!