Picket Line Morals

It would be better for society if workers in general had better conditions. This observation provides a justification for strike action: it is a good tool to achieve better conditions for workers. Better conditions for workers cost employers (at least sometimes). An effective way to get someone to do something costly to them is to credibly threaten them with bigger costs for not doing it. Workers not working costs employers (if it didn’t, they would not be employing those workers!). The more workers who stop working, the higher the costs to employers. And the higher the costs that workers can credibly threaten, the more they make it good financial sense for their employer to spend on improving their conditions. So if we want to improve working conditions, we need to give workers the tools to credibly threaten their employers with big costs.

Now, many people say they want to improve working conditions. But to effectively secure these ends we need people to live by a set of moral norms that not all of them agree with.

  1. You should join a trade union; a union of workers can threaten bigger costs to an employer than an individual worker, and a bigger union can threaten bigger costs than a smaller one. Provided, that is, that employers know that union members will take strike action whenever the union directs them to. Otherwise the threats of union negotiators are not credible. So you should empower your union to make such threats by voting that you are prepared to take strike action, and also commit to always following your union’s directions (even if you sometimes disagree with them!).
  2. During an industrial dispute, in your own workplace or another one, you should not do anything that reduces the costs on the employer: this will make it less attractive for them to resolve the dispute by offering improved conditions. The classic slogan is that you should never cross a picket line: don’t do the work of striking workers, and boycott employers that are involved in industrial disputes.

Of course, there will be exceptions to these norms. Perhaps there is a cute puppy trapped in a burning building on the other side of the picket line. But since the credible threat depends on employers expecting workers to consistently respect union directions and picket lines, it is not good strategy to talk up these exceptions. For the same reason, the more people accept these norms, the better.

The norms I’ve suggested are hardly new. They have been widespread in organised working-class communities around the world for over a century. But they need to be spread further (including to some of my colleagues) and renewed with each generation – especially after the waning of worker power over the past forty years. These norms are amongst the very few fabricated by the working-classes themselves. There is no norm against crossing picket lines unless there are people organising picket lines, no requirement to join a union unless there are people organising unions. These norms were generated from and enforced by a collective effort from below, in the interests of the oppressed. The idea that we can together create our own morals is a liberating one. It frees us from the usual submission to duties handed down from above, by lawmakers, bosses and priests. And it is a special kind of harm to make people break morals that they or their class co-created: for instance, through demanding that working-class students cross picket lines to sit exams, or through the ban on secondary industrial action which forces my university’s security guards to cross academic workers’ picket lines, and us to cross theirs.

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