“We deem it necessary to state these particulars, not that it will interfere with the calculations as to the consumption of fuel necessary to produce a given effect, but as a guide to others in the erection of a similar engine. For it is well known that the resistance opposed to the motive power is seldom equal to what it is calculated to perform… ”
George Birkbeck, ‘The steam engine theoretically and practically displayed’, London 1827.
The creation of an effective and dangerous assault on the administrators of our daily life is, of course, the very life blood of the militant. Creation is the correct term. Not merely a demonstration of force, a picket line which actually sees off its opposition requires invention. George Birkbeck, the philanthropist, educator and expert on mechanics, in describing the steam engine patented by Peter Keir, noted that the resistance experienced by the water wheel involved is sometimes so great as to make the machine ineffective. Being the charitable industrialist he was, Birkbeck’s aim was to educate the population as to the basics of how to make an engine work. Almost 200 years later, the only education of any true value which Birkbeck as an institution can offer is, of course, a demonstration of how to make an engine not work.
The Bloomsbury Social Centre, established one week before the strike on November 30th 2011, acted as a focus for preparation activities and exchanges, including the formation and dissemination of radical pamphlets, unbranded placards and thousands of leaflets. Many of the posters and leaflets bore the image of a leopard moth. The leopard has been a mascot of Bloomsbury activists for some months, representing a wildcat far fiercer than a domestic tabby. The leopard moth, however, represents the leopard taking flight. Enter the flying picket. A quick report:
THE FLYING PICKET
At 10pm on Tuesday night, around 40 people crammed into one of the ground floor rooms of the Social Centre to discuss tactics for the next day. We made a list of the picket lines in the surrounding area, and decided on splitting into groups in order to cover both university buildings and to create a flying picket for other strikers. We rose at 5.45am to make our way to the post delivery points of Birkbeck and UCL. Both pickets were successful, the post vans turning away from the line of strikers, as they did at the last UCU strike in March. Here are some observations from other picket lines. If they are critical at points, it is entirely in the spirit of finding tactics which can be more effective, and adhering to a level of honesty about where we stand as movement, and what limitations we have to our strength. Any criticisms, of course, fall upon ourselves collectively. We are quite prepared to bolster any future picket lines, and hope that others will join us in making larger, effective flying pickets which are welcomed and encouraged by strikers at their workplaces.
University College Hospital: the picket line was well populated if fragmented, with physiotherapists, nurses and radiographers in the main representing the striking workforce.
Camden Council offices: a good ten or so people on three picket lines, but eager not to break the picketers code of conduct, with one rep busily discouraging people from blocking the pavement and inconveniencing members of the public, i.e. Camden taxpayers. We pointed out that some of us were Camden taxpayers, and all of us were members of the public. We just happened to be that seemingly paradoxical combination: supportive members of the public.
British Library: Three picketed entrances, with both PCS and Prospect out on strike this time. As readers, we had been invited to show support. As 9.30am drew closer, it was clear that the bookish throng has not appeared, notwithstanding management’s attempts to encourage strike breaking by its users. Nonetheless, fearful of creating an illegal picket line – in other words, contravening the Department for Business, Industry and Skills’ code of conduct for picketers – we were asked to move on by our fellow trade unionists.
Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital: Not only Unison, but also a Unite branch out on strike, making for a very diverse group at the entrance. By the time we arrived, however, the strikers were quite demoralised by the scabbing and the cold, lamenting that they didn’t seem to be allowed to do any more than hand out leaflets and wave flags. The Unison branded purple whistles hung round our necks, silent.
Westminster Kingsway Sixth Form College: UCU and Unison members out, though scabbing students steadily flowing in. Almost no students out on the picket line this time (unlike on June 30th), and the imminent demonstration through Westminster ready to suck up what support could be mustered for outside the doors.
We returned along Torrington Place, past picket lines at Egmont House (very scabby) and the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (strong), to find police outside the Social Centre. It transpired that, inspired by the ultra-leftist banners swinging from the windows, a Section 60 order has been placed for a square mile around the building, allowing police the power to stop and search anyone in the vicinity without requiring evidence for them individually of any suspected or attempted crime. Briefly, the entrance became a check point.
THE BIRKBECK PICKET LINE
The School for African and Oriental Studies claims the honour of the most resplendent picket lines in the area. From 6am the Unison members began the day, joined later by first UCU librarians and IT staff and then tens of students, building up to the full spectacle: swarms of rainbow clad SOAS students blocking the steps, arms links, samba band heaving – and not a singly scab managing to squeeze through the mass; for a while at least.
Birkbeck, however, has not been till now such a bastion of collective force. This is what makes the occurrence on the November 30th strike important for our consciousness as a movement in Bloomsbury. From 6am the picket in front of the main entrance on Torrington Place steadily grew, bolstered by smaller – and admittedly less effective – lines at the 4 or 5 other entrances.
A large quantity of substantively resolute picketers on one entrance means that, for that one entrance at the very least, people will be persuaded to turn back. Or, more specifically, no one attempting to enter Birkbeck via that entrance could have helped but (a) known that the strike was happening, and (b) had to have made an active choice about whether to cross the picket line.
We did allow through contracted workers, and without much attempt at persuasion. The campaigns against outsourcing in Bloomsbury colleges, and the demands for better contracts and wages, should be seen as partially an attempt to create a workforce which can bargain collectively and strike collectively. So long as there are workers on wages so long that they truly cannot afford to lose one day’s pay for strike action, or have contracts so abysmal that a day’s strike would result in being fired, then we will not have an entirely solid picket.
By the time of the Teach-Out at 12 noon, the atmosphere had grown antagonistic. This while other pickets marched off the spectacle of Panton Street and the sizeable march; it should be noted with vigour that the demonstration displaced any antagonism away from the picket lines and into the commercial hubbub of West London. From time to time, a line of picketers linked arms across the whole entrance way, only allowing people through after they had been confronted by the reality of the picket line.
At this point management, scabs and the police aligned with each other in order to try and break the picket line, both symbolically and physically. A group of 10 or so Metropolitan police officers, different from those who had earlier been making stop and searches outside the Social Centre, gathered ten yards away from the picket line. Two scabbing Birkbeck staff walked through the line in order to meet with the police, and began singling out UCU members to victimise. One of these staff members, a Unison member, had earlier encouraged student scabs in swearing at and harassing supportive picketers. He was joined by the head of room bookings, and we have little doubt that the complaints being made were in co-ordination with other management goons.
The police threatened us, in all but the most direct words, with arrest if the antagonism of the picket continued. From this point until the end of the picket at 8pm, the police remained at a small distance from our picket line, when not directly intervening.
RESISTANCE OPPOSED TO THE MOTIVE POWER
At 4pm the Philosophy department picket line had been so successful that the postgraduate philosophers all joined the main entrance picket. By 5pm, supporters began to come back from the main demonstration, and were also joined by a large contingent from the Law School. As the mob grew, the police began to intervene more directly, actively pushing unsuspecting students through the picket lines, escorting them into the building, and pushing into the line. This peaked with several police officers stationing themselves in the picket line itself, at the side doors, in order to push back official picketers and supporters and enable scabbing.
We are unaware of this happening in general elsewhere on the strike day. It seems clear to us that the intervention of the police, in collusion with management, was a clear breach of the legal right to strike and in lack recognition for the legal nature of the dispute. This is not to say that we have any love for the law (far from it); rather it is to point out that just as demonstrations have been kettled and mass arrested, construing legal action as illegal, this also now applies to industrial action. The intervention of the police criminalised the picket line. In other words, the social body is increasingly being treated as a criminal body, including at the workplace.
And yet we successfully fended off any threats or and attempts to arrest trade unionists and supporters, and maintained the picket line until the end of the education day, 8pm. As we left the entrance and made our way back to the Social Centre, all that remained was a line of 6 police officers, forming a high-viz ghost of a picket line.
PRODUCING A GIVEN EFFECT
The notion of the ‘reasonable’ strike depends on the idea that a picket line is a site of discursive contestation, whereat a rarefied debate about the propriety of crossing should ensue. Hence the proliferation of pamphlets and encouragements not to be in any way militant. It’s true that sometimes our arguments can win at pickets, but they should have done so in the weeks beforehand. A picket is the physical manifestation of solidarity, a collective refusal to place the private benefit of an individual, whether that be a managerial salary or a student cup of coffee, above collective benefit. Rather than a protest, or an argument, striking and picketing is a targeted economic weapon – hence it is not spectacular, nor is it symbolic, which is why all transaction in the building on the day of a strike is strikebreaking. We should learn the potency of our weapon (is it even the only truly effective weapon we have left?) and use it.
The conversations which we had occurred often enough because and not in spite of our collective physical presence. It was the basic material presence of the picket line — its solidity — which demanded of those who prefer to consume their “services” in complacent silence that they attempt an act of self-justification. The policeman who mangled his lines as he pulled an acquiescent student through the picket line, blathering vacuously that “nothing is more important than other people’s rights”, was, in fact, onto something. Between two equal rights, force decides, and for most people in this world, force always resides where other people do. The temporary suspension of a situation where most people are expected to respect the sovereignty of the rights of others requires a change in the balance of force; and one of the rarest, and one of the most brilliant, aspects of the Birkbeck picket was that its strength and its concentration meant that for a few hours that change truly did take place. What burst out of it was an intensely social event, spontaneous, upsetting, exhilarating, like no other social experience we know: it was the experience of a sociality where always existing facts of domination and submission (as also the constantly iterated choices which sustain them) are pulled suddenly into the light of day, and are made for once emphatically public and contestable.
When we told people that their choice was simple, that they could refuse to cross the picket or cross it, that there was no other means by which they could demonstrate their support or withdraw it, the process of public reasoning which ensued was in fact often quite vastly complex. It was complex because the reasoning could no longer take place in the privacy of the chooser’s (the consumer’s) own skull, according to a logic rigged in advance so that it could issue only in those conclusions which are amenable to the chooser’s “private” interests. The simple choice presented to those who arrived at the picket lines had to be made; the process of deliberation allowed no quick routes out, no comfortable conflations, no self-serving deferrals of commitment. The only shortcut was to force one’s way through the line, in a tacit confirmation of what everyone always knew, that the right to shove is the cornerstone of all consumer rights, however nicely the consumers might pretend to queue.
Whether or not this process “raised consciousness” of strikes and pickets – and whether or not it makes more strikes “more likely to happen” – it was the living contradiction of privatised reason, and a proof in experience that privatised reason cannot be punctured by any other means than collective force.The refusal of collective force does not encourage thinking; it merely cedes force to the unthinking, the police, the self-announced guardians of other people’s rights.