Helping workers who are in the process of seizing capital is an extremely important act as a socialist. It is a radicalizing experience not only for the strikers, who frequently say that they are fundamentally changed by the action of going on strike, but for socialists joining the picket as well. It’s an opportunity to talk to workers about the power they have collectively and to see the strategic power there is in workplace organizing for the socialist movement.
These tips were originally written for strike training that the labor branch put on in the summer of 2019 and adapted after subsequent strikes that Chicago DSA has supported. I wrote them at the behest of much more experienced labor activists who had been supporting picket lines for years, whereas before the Unite Here hotel workers strike in the fall of 2018, I hadn’t even seen a picket line. Being such a recent supporter of strikes, I have a very fresh memory about the things that made me hesitate going out to a picket line and the social faux pas I worried I might make, and these tips were written with those worries in mind. I hope they can demystify what it’s like to do strike support for picket line first timers or people who haven’t supported a picket line specifically with DSA.
- You’re wanted there! The first time I went to a picket line I had a lot of misunderstanding about what to expect. I thought that I wasn’t needed, or even worse that me being there would somehow weaken the picket line since I’m not on strike, but actually the opposite is true! We’re turning out our members to this strike specifically because we know the workers want and need our support, so if you can please come out and support them.
- It’s basically following the lead. The biggest part of being there is just showing up and following the lead. If people are marching, march with them. If there’s an abandoned sign on the ground pick it up and walk. If people are chanting chant along!
- Find your picket captain. There will be at least one picket captain there from the union who is a rank and filer in charge of that specific picket. You can usually tell who they are by a clipboard or their generally authoritative demeanor. Check with them to see how you’re most needed, and if you find out about a need or a planned action, let them know so they can communicate that to the rest of the chapter.
- Bring stuff if it’s needed, but it’s not required. It must be our Midwestern roots, but people tend to think they can’t show up empty handed—not at all true! Don’t show up with your arms full of coffee and donuts first thing unless you know that people need it. It can sometimes turn into a headache if you bring something they have a bunch of when you could’ve helped a different way. Check in with the Slack or your picket captain if you want to bring stuff with you!
- Wear swag, but if you don’t have any it’s no big deal. Some people say they wonder what’s the point in showing up if they can’t visibly represent DSA, but remember the point in being there is to support and uplift the workers. Whether or not you’re wearing DSA swag they’ll figure out where you’re from soon enough when you talk to them about who you are and why you’re there.
- Don’t form a DSA clump. It’s great to check in with one another and meet new comrades, but try not to make a big DSA clump that doesn’t interact with any of the strikers. A picket line isn’t the place to network with other DSA members, there’ll be other places for that. Say hi and bring a buddy if you wish, but don’t let that stop you from talking to the strikers.
- Keep up the energy, be excited, but remember a picket line isn’t a party. The people who are on strike made an extraordinarily brave decision to withhold their labor from their employers, forgoing pay and maybe even their job. They need our energy and we need to do what we can to keep up morale, but don’t be the group that turns it into a tailgate. Remember, their material interests are literally on the line—yours aren’t.
- De-escalate conflict when necessary. There might be conflict between the strikers and the public or, god forbid, the police. If this happens, take direction from the picket captains but don’t be afraid to use your position as a non-worker to step between them. For example, if a person walks by and sarcastically says they’re “being great role models for the kids” (this actually happened) you can say “YES SIR THEY ARE TEACHING KIDS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF THANK YOU.”
- Remember you’re there to have conversations with workers. The point of being there is to talk to rank and filers, ask why they’re on strike, how things are going, how we can help—don’t forget that. Avoid conversations with outside media folks, whether it’s local news or independent media. Divert requests for interviews to the union’s strike captain. Ask workers questions about their workplaces, and remember organizing conversations are mostly listening.
- BE READY TO TALK ABOUT SOCIALISM. Most importantly, remember that not all strikes are class conscious and it is up to us to talk about them that way. When you’re having conversations with workers you might find an opportunity to create a new socialist, and that is a beautiful thing. When you go to a picket line you’re talking to a person literally taking capital from the ruling class for the benefit of the workers. Be ready to tell people why socialists are there for them and how their fight connects with worker’s fights everywhere.