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In Defence of the Picket Line

The Shrewsbury 24 case lifts the lid on one of the ways the British state has disempowered the working class since the 1970s – a war on the most effective tool available to trade unions: the picket line.

Last week’s Court of Appeal decision overturning the convictions of the Shrewsbury pickets, victimised for their involvement in the 1972 builders’ strike, was an inspiring victory after decades of campaigning for justice. It came less than six months after a comparable success in Scotland: an independent report into the policing of the 1984-’85 miners’ strike, commissioned by the SNP government, has called for the pardoning of hundreds of miners convicted of various offences during that year.

These two strikes marked key moments in a period of intense industrial conflict in Britain that lasted from the late 1960s until the mid 1980s. The builders’ dispute took place at the peak of a strike wave that saw workplace stoppages at their highest level in nearly 50 years. Earlier in 1972, miners had walked out on an official national strike for the first time since 1926. It was an overwhelming success, in part because of the extensive picketing of power stations, fuel depots, and other critical sites.

In the summer of the same year, five dockers were released from Pentonville after mass protests and strike threats. They had been jailed for ignoring picketing restrictions imposed by the new Industrial Relations Court that had been established by the Conservative government. The dockers’ release as a result of determined opposition was a sharp blow to Heath’s attempts to take on the unions.

Alongside disputes in engineering, the railways, and elsewhere, these successes emphasised the increasing assertiveness of Britain’s organised working class. In contrast, the 1984-’85 miners’ strike signalled the end of this period of struggle with a historic defeat for the labour movement and the consolidation of Thatcherism. At stake were fundamental questions of class power. And as the recent news makes clear, these disputes often played out in conflicts around the picket line.


One tactic used against the labour movement was the frequent conflation of picketing with violence by employers’ organisations, by right-wing politicians (and some supposedly left-wing ones), and in media coverage through the 1970s and 1980s.

In September 1972, after the miners’ and builders’ disputes, the Conservative Attorney General Peter Rawlinson delivered a speech on what he considered to be a deteriorating industrial relations situation. ‘During the last year or so,’ he claimed, ‘picketing has tended to become synonymous with violence. The freedom to picket that our law has long recognised has lately been too readily and too widely construed as a licence to intimidate and destroy.’

Well-publicised court decisions, like those convicting the Shrewsbury pickets, helped consolidate such claims. This attack on picketing contributed to a wider attempt to delegitimise assertive trade unionism, establishing the basis for the Thatcher government’s legislative assault on the labour movement in the 1980s. But it also served to legitimate direct state violence against picketers.

A memo written by Conservative minister Robert Carr in March 1972, in light of complaints that the police had been too soft on picketing miners, expressed concern that it was ‘questionable whether public opinion generally would support the much tougher measures which would be needed to ensure effective enforcement’. The highly publicised trials of the builders were one among various efforts to shape this public opinion.

In a high-profile dispute at the Grunwick photo-processing factory in northwest London in 1976-’78, the mass pickets of workers and their supporters gained first-hand experience of what these ‘tougher measures’ entailed.

One supporter who joined the picket line explained that he was ‘sickened and disgusted’ by the ‘brutal, savage force’ used by the police. He described the police attempting to ‘pulverise’ the face of a young woman, a man being ‘viciously kicked and stamped upon by several police officers’, and being hit around the head and face himself before his glasses were removed and crushed, and he was thrown across the road.

Others had comparable experiences during the 1984-’85 miners’ dispute, at Wapping and elsewhere. As well as its obvious purpose of enabling strike breaking, such police action also raised the cost of solidarity. Coventry MP William Wilson wrote to the Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees in 1977, explaining that, due to police violence, local Rolls Royce shop stewards would no longer send representatives to Grunwick ‘for fear of physical injury. It may have been that this was what intended, and if so, it has certainly succeeded.’

State violence also served to delegitimise those it was used against – whether that was Irish nationalists, working-class Black youth, or assertive trade unionists. Police attacks on picket lines demonstrated the labour movement’s transformation from respectable corporatist partners of the post-war state to ‘the enemy within’.

Picket lines of course can be conflictual, and it is unnecessary to construct a sanitised history of industrial relations in the 1970s and ’80s to recognise that strike violence by workers was exaggerated. But it is also worth thinking about what precisely was meant by ‘violence’.

Conservative politicians such as Rawlinson and Carr insisted that the mere presence of large numbers on a mass picket was inherently intimidating. The working-class crowd was a threat. This is one of the reasons why the principle of having at most six pickets at any one site was embedded in the 1980 picketing code of practice.

Beyond this, it is common for physical damage to property to be portrayed as a form of violence. It is therefore not too great a stretch to see strikes and picket lines, which directly and intentionally interfere in the ‘normal’ rights of property, as violent by their very nature.

What was really at stake in how the picket line was portrayed and policed was not so much interpersonal violence, in the way we might commonly understand it; rather, it was the power of the labour movement to challenge, as Raymond Williams wrote about the 1984-’85 miners’ strike, ‘the categorical and arbitrary right of an employer’.


This power—itself, of course, exaggerated by the Right for political purposes—was always limited and unevenly distributed. Nevertheless, it was not entirely a myth. And as picketing was a particular target for attack, it is worth thinking about the various ways in which power was organised and manifested in this particular space.

The new working-class militancy was a particularly mobile one. The Shrewsbury pickets were targeted in part because of their use of ‘flying pickets’: groups of strikers that would travel from site to site spreading a dispute. Some observers believed, and worried, that greater access to cars and improvements in communication gave strikers an advantage.

The journal New Society commented that ‘it is the arrival of the flying pickets—used by the miners in 1972 and 1974—that has turned picketing into being an offensive action… Flying pickets are now a powerful tactic in many strikes.’

The mass picket also played a role, providing some of the most spectacular images of strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. But relying on the force of sheer numbers was vulnerable to the organised violence of the state. Perhaps more important was that strong trade union organisation produced cultural norms and codes of behaviour. As Arthur Scargill described it, this was ‘the basic principle of the trade union movement – thou shalt not cross a picket line.’

Again, this principle was frequently breached. But the symbolic power of the picket line did extend beyond the rhetoric of union leaders. Contemporary reports by civil servants, police, and employers’ organisations concerned with the problem of picketing frequently let slip that the act of respecting picket lines was often done voluntarily.

One government official, for instance, complained that during the 1981 Civil Service strike, postal workers ‘had been unwilling to cross picket lines to deliver mail; a single picket, or even a placard on a railing was sufficient to turn them back.’ Such cultures of respecting picket lines were at least as important in building trade union power as the more dramatic, large-scale conflicts of the mass picket.

Similarly, the National Federation of Building Trades Employers complained bitterly about violence during the 1972 builders’ strike. But they also recognised that ‘travelling militant pickets… do not always attempt or need to use intimidation. Their well drilled presence, with perhaps a little fifth‐column work within the site, can be enough to achieve their aims within the law’ – which was a begrudging way of saying that sometimes workers were persuaded by the pickets.

If police violence increased the costs of solidarity, strong union organisation reduced it. When I interviewed the railway signaller Pete Firmin about his support for the miners in 1984-’85, he explained: ‘I could just not a pull a certain signal and the coal didn’t move.’ Railway management did not try to challenge him on this, he believed, because they were wary of sparking broader strike action. What on the surface looks like a fairly individualised act of solidarity, therefore, ultimately rested on collective power.

There was a more coercive side to such norms of behaviour. Take the 1966-’68 dispute at the Roberts Arundel textile machinery factory in Stockport. The strike gained attention in part due to the mass pickets of workers and their supporters, but just as notable was the ‘list of names of blacklegs’ that circulated locally.

Department of Employment and Productivity officials complained that even after the dispute was settled, strike-breakers subsequently employed elsewhere were being dismissed because other workers in the factories wouldn’t work with them. There could be a very real cost to crossing a picket line.

The radical right-wing project of Thatcherism, or neoliberalism, was in part about dealing with the capitalist crises of the 1970s by breaking these forms of working-class power. This was done by increasingly aggressive policing, court cases like those against the building workers and the miners, economic policies that decimated industries where strong unions existed, attacks on the social wage of the welfare system, and restrictive industrial relations legislation – but also through the ability to gain significant public consent for at least some of this by popularising the notion of the overly powerful and violent trade unions.

Our goal today is, of course, not to recreate the 1970s. But understanding how the labour movement built strength in that period, while also recognising its limitations and how it was undermined, can help guide us in the future. The victories in the Shrewsbury and Scottish miners’ cases will be rightly celebrated across the Left. There is more to do in a similar vein, from Cammell Laird to Orgreave. But the longer-term aim will be to rebuild the class power at which these injustices were targeted.