‘Blockade the scabs’: The mass picket in 1970s and 80s Britain

Authors: Diarmaid Kelliher*, University of Glasgow
Topics: Historical Geography
Keywords: blockade, picket line, solidarity, trade unions, class
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Roosevelt 1, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

From the late 1960s through the 1980s, trade union militancy and high strike levels placed the picket line at the centre of British political debate. The picket was ostensibly a space of peaceful persuasion. However, one of the tactics that gained prominence among labour activists in this period was the ‘mass picket’, which instead frequently operated as a blockade. At its most effective, such an approach allowed strikers to control movement in and out of the workplace, temporarily challenging employers’ ‘right to manage’. To function as a blockade, the mass picket often relied on support from outside of the immediate dispute, and in some cases played a unique role as a space of encounter between a diverse range of activists. The paper will argue, therefore, that the mass picket produced a distinct spatial politics of solidarity. The mass picket met a determined response from employers, the state, and sometimes other workers. I will explore how trade union blockades were contested by increasingly aggressive policing, hostile courts, and restrictive legislation. Portrayals by the political right of mass picket lines as spaces of violence and intimidation were key elements of the anti-union agenda that would coalesce around the Thatcher government from 1979. This depiction of unions had some popular resonance, even among trade union members. The paper will consider, therefore, the extent to which the mass picket, in marking a shift from voluntary class solidarity to physical blockade, ultimately reflected the weakness of the British labour movement in the 1980s.

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