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What is a Picket?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: n/a, Satori, Kheel Center
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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A picket is a style of protest in which striking workers assemble outside a place of employment to make the public aware of their cause. The protesters usually carry signs which detail their grievances with the employer, and they also pass out informational fliers. In addition to alerting the public to a labor issue, pickets also deter temporary workers, pejoratively called scabs. Because someone would need to actively cross the picket line to enter the workplace, the demonstration is designed to shame people who are willing to work while a labor dispute is being resolved.

The origins of the term “picket” probably lie in the stakes use to hold up protest signs, which resemble the stakes used to make a picket fence. The signs make protesters highly visible, even from a great distance, allowing the protest to make a visible impact. The most common type of demonstration is a mass picket, in which employees gather in front of the workplace in question. Employees may also engage in a secondary picket, which targets businesses which purchase the products made by the company, or the homes of company executives. Some labor unions also have mobile demonstrations known as “flying pickets” which are able to move quickly from site to site, before the company has an opportunity to break up the line.

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Most pickets are intended to be non-violent, with the overall goal being to pressure the company into meeting the demands of the union. This is accomplished both by shaming the company with public attention and through work stoppage through the strike. In some instances, a picket may become disruptive, with protesters getting extremely loud or aggressive. This is often the case with pickets held to raise awareness of social issues, such as demonstrations in front of abortion clinics.

People who are supportive of the aims of the labor organizers will try to avoid crossing the picket line. This can become problematic when workers at universities and other public institutions strike, forcing other staff members, as well as the general public, to choose between not attending work or school, or crossing the line and potentially undermining the effectiveness of the protest. The sense of ethical discomfort caused by this situation can also help to raise awareness about the issue. Most strikers along the line are happy to engage in conversation with people about the demands being made by the union, and how the public can help to ensure that those demands are met.

For a company, a demonstration like this can represent a substantial loss of income. In a company which is already unionized, a picket line represents a last resort in union negotiations, suggesting that all other bargaining attempts have failed. The union members are aware of the economic impact caused by pickets, and hope to use it for leverage. In a company which is not unionized, protests like this sometimes help to speed the unionization process along.

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