The following is based on an 18 March presentation by Workers Hammer editor Vincent David in London. The talk, which was part of a Spartacist League public meeting titled “To save the NHS — Fight for women’s liberation!”, has been slightly expanded for production in this issue.

“Never cross a picket line!” Those familiar with the Spartacist League will know that this has been one of the important angles of our intervention into the current strike wave. For the last month, we have been campaigning quite intensively for individuals and organisations to fight for the three demands laid out in our leaflet:

  1. Build picket lines, don’t cross them!
  2. Enough of unions scabbing on each other’s strikes!
  3. Defend all those who refuse to cross picket lines!

We have widely distributed this leaflet at demonstrations and on picket lines and have sent it to various working-class organisations around the country, from trade unions to socialist groups.

Why are we campaigning around these demands? Before answering this question, I would first like to answer: what is a picket line? The purpose of a picket line is to shut down a workplace on strike. In the struggle against the bosses over wages, working conditions and jobs, stopping the flow of profit and the functioning of a workplace is the only weapon the working class has. The picket line’s purpose is to implement this by keeping the workplace shut. Anyone who crosses it or finds a way around it, and anyone who crosses any picket (not just of their own union but of any union) is a strikebreaker — a scab. It is the worst sort of crime because it sabotages workers struggle and helps the bosses by keeping the facility running. The picket line is the front line of the battle between workers and capital, the spearhead of any successful strike.

But to anyone who has been on strike in recent months it should be obvious that the basic definition of the picket line I just laid out is totally alien to how things are today. When RMT rail workers go on strike, ASLEF train drivers go to work, and vice versa. When junior doctors or ambulance drivers are out, nurses are expected to cross their pickets. When NEU teachers are on strike, all the other unions in education are instructed to go to work and keep the schools running. Many unions often explicitly instruct their members to cross picket lines. Union members crossing their own picket line is a widespread practice, which the union tops do not even pretend to seriously combat. For those who have been on strike, how many times have you seen your union rep or other officials being chummy with scabs, shaking their hands, while they cross your picket to go to work? This is outrageous.

As a result, the strikes are isolated from one another, with widespread scabbing. They have not achieved anything and have had minimal impact on the bosses and their government. “Never cross a picket line” used to be a basic rule of the class struggle. But today it is rejected by the entire leadership of the trade union movement — from the right-wing Pat Cullen, who leads the RCN nurses union, to the so-called “militant” Mick Lynch of the RMT. Building picket lines that no one crosses plays no role in their strategy.

Why? Because union leaders are refusing to engage in a real confrontation with the bosses and the government. The only way to win a strike is to make the other side capitulate, and picket lines are workers’ most crucial tool to achieve this. But the trade union leaders do not have such a strategy. Instead, they organise the struggle through one-day strikes causing minimal disruption, thinking that the Tories can be made to care for workers through PR campaigns and by playing by the bosses’ rules. This can only lead to capitulation and defeat, as the recent deals reached by the RMT, the NHS unions and others show.

It is against this that we have launched our campaign. Our aim is to bring this basic rule of the class struggle back into the trade union movement as part of the fight for a new, socialist leadership. We certainly seek to convince individuals not to cross picket lines. But crucially, we seek to initiate and cohere a struggle inside the workers movement against the treacherous and scab-herding policies of the current trade union leaders. Those three demands: we want the unions to fight for them. In this way, we want to make workers realise the crucial importance of picket lines, but also that it is precisely the leaders of the trade unions who stand as obstacles to advancing the interests of the working class.

What reception have we got?

We have called on all workers organisations, from unions to socialist groups, to unite with us in fighting for these demands. Whatever political differences individuals and other groups might have with the Spartacist League, the demands should be readily acceptable for anyone wanting to fight for the working class.

Despite our demands being quite basic, the reaction from trade union leaders and socialist groups has varied from trying to ignore us to outright hostility. Groups like the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal have refused to respond to our messages. We have tried to speak to their members in demonstrations, and they have given us the silent treatment or denounced our campaign outright with the worst sorts of slanders.

Some have been more diplomatic in their equally negative response. Individuals in Workers Fight and the Revolutionary Communist Group (which publishes Fight racism, fight imperialism!) have told us something along the lines of: “We agree with these demands, but this is not a priority for us now.” After months of a strike wave whose problem has precisely been massive scabbing and a lack of class unity — both of which point to the need to organise a struggle against the current leaders — we wonder, what other more pressing priority do they have on their agenda?

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has responded in different ways. Their older leaders mostly rage against us. To give an example, when I proposed to some of them that we work together on the basis of these demands, I was denounced as a sectarian ultraleftist. Total nonsense. But other SWP members have argued that “they are already doing this” with their “rank and file committees” and therefore there is no need for such a united-front campaign.

Let’s see. If you search the SWP website, you’ll see that they push to build strike committees, one benefit being, according to them, that they help rally union members to picket lines. Alright. But the point is not merely to rally more people to picket lines. The point is to fight for a change in the trade unions, so that the three demands we have put forward become union policy. That is not the purpose of the SWP committees. Instead, they seek to build strikes inside the framework imposed by the existing bureaucracy. Their committees are limited to applying more pressure on union leaders, leaving intact their scab-herding policies and strategy.

Now they’ve published an article titled “Why our power is on the picket lines” (Socialist Worker, 22 April). After opposing our campaign, they finally realised this is an important issue. What do they argue? “It’s because good picket lines make strikes effective that the bosses and the Tories hate them and legislate against them — and why we have to make them as strong and militant as possible.” This is total hypocrisy because the main obstacle to building “strong and militant” picket lines is the trade union bureaucracy, about which the article does not say a word! The goal of our campaign was to build picket lines in explicit opposition to the bureaucracy’s whole strategy. To talk about building picket lines without attacking the main obstacle to doing that makes the SWP just lackeys of the bureaucrats.

What the SWP and the rest of the left refuse to do in the current context is to clearly say never cross a picket line and fight for the unions to act upon this principle.

Another, grosser type of refusal we’ve encountered came from Steve Hedley. Hedley is a former RMT bureaucrat, pushed aside when Mick Lynch and his clique took over. We met him on a UCU lecturers picket line, joined by a supporter of ours who is from another union and proudly carried a sign calling to never cross a picket line. When we launched our campaign, Hedley was happy to publicly endorse it. But suddenly he messaged us, saying he did not want to take part in it —or any other campaign of ours — because we oppose laws banning consensual sex based on an arbitrary age limit.

So Hedley did not want to fight in the workers movement to build picket lines because we oppose sexual repression and the policing of teenage sex. That is ridiculous and frankly disgusting. As we explained in our statement responding to him (see below), what Hedley did is a classic example of how the morality of the bourgeoisie on sexual questions is used against the struggles of the working class and oppressed for their emancipation.

After a month of campaigning we must conclude that so far, the leaders of trade unions and socialist groups have decided they do not want anything to do with our campaign and with seriously fighting for real picket lines. On the other hand, we have also got many positive reactions from individual workers, and even some low-level union officials, who understand the importance of our demands and the need for unions to fight for them.

Several members of NEU, Unite etc have expressed willingness to fight for our demands and have taken our leaflets, sometimes stacks of them, to distribute. A supporter of the Amazon workers brought one of our placards from London back home to Coventry, where the battle to organise a union is raging first and foremost on the picket line. As the strike wave is stagnating, we are meeting workers who are fed up with losing strategies. These are the advanced elements who will be key in the coming battles to rebuild union power in this country.

What has our campaign revealed?

We have been told many times that our demands would go against the anti-union laws and therefore cannot be fought for. That’s the argument always used by union leaders. You want to build real picket lines that stop scabs? “That’s against the law.” A solid strike? “Also against the law.” Solidarity actions? “Sorry, illegal.” “Have you tried writing to your MP?…”

The anti-union laws are indeed very draconian. But the fundamental problem is that the trade union leaders have completely accepted them. They have no intention of seriously challenging them or even testing their limits and exploiting their loopholes. In fact, they use these laws as a convenient excuse to do nothing. Moreover, multiple union leaders have imposed measures which even go further than what these laws demand to police their membership. For example, on UCU picket lines we’ve seen union officials preventing members from convincing workers not to cross, even though this is legal under the draconian laws!

Here’s the thing about anti-union laws. The power of the capitalists lies in their state: the courts, police, prisons and ultimately the armed forces. The arsenal of the working class is its collective force: picket lines, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts. So, yes, the logical thing for the capitalists to do is to make these illegal.

There is an old saying in the workers movement: the only illegal strike is one that loses. And that is true. At the end of the day, any real step forward for the workers movement will have to be taken in defiance of these laws, whose sole purpose is to keep the working class crushed. The laws will be repealed not by begging Labour Party MPs but by making them null! This requires organising a real confrontation between the working class and the capitalists running this country. And yes, that means running the risk that some union leader might be thrown in jail…for a solid strike that has shut down a whole industry and won.

Working-class fighters being thrown in jail has always been part of the price to pay to at least maintain some sort of balance between the workers and the ruling class. But in the past several decades, union leaders have taken beating after beating, on their knees, and will tell you that nothing else can be done because it’s the law. Well, we say that organising a trade union also used to be illegal, until it wasn’t.

To understand why trade union leaders refuse to lead a fight for these basic union principles, you must understand what sort of people they are. The current crop was trained in the last 30 years, a period of constant retreat and defeats for the working class. They live in the shadow of the defeat of the 1984-85 miners strike. They’ve built their entire careers on explicit rejection of the need to lead any sort of hard confrontation with the government or any sort of real struggle against scabs on picket lines. This is why they set up symbolic picket lines, which are toothless photo ops.

The current union leaders value their respectable credentials in the upper layers of the Labour Party much more highly than their reputation among working-class people. They are tied by a thousand threads to the ruling class, in their ambitions, ideologies and worldview. And financially too, since many of them make six-figure salaries. They have literally nothing to gain from shaking up the status quo. When they are forced to organise a strike, it is in reaction to anger from their membership. Even then they do it in the most half-hearted manner, hampering the struggle at every turn with the aim of selling out at the first opportunity.

All this explains their rejection of the methods of the class struggle and why strikes are being sold out left and right. And this is why no union leader will touch our campaign with a ten-foot pole. We call these people the trade union bureaucracy: a parasite that sits on top of the workers movement and must be removed if unions are to become tools for real struggle.

What about the myriad of socialist groups in this country that all refused to join our campaign? Why? The reason is not really that they disagree with these demands — although we know for a fact that many of them do cross picket lines and do lawyer for scabs. The real reason is that it is impossible to fight for these demands without entering into open struggle against the trade union leaders. That is the problem for all the other socialist groups. Since the beginning of the strike wave, they have been in an open bloc with those leaders, openly campaigning for them, lauding them, giving them a left cover and justifying their betrayals. To sign up for our campaign means breaking this bloc — which is also one of our aims. The campaign poses the need to fight for a different leadership of the working class, a leadership based on the principles of the class struggle.

Groups like the Communist Party (CPB), Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party etc have spent years cultivating good relations with the union bureaucrats who are disorganising the strikes, and sometimes are themselves union bureaucrats. The Communist Party has members on the RMT executive committee and all over the upper echelons of the union. When the RMT cancels strikes for the Queen, or more recently to make workers accept a below-inflation pay rise, who helps Mick Lynch sell this to the workers? The CPBers!

Go to the Islington branch of the NEU, the teachers union, to give a local example, and you will quickly realise that it is run in large part by leading SWP cadre. Are the schools in Islington shut on strike days? No. Scabbing is widespread and condoned by the union, just like elsewhere.

The Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal: one of their main fields of activity is to campaign for Sharon Graham, the leader of Unite. They run their members on her ticket. Graham talks left, but she is no different than any other bureaucrat, except that she supports NATO and British imperialism more openly than the pacifists. These groups might claim to be for “socialism”, but they’ve spent the last few months building the authority of the very leaders who are now selling out the strikes! They will not commit to fighting inside the unions to build real picket lines because that would transform them instantly into outcasts in the eyes of the bureaucrats they support.

For communist leadership!

There is another point our campaign has highlighted, and I’ll conclude on this. It is the dire state of the trade unions. Our campaign to build real picket lines really poses the need to rebuild the power of the unions, which have been dangerously hollowed out in recent decades. Engaging with workers and talking about our campaign showed even more clearly how the ABCs of trade union building are constantly violated and betrayed.

What is posed is to rebuild union power (see article, page 1). This task will face powerful obstacles: the bourgeoisie with its state, its newspapers, its mouthpieces and its army of strikebreakers. But it will also face tremendous enemies inside the workers movement: the Labourites who pretend to be “friends” of the workers but who are in fact agents of the capitalists; the trade union bureaucracy, which will combat to the death any threat to its hold on the unions; and the so-called “socialists” who lawyer for them.

Here is the fundamental point I want to make about our campaign. You do not need to be a communist to build picket lines and build strikes. But only communists can consistently fight to rebuild union power. Only the programme and leadership of communists can provide a consistent guide for the struggle and the necessary foresight and resoluteness for the working class to prevail in its battle against the capitalists. What distinguishes us from all other tendencies in the workers movement is that we seek to organise every fight, as small and minimal as it may be, as part of the general struggle to replace capitalist slavery with the rule of the working class. That is how workers will win.