Walking the picket line

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On May 15th, 80 warehouse workers at seven Murphy Warehouse locations across the Twin Cities went on strike. Murphy Warehouse Company, a Minneapolis-based warehousing and logistics company, has a number of employees organized with Teamsters Local 120. On Friday the 17th, at one of the picket sites, I found a half dozen people holding the main driveway of Murphy Warehouse. A few hundred feet away, private anti-union security sat in their car, observing the scene.

I took a sign and walked with the workers. One worked at this site, others were supporters from other companies or Teamster organizers. I struck up conversation with the worker at the site and the issues that mattered to him that had resulted in the rejection of their contract and the resulting strike. He told me that despite health costs for the employer going down, Murphy was demanding that employee’s out-of-pocket cost be tripled. For years the workers came to the table with few demands – many of them believed in the ‘family’ atmosphere the bosses spoke about. Yet when the lawyers and consultants said there was profit to be gained by moving costs to the employees, those years of conciliatory bargaining meant nothing.

Strikes are a transformative experience for many of the workers who participate. Walking out of the workplace and withholding one’s labor can be a revelation in the power held by working people, but it can also be difficult, painful, and traumatic to the people, families, and communities impacted. This is effect is intensified the longer the strike goes on. The strike also lays bare the class relations between workers and the owner, as the workers witness the extent to which bosses will go to oppose them – private security, scabs, and lawyers.

I told the folks at the picket line I was from DSA and that I’d try to get more people out to walk the picket line with them. I came through on that promise the next day when nearly 20 comrades came out after our general meeting. When we arrived, there was only one worker pacing the driveway. Soon, we had a rowdy group of socialists marching and getting drivers to honk in solidarity as they passed.

Many of us have grown up in a time of declining union militancy, so as we reverse that trend I’d like to suggest a few tips for your first visit to a picket line:

  1. Park off site. The picket line is both a symbolic line and a legal one! It’s best not to have any property on-site, that includes a car if you need to drive to the location. You may also want to identify a nearby gas station where you can use a bathroom if the picket isn’t providing one.
  2. Ask how you can help. The workers are running the show and you’re there to demonstrate your support. Often they want you to help them march or stand in a specific spot, but sometimes they need someone to hand out flyers or run an errand like getting water or snacks for workers.
  3. Talk with the workers. This is a great chance to hear from other people about the effect capitalism is having on their lives and what they are doing about it. Why did they go on strike? How did it go down? What do they want to see changed? Let them know who you are, what organization (like DSA!) you’re with, and why you came out, but a good organizing conversation should have them talking more than you.
  4. Solidarity isn’t a transaction. If a worker is on strike, then the boss is doing the radicalizing already. This is a difficult time for most of the workers and you’re there to help. It’s a time they need allies, not a person telling them what they should think politically or trying to sell them a magazine. Let them know why you support them and feel free to share your own story. If you have a great conversation, exchange phone numbers so you can follow up later, but it’s not the time to make an ask of them.
  5. Bring your friends and spread the word. It’s a powerful experience to see workers standing up to the boss and to be able to lend them a hand. It’s a good chance not only to bring DSA members out, but also folks who you want to bring into DSA in the long run. Shoot them a text and make the ask for them to come out and join. Sharing your experience on social media and with your friends and family helps normalize workplace action and might even spark some reflection on their own workplace!

On May 24th, a new contract was ratified and the 80 workers returned to their jobs with a number of gains won through their action. This fight may be over, but the class war has new battles to wage every day and working people have yet to win one they don’t show up for. Workers struggles are at the center of our broader struggle against capitalism, and it is incumbent on us to help those who put their livelihood on the line fighting for better conditions for themselves and the working class as a whole.

Ian R.

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