Never Cross A Digital Picket Line

A picket line is where a group of workers gather outside a workplace during a strike, to raise awareness about the strike action and to try and persuade others to join them. Not crossing a picket line is an act of solidarity to those workers who are on strike for better workplace rights.

I write this during the 2019 UCU strikes over pensions, equality, workload and pay, in which physical picket lines have been formed at universities across the UK. However a recurring theme throughout these strikes has been the ‘digital picket line’. Here I try to answer some basic questions about what this is, and why, in my opinion, you shouldn’t cross it.

  1. What is a digital picket line?
    A digital picket line is an online and electronic boycott of institutions whose workers are on strike. A large proportion of university work is carried out via email and the internet, and social media engagement is a major part of academia. When we strike, we stop working and stop being paid. A digital picket line is formed, and all of this work and publicity stops.
  2. Why shouldn’t I cross a digital picket line?
    Strike action works best when it has maximum impact. If you’re on strike, crossing the digital picket line undermines and ultimately prolongs the action. You are also doing unpaid labour! Strike action can be an opportunity to get much needed rest, to spend time with family and friends, or to do other, fulfilling things that aren’t work.
    If you are not a union member, not crossing a digital picket line can also be a show of respect to striking workers, who may be your colleagues, friends or family. Speaking from personal experience, seeing others cross digital picket lines can make striking workers feel isolated and let down.
  3. I’m on strike. How do I avoid crossing a digital picket line?
    If you’re on strike, your action will be most effective if you avoid doing any work whatsoever. For many in HE the line between work and home is (often unhealthily) blurred. For me, not crossing a digital picket line includes avoiding the following:
    - Answering work emails
    - Planning lectures/teaching
    - Electronic admin/marking
    - Webinars
    - Writing papers
    - Writing grant applications
    - Publicising your research/papers/grant applications (includes Twitter!)
    - Publicising work events
    - Publicising jobs/studentships
    - Any other electronic work whatsoever
  4. I’m a university worker not on strike. How does a digital picket line apply to me?
    If you support the strike and are eligible to be a union member, the best way that you can show support is by joining the union. However not everybody can do this, and there are a number of other ways in which you could help. These will depend on the nature of your work and your contract, but could include:
    - Not publicising your research/work on strike days
    - Not covering electronic work for striking staff
    - Not emailing striking staff members with work requests
    - Supporting striking workers on social media
    - Emailing management asking them to resolve the dispute
  5. I’m not a university worker/union member. How can I show support?
    Just as we can show solidarity by not crossing physical picket lines, we can do this digitally. Depending on your position, you may be able to to any number of the above actions to help maintain a digital picket line. The key is understanding that a strike is a dispute between workers and their employers, and anything you can do to support the former will be a huge help. Online boycotts of the likes of Uber and Amazon during worker strikes have generated huge media attention and the potential to massively improve workplace conditions. The same is true of universities.

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