Union FAQs: Strike! Picket! Banner!

By Bill
Published October 2021

I was a freshman trying to get back to college after Christmas, heading to the Trailways Bus counter in Port Authority, NYC, when a man wearing a sandwich board reading ATU on Strike / Trailways Bus Unfair! waved me off saying, “you don’t want to go in there; the drivers are on strike.” I replied, “On strike, over what?” “The drivers ain’t getting a fair wage and enough break time between shifts. Do you want a tired, underpaid driver on your bus?” he said. 

My first experience with a labor action was that strike. Since then I’ve taken part in picketing many times but never a strike picket. I’ve also taken part in banner campaigns, another type of labor action.

Strikes, pickets, and bannering – three similar but separate labor actions, all with the same goal. Each action has its own uses and limitations. Here I briefly explain the differences, similarities, and clear up confusion about these important labor actions.

From least disruptive to most, bannering is the first step of a labor action. Picketing is the middle child, more active and attention-getting. Striking is the most drastic labor action, a no-other-option, last-ditch effort.

What is bannering?
Bannering is a non-violent, non-confrontational action drawing public attention to the actions of an employer. There is no walking about, no chanting of slogans. A bannering campaign uses workers as human signposts, standing still in a public sidewalk or other space.

Typically, there are some handouts to offer to people with questions but verbal interaction is kept to a minimum. Using printed, vetted materials will prevent any possible mis-representation of the issue or misunderstanding of what was said or heard. Two workers stand and hold a banner proclaiming that “XYZ” employer is “unfair,” their behavior is “shameful,” or similar language. Importantly, bannering is not a request to stop delivery or withhold services; bannering is strictly informational. 

A banner campaign can be successful with limited human resources. Effective bannering can pinpoint time slots for maximum exposure while only using two people per site.

Bannering seems simple at first glance but the logistics of a campaign, which may last for weeks of 4-12 hours each day can be taxing to union resources. Getting volunteers to stand in for more than a 4 hour shift can be a problem. A “simple” campaign of 2 hours, twice a day at AM and PM rush hour, Mon-Fri, requires close to 20 people for each site of action.

Electronic bannering has been used with success but must be concise and articulate. The message gets the public’s attention, fosters conversation, and may be intimidating enough for the employer to resume talks. Tweets are an excellent way to disseminate bullet point messaging to hundreds if not thousands of people quickly. The same 20 people used above in traditional bannering can get the message out over and over again, rain or shine, with very little effort, without leaving their home or office. An example of the effectiveness of electronic bannering happened with the Palace Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota back in 2016. Then-Mayor Chris Coleman was making a run for Governor. After a few days of tweeting questions such as “.@MayorColeman why should labor support your bid for Governor when you don’t support Labor at the @PalaceTheatre?” the mayor’s office called, asked what the problem was, and IATSE Local 13 had a meeting scheduled with Palace management that very day.

Now let’s talk about pickets. All pickets are simply organized protests. Again, the aim is to bring public attention to working conditions with a particular employer. There are two types of pickets, Informational and Strike, but they come in a myriad of styles. Depending on the targeted employer, the support and/or perception of the community, and the size of the employee group, different tactics are used for best effect.

Informational pickets are used to show the public the hidden side of an employer, the problems with a particular negotiation, or safety concerns with an employer or venue. Informational pickets are active, folks walking along a proscribed route on public ground near an employer’s facility.

Informational pickets try not to be confrontational; the aim is to inform or educate the public, to sway them toward your point of view. Instead of arguing, they attempt to convince, cajole, coax, persuade, or pique someone’s interest.

To accomplish their goal, picketers have to attract attention in a positive manner. Here’s where songs, chants, and “call and response” phrases come in.

It helps to have a catchphrase that identifies your cause and relates to the public. Some examples are: Justice for Janitors (SEIU), We are the Met (IATSE), and One Job Should Be Enough (UNITE HERE).

As if they’re a banner campaign on steroids, pickets need large numbers of people to be effective. Two people walking holding signs are odd, three to five are a curious group, twenty to thirty make people stop and stare. Fifty picketers cause traffic to slow down. ”What are those folks doing?” “What are they shouting about?” “Let’s go see…”

Strike pickets are the other kind of picket. Intentionally confrontational, it’s an impassioned, heart on your sleeve, no other alternative, desperate effort. Look to recent history in Saint Paul. In January 2021, Teamsters Local 120 staged a one day walkout to show Marathon Petroleum they were not going to tolerate the unsafe conditions at their south Saint Paul facility, citing several unfair labor practices

The next day, Marathon locked out the employees, idling 200 workers. A lockout is an employer tactic similar to a strike. The employer locks the doors on the current employees and gets replacement workers. From January 21 to July 1, 2021, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Local 120 Teamsters walked a picket line protesting the lockout at the south Saint Paul refinery. The actions included a boycott of all Speedway and Marathon gas stations and continued until Marathon and the union came to agreement.

The economic fallout from a strike, successful or not, can go on for years. Both workers making up for lost wages and benefits and employers recouping losses in production are a long, often agonizing process. That’s why a strike is the last option for both parties. Neither employer or employee are unscathed regardless of the outcome of a strike.

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