On crossing picket lines: Taking sides isn’t a binary choice

I saw a tweet the other day where the person argued that for a worker to cross a picket line meant that they had taken sides in the dispute and that they could not ignore the point that all decisions have consequences.

Well, yes, in a sense.  Of course it is true that when we take any action, there are consequences, all decisions and actions are therefore moral decisions.  I am guessing that he was referring to a specific dispute but cannot be sure.  If so, then I would also add that withdrawal of labour through strike action, providing it is peaceful and after a clear, legitimate ballot is a reasonable right for workers and in some cases may be the only option that workers have open to them having exhausted all other options. There are of course consequences to that too. A worker who has withdrawn labour cannot expect to be paid at that time and their employer is not under compulsion to give in to their demands, especially if they are able to see other options. 

They also do not identify the sides that are being chosen but I would presume the implication that the one crossing the picket line is seen to be choosing to side with the employer against the employees.  However, that’s clearly a problematic assumption.  There are a number of types of people who are affected by industrial action including:

  • The ultimate employers
  • The specific local management
  • Customers/clients
  • End beneficiaries

The immediate end user/beneficiary may not be the same as the client and the local management may not be the same as the employers/owners.  In the latter case, it is possible that the dispute is with one but not the other.   A decision not to strike may indicate loyalty and concern for any one of those.  The obvious example here would be in the case of nurses deciding g to strike.  If a nurse chooses to cross the picket line, then this does not mean that they agree with the government’s pay offer. They may have deep concerns about how it will affect their ability to make ends meet and they may have great concern for other colleagues.  However, they may also have be concerned about the care of their patients, especially when alert to particularly vulnerable people in their care. 

Furthermore, ultimately a person who is going on strike, whilst aligning collectively with others is doing so because they are looking out for their own needs and that of their family.  In terms of pay and employment conditions.  So, a worker may have to make a difficult decision to cross a picket line in order to make ends meet.  It is important that those picketing and seeking to persuade their colleague not to break the strike are alert to those consequences too and how those in need will be cared for.  The strike breaker may also have simply realised that the strike is doing more harm than good, that it will not meet its objectives and may even result in the loss of the business and significant unemployment. Or they may believe that the union has become motivated by other agendas beyond the specific labour needs of its members. If a politicised union for example sees industrial action as a means to topple governments, them the member may disagree with that agenda as anti-democratic, even if they think that there is the need for a change of government.

There will be many occasions in life beyond these examples where we have to make decisions and some people will want to paint us as taking sides. In fact, there will often be times when we are confused because we never considered that there were sides to take. This will especially be the case when people attempt to frame disagreement in church about sides and factions.  This should not discourage us from making what we believe to be the right decision.  Furthermore, we should beware the temptation to accuse others of taking a side that they have not.

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