The physical, abstract and affective picket line in the current UK higher education dispute

By Steven Watson

How many times have I said to colleagues in recent weeks, “I wish I was a miner in North Nottinghamshire in 1984”? I don’t know, many times perhaps. I happened to be working in my family’s retail furniture business in New Ollerton in North Nottinghamshire during the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strike in 1984/85. New Ollerton was built as a ‘pit’ village and at the time almost the entire working population worked in the local coal mines or in related work. The 1984/85 strike became a bitter dispute. North Nottinghamshire, with its smaller communities, was where Thatcher’s government chose to use all available powers, including the police and MI5, to try and break the strike (Milne, 2014). The government directly funded a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) in Nottinghamshire. UDM members, who had faced hardship as a result of the industrial action, voted to return to work. In a small community like New Ollerton, this catastrophically divided not just the community but also families. Although I was not so aware of the context and the politics at the time, I could see through our shop window the bitterness that ensued. But on top of the reprehensibly divisive action of Thatcher’s government, I reflect on that now with both anger and sadness, I recall the clear distinction between being on strike and being – and forgive me for the pejorative – a ‘scab’ (i.e. someone who crossed the picket line and went to work). The physical demarcation of the picket line was an essential barrier in marking that distinction. 

Now I have been involved in industrial action for almost two years in a quite different context I often think about what I saw and experienced in New Ollerton in 1984/5. There are many aspects of that working-class struggle that resonate with my experience of ‘industrial action’ in the seemingly contrasting context of contemporary University of Cambridge, but there are a few things that are quite different. And of course, I really don’t wish I was a miner back then, or ever for that matter. It is an unimaginably tough occupation; long hours underground, filthy, claustrophobic, exhausting and extremely dangerous. Moreover, I don’t wish to romanticise industrial labour, or the period of intense industrial conflict that almost defined my childhood, but what is clear is that navigating distinctions was much more straightforward bac then. The picket line was a clear demarcation between those on strike and the workplace and potentially those who crossed the picket line. The picket lines at the university in comparison are more permeable and represent a negotiated/ negotiable barrier.

In the current and recent disputes between the University and College Union (UCU) and employers’ representatives, Universities UK (UUK) over pensions (2018-2020), and Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) over pay, workload, equality and casualisation (2019-2020), this distinction is not so clear. I was the UCU representative at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education during the strike in 2018 and for the strike actions of 2019 and 2020 I was Vice President of Cambridge UCU. Understanding and accepting the way individuals make decisions about how and, even the extent, to which they withdraw their labour is one of the defining features of the recent action. It is not just the decision over how to withdraw labour, it begs questions individually and collectively about what we actually mean by ‘labour’ in higher education (or education and other public services more generally). The picket line takes on a new meaning. It retains the character of being a physical barrier, but it also becomes symbolic, it becomes internalised and abstracted as individuals negotiate their own demarcation lines. And that line becomes blurred too. 

I argue, therefore, the picket line as experienced by UCU members in Cambridge can be understood as a physical, abstract and affective phenomenon. In terms of making strike action effective, it is necessary to organise with this in mind. In order to understand this, I draw on Gramsci’s idea of ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’ to explicate the distinction between a physical picket line and our contemporary experience of, additionally, an abstracted and affective experience.

Figure 2: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education UCU Picket Line February 2018

A ‘picket line’ was originally used to describe the roped or fenced enclosure to contain horses. It was then appropriated into military strategy, as a defensive boundary manned by soldiers. In the US, in the late nineteenth century, the term was first used in industrial disputes and actions. The primary purpose of the picket line, as a physical barrier, was to promote support for the strike action. Secondary to this is the marking of a distinction between those withdrawing their labour and those who choose not to. With this tradition in mind, it not surprising that the picket line is characterised by its physicality, out in the open, shoulder-to-shoulder, braziers, music, different sights, smells and sounds; the picket line as a physical barrier and as a physical demarcation between the workplace and those taking strike action. 

I think it is reasonable to see the picket line historically as much as an affective and cognitive space as it is physical and material. The physical experience results in affective responses and related subjective emotions; anxiety, anger, euphoria, frustration, happiness and sadness, for example. We make sense of our physical experience at an emotional level, but we also seek to make sense of our experience and find some meaning cognitively and affectively, it is necessary to account for our experience. But the affective and emotional aspects come to the fore since strikers’ experience a sense of dilemma and contradiction for the reason that they are in conflict with their employer. Participating in strike action leads to personal conflict, that ought to go really without saying. Industrial action creates a sense of insecurity amongst those participating, not least in regard to individual financial well-being and sense of security but frequently, as well, the well-being of families and loved ones. Such dilemmas are very difficult if not impossible to rationalise in the sense that there is no enduring explanation for our feeling of underlying contradiction. Insecurity and precarity defy meaning, they are experiences that are unresolvable, they are simply an affective experience even if there is some reason why we find ourselves exposed to contradictory states.

The idea of solidarity goes back to Roman law but has been through multiple lineages and came into political parlance alongside ‘fraternity’ early in the nineteenth century (Bayertz, 1999). In L’homme revolté, Camus considers the experience of the absurd, the profound contradiction that human beings face in trying to resolve the meaningless and purposeless world of daily experience by finding meaning. This fundamentally contradictory experience leads to the need to revolt. And that revolt leads the individual to making connections with others with the realisation that we all experience the absurd. For Camus, solidarity is inherent in revolt (Bayertz, 1999, p. 19). The picket line is a site of revolt and can therefore be seen as a therapeutic space and a site of learning. individuals share their experiences and stories, this diminishes the isolating effect and associated negative emotional experiences. The collectivising of individual affective experience does not overcome personal angst, but collectivisation can help to turn negative emotions into something positive and hopeful. Individually, the effect of ongoing dilemma can result in anxiety and depression; individually it might not be possible to imagine a hopeful outcome. Collectively, this is overcome through creating shared ambitions and by generating a shared vision of success or even through collectively thinking about how success might be achieved. In old money, these things are called solidarity and organising, but it is worth revisiting the things that are fundamental to these principles.

Someone articulated something that reflected this on the Faculty of Education picket line recently; in terms of the sense of solidarity and inspiration that they found daily as they come to the picket line. Feelings that may otherwise have resulted in them sitting in the pub, feeling isolated and stripped of the security of their daily work routines. And as we speak across our internal contradictions and dilemmas, there is great opportunity for learning. As I say we can’t necessarily derive enduring meaning when we are torn in two or more directions, but we can collectively make sense of the conditions and contexts that result in personal alienation. This represents the educational potential of the picket line, where together we can analyse the context and use this to contribute to planning and organisation. Going back to the miners’ strike, the erstwhile and frequently maligned leader of the NUM, Arthur Scargill, suggests that workers can learn more in thirty minutes of struggle than they can in 10 years at university. This remains true, in my view, when picketing in the current round of strike action in higher education. 

Where I began this essay was with a reflection on the relatively straightforward demarcation of the picket line for the striking miners in 1984/85. The answer to Pete Seeger’s question ‘which side are you on?’ was quite easy. You were either for or against the strike action by the action of withdrawing your labour or not. The picket line was a clear physical distinction in this. However, in many contemporary public services, the notion of withdrawing one’s labour is much less straightforward. From the perspective of my roles in UCU strike action this has become plainly obvious. It is even more obvious in an education setting, with many former teachers and as well as academics who feel deeply committed to the care of their students and who will put them ahead of their own long-term financial considerations. As researchers, we often do what we do because it is important to us and not primarily because it benefits the university. For each of us, when we consider the question of withdrawing our labour, we are naturally inclined to ask: from whom are we withdrawing our labour? The question of our contractual obligations and the nature of disruption is not answered easily and must take into account individual perspectives, contexts and values. Then we must think about these decisions compounded with the fundamental dilemma that taking strike action presents to each individual. The result is the potential for high levels of anxiety as each individual negotiates the conceptual picket line. I fear I might be in danger of running into the territory of my excellent colleague Jana Bacevic’s Picket line of the mind, which she was explaining to me on the picket line. I don’t want to do that, but I want to highlight how the picket line as traditionally experienced as a homogenous demarcation between work and non-work, becomes heterogenous and abstract. I mean homogenous in the sense that there is a similarity in the type of work as might be experienced in industrial labour, where the notion of ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ become realisable. In the public services, like higher education, the nature of the work, the vocation, and the sense of commitment to others relinquishes that homogeneity. 

In the Faculty of Education we have diverged, to some degree, from the Cambridge branch of the UCU and even from the national position in the way in which we openly accept and support colleagues’ individual decisions about the way and the extent to which they withdraw (or not) their labour and the way in which they support the current action. As a result of this I believe we have been successful in winning the support of colleagues and students. The centre of gravity in terms of support across all members of the Faculty is with rather than against the strike action in our Faculty. 

To the possible dismay of Jana, I would like to draw on Antonio Gramsci to explain how this works. Gramsci’s notions of ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’. War of manoeuvre is a counter hegemonic strategy where the sheer weight of numbers can be deployed to revolutionise society. Gramsci considered the Bolshevik revolution to be a war of manoeuvre. The miners’ strike of 1984/85 was a war of manoeuvre that failed as a result of the combination of covert operations by the state as well as a result of the backdrop of liberal democracy in civil society. Gramsci believed that a war of manoeuvre would not be successful within liberal democracies since the essence of liberal democracy becomes deeply embedded within civil society. Manoeuvre is insufficient to displace existing hegemony where a ‘war of position’ can. A war of position is a counter hegemonic strategy that uses the principles of liberal democracy within civil society against itself by building a constituency through persuasion, argument, dialogue and culture for example. The UCU’s current action in Cambridge and perhaps in other institutions should be seen as a war of position. This involves combining collective action while respecting and valuing individual agency. We are creating disruption but making provision for students and doing research on our terms and not in the terms of the University bureaucracy.

The picket line at the Faculty of Education retains the traditional character of the fortified barrier, perhaps more symbolically so than in the traditions of past strike action. It does also become a physical space for organising, for experiencing solidarity and for education. And as the abstract conceptual picket line is permeable and negotiable the picket line also presents itself as discursive space in which individuals can deliberate on their individual choices. By considering the picket line in these terms union members can approach their action with a strategy of position rather than manoeuvre in Gramscian terms. 


Bayertz, K. (Ed.). (1999). Solidarity. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Milne, S. (2014). The enemy within: The secret war against the miners (Fourth Edition). Verso.