By Michelle Gunderson.

A picket line is sacred ground. As a labor organizer and teacher unionist, I do not say this lightly. Workers have fought and died on picket lines fighting for work conditions that respect the inherent dignity of human life. A picket line is hallowed ground sanctified by sacrifice.

I am writing this two days after the Chicago Teachers Union historic one day strike – a strike that on every measure was a success. There were picket lines all over the city in the morning, during the middle of the day there were 30 different actions held (rallies at universities, marches to political offices, and a protest at our county prison), and there was a mass rally downtown in the evening. Yet, convincing others of the importance of our picket lines was some of the hardest organizing I have done. I am hoping that my analysis of this work helps other labor organizers, as well as educators who are re-invigorating strikes as a part of labor resistance.

I am fortunate to have been raised in a union home. My mom is a teacher and was her building’s delegate during the strikes of the 1970’s. I call her often for advice and as a sounding board. When I told her that I was having trouble building picket line support, she said, “A strike is not a walk in the park.”

That seems like a simplistic statement, but many teachers told me that they did not understand why a picket line was necessary when we had planned a rally downtown.

We have pickets because we are not walking in the park. They are a vital ingredient to a work stoppage – a withdrawal of our labor. It is the chief difference between a protest and a strike.

There are many reasons why organizing pickets are difficult in these times. Very few people are being taught labor history in our schools. They have no idea what was sacrificed for the everyday job practices that we take for granted today. In addition, the prevalence of labor unions has been on a steady decline over the last 30 years. Many of our younger teachers no longer come from union households where the principles of solidarity are a way of life. Also, we have had incredible teacher turnover in our Chicago schools, and a large percentage of our educators did not experience our strike in 2012.

During our one day strike educators in Chicago were asked to show up at their schools at 6:30 a.m. and to hold a picket line until 9:00. There was confusion as to what these picket lines were supposed to accomplish. The schools had been closed, so there was no job to report to. There were, however, a few instances of people clocking into work without students present to teach.

People were asking, “If there are no workers to keep out of the buildings, why do we need to picket?” In my mind, the problem here lies with establishing a generally accepted definition of a picket line and an understanding of its purposes.

First of all, picket lines are about much more than keeping others from going into work. We often see picket lines portrayed in movies as places where people’s heads get bashed in or tires get slashed. With these images in their minds, it is very hard to help people without union experience to overcome their fear and trepidations about walking a picket line.

During the 2012 strike in Chicago we had time to organize practice pickets so that educators could have a preview of how picket would be conducted, strike captains could troubleshoot their call sheets, and everyone could rehearse what might feel like a foreign and uncomfortable experience. These practice pickets helped lay aside misconceptions as well. Our April 1 strike did not have a long planned lead up, and we were missing this essential step of practicing before going out on strike.

In addition, we did not have the time needed to have several union meetings and months of discussions in our buildings. There was also considerable confusion and disagreement about a one day strike. It takes many hours of organizing, coupled with a clear message, to intellectually and emotionally prepare a workforce to form a picket.

Chicago teacher activist, Margo Murray, who held a successful picket at her school on April first said that one new teacher remarked, “Wow, I didn’t know this many people worked in our building.”

Kim Goldbaum, an elementary school vice president for the Chicago Teachers Union, has a very eloquent definition of a picket line:

“A picket line shows the embodiment of the people in that building. The world gets to see the workers protecting what is theirs. They are withholding their labor until somebody deals with their working lives. When you bust a picket line you bust our lives right open.”

I do not have any interviews for this piece from educators who crossed the picket. After all of the citywide and regional meetings, and all of the conversations I had with others, I do not know anyone personally who crossed a picket line. The school where I teach was rock solid – 100% of the educators were present or accounted for.

In my mind, a picket line is one last chance to speak with fellow workers and encourage them to join. It is the line that is drawn, and there are no neutrals. Crossing a picket line means you are on the other side.

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 29 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.

Photo by Ervin Lopez, used with permission.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. gfbrandenburg    

    During the Civil War, a picket line was a group of soldiers who were sent out as sentries around the main force to protect the rest of the soldiers from being attacked unawares. Without a picket line giving notice and warning, the enemy could approach and wipe out a unit that was not prepared to fight back.
    During a management-labor conflict such as a strike, it’s obviously different, but we are in fact engaged in a class war of the 99% against the 0.01% and their allies. Without a moving picket line showing that the union exists and is taking action, people whose sympathy might waver would feel much more emboldened to be scabs.
    There are times when actual combat might be necessary on a picket line, but that very much depends on the circumstances and prior history.

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