The Fines don’t cross picket lines


In a 1994 episode of the TV show “The Nanny,” Fran Fine, played by actor Fran Drescher, is invited by her boss Maxwell Sheffield to attend the opening of a Broadway show he produced. When she sees picketing busboys outside the entrance, Fran tells Sheffield she cannot attend the show, citing her mother’s warning that you should “never, ever, ever cross a picket line.”

“The Fines don’t cross picket lines,” she explains. “It’s against our religion.” 

The Fine family’s pledge to “never ever, ever cross a picket line” was widely shared by workers and the public for much of our history. For some, the picket line was akin to an “11th Commandment.” As the actor Carroll O’Connor (a.k.a. “Archie Bunker”) once explained in refusing to cross a picket line outside the set of the popular 1970s TV show “All in the Family,” “I could no more go into a building and work with scabs than I could play handball in church.” Honoring a picket line represented an act of faith, an instinctual recognition that workers waving signs outside their place of employment had legitimate grievances that deserved public support.

I don’t mean to suggest that honoring picket lines is a universal sentiment. Strikes and picket lines faded as a visible part of public life after the defeat of the air traffic controllers following their walkout in 1981.  Fewer people knew what a picket line signified or grasped its larger meaning. Indeed, I have seen more than my share of people who cross picket lines due to ignorance, indifference, or outright disdain. However, I can attest to the special thrill of watching people honor a picket line, a feeling I first experienced 50 years ago this summer as a volunteer with the United Farm Workers. Seeing these acts of solidarity lifted my spirit. They also gave store managers fits by hitting them in their most vulnerable spot:  lost cash register receipts!

Besides pressuring bosses, picket lines serve other important functions. In taking over public space, they give workers a stage to tell their stories to a wider world. On the best picket lines, workers use this stage to dramatize their struggles through songs, chants, hand-written signs, and visual imagery that employs humor as a powerful communications tool (think “Scabby the Rat”).  The sharing of food on a picket line creates a form of kinship, especially when fellow picketers provide home-made dishes that nourish both body and spirit. For many participants, the picket line can be a life-changing experience.  People find new strengths, discover their potential for leadership, develop enduring friendships, and create memories of sacrifice, cooperation, and solidarity that provide inspiration for future struggles. By building a community that reflects the union movement’s best values, the picket line projects a vision of a better world and invites the public to support that possibility. 

In a case of life imitating art, Fran Drescher is now the president of SAG-AFTRA and is spending lots of time on picket lines these days with other striking actors. Drescher and her fellow strikers have joined what musician Billy Bragg calls the “voices down the ages” who would “never, ever, ever cross a picket line.” And like the fictional Fine family, they are helping restore the picket line to its honored status as a tool for worker empowerment and a proud emblem of social solidarity.



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