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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 January 2008, 11:03 GMT
Why do US pickets walk in circles?
Writers on strike


WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Striking US screenwriters are threatening to picket the Oscars ceremony. If they do, one thing's for sure - they'll be walking in orderly circles. Why do they do that?

The enduring image of a British picket line is one of men in donkey jackets huddled around a fire on a rusty brazier.

But pictures from the writers' strike in the US show a very different practice - the picketers are on the move, often walking round in circles while holding their placards.

The tradition is a source of amusement for one of the striking writers, Eric Stangel.

THE ANSWER
They walk to avoid breaking state laws governing the obstruction of buildings
"I want to know who the person is who gets to decide what direction we walk in," he says in a blog written by writers from The Late Show with David Letterman. "There have been a couple of days where I think we've been going the wrong way."

It's not a ritual peculiar to screenwriters - all US pickets walk in circles. There's a cultural reason for the moving picket line, says Sherry Goldman, spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America.

"They walk back and forth because they are picketing a company so they walk up and down in front of the entrance," she says. "It's not necessarily a circle, sometimes it could be an oval or just walking up, turning round and coming back."

Strike by Texaco drivers in 1979
UK picket lines are less mobile
In California especially - home to Hollywood and thus many striking screenwriters - entrances to company premises can be quite wide, she adds, so people have to cover quite large distances.

There is also a legal dimension, says Pete Hoefer, who teaches at the National Labor College in Maryland. And it's about complying with laws existing at state level that prohibit blocking entry and exit to buildings.

Donald Oliver, a partner in the law firm of Blitman & King, which represents labour organisations in New York state, picks up the theme.

"I believe that the reason that picketers walk either in a circle or patrol back and forth is so that they can permissibly walk in front of a gate or entrance of a picketed establishment without blocking or impeding ingress or egress, which is prohibited by law."

Picket or parade?

But there is also a practical reason, which is that picketers can more effectively convey their message while on the move, Mr Oliver adds, rather than standing to one side next to a brazier (which, even in January, would be a little excessive in Los Angeles). And being on the move makes crossing the picket line all the harder.

Dave Keefe, a lecturer in US law, says walking in circles could be more a matter of style or expedience than law.

"It appears that picketers' claims of 'passage' were swept aside early on in favour of judicial attempts to strike a balance between the right of free speech and expression, protected by the first amendment, on the one hand, versus the rights of those affected by protests on the other."

So picketing is restricted outside places such as abortion clinics and polling booths.

There could also be the consideration that walking in a straight line constitutes a parade, says Professor Peter Ling of the School of American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

And that requires a permit in many parts of the US.


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