Holding the Line: Notes from Walking the Picket Line with the Burgerville Workers Union

Still from Hancock's and Siegel's The Founder (2016)
Still from Hancock’s and Siegel’s The Founder (2016)



2020.7.30-2021.5.3. Picketing is like walking meditation. “Picketing” refers to the event when workers and their allies demonstrate at a workplace, usually holding signs, chanting, and blocking off the entrances. As has been explained to me by organizers and as I’ve explained to coworkers, picketing was developed as a tactic to prevent scabs from working during a strike. Like a strike, a picket is intended to disrupt the production process, thus causing economic damage and creating material leverage in the struggle against the boss.

Due to local statutes in labor law,[1] picketers in the USA are not allowed to stand still at the entrances of their workplaces. What we have to do in order to avoid legal reprimand is walk. So, for the duration of a picket, we repeatedly walk in circles in front of a shop’s entrances as we chant and face off against cars aggressively trying to break our line so they can get a hamburger at the drive-thru.

Our pickets last for hours at a time (in some cases for whole days), which lends the pickets a meditative feeling. Walking in circles can begin to feel like walking in circles, walking in place, circling the drain. Other times it feels like the march of a people’s army ready to overthrow its rulers.

Sometimes, the flow of a picket is interrupted by a car attempting to buy a hamburger at the drive-thru. When this happens, usually the chant leader will abruptly stop whatever they’re saying or chanting to begin leading with the lines: Power to the workers! / Never to the boss! / A picket line means / DO NOT CROSS! The chant operates like the declaration from Dora in Dora the Explorer towards the villainous fox Swiper: Swiper no swiping! Like Dora, we yell our DO NOT CROSS! repeatedly until we get what we want. Chanting is not all we do in these situations, however. When pushing away a strikebreaking car, picketers will tighten their walking formation to make it harder for a car to break through. Some picketers will slow down their walking, getting as close to standing still as legally permissible, doing their best to run down the driver’s patience. Certain designated picketers will run up to the car with flyers, ask them to roll down their windows, and explain to them why they should turn their car around and eat somewhere else.

This state of emergency is maintained until one of two things happens: either the car turns around to leave, or the situation becomes dangerous. When the former happens, the picketers cheer as they continue their regular walking formation. When the second happens—when a driver aggressively refuses to turn around, or when they threaten to run picketers over—it is up to the picket captains to decide whether or not to break the line and let the car through. At our pickets, which attract a militant crowd, the decision to open the line is often unpopular, and some picketers may stubbornly attempt to keep the line going anyway. Many picketers will then start yelling, repeating the command of the picket captain: OPEN UP! OPEN UP! Nobody is happy when a car passes through the line, but it is widely understood that we need to pick our battles. Before every picket, the picket organizers will explain to the assembled picketers our roles, and how hard or soft the picket will be. The harder a picket line is, the tighter we keep the line, and the harder we fight to prevent cars from breaking the line. A softer picket is one through which we more readily allow cars to pass. The determination of picket hardness is often made based on the size of the crowd; the larger the crowd, the harder the picket. Given the interruptions of cars trying to break the line, the walking cycle of the picket becomes an event wracked with anticipation. We do not know in advance whether a car will honk its horn in solidarity or try to run us over. Our focus must remain on chanting and on keeping the line tight, so that we will be ready to respond to scabbing while communicating our message to everyone who passes by.

We become, through the walking picket, collectively single-minded in our twin pursuits of economic damage and revolutionary education. The picket’s dialectic of monotony and crisis, extended over a long period of time, can produce in its participants a certain type of delirious energy. The repetition of a chant operates in this way much like a mantra. You don’t need the boss! / The boss needs you! or Same struggle! / Same fight! / Workers of the world unite!, repeated what feels like over a hundred times, becomes a collective meditation in the open air of the picket. Everyone who bears witness to the picket, including the picketers themselves as well as passers-by, workers, bosses—everyone is forced to hear these words and to consider the meaning of the whole situation…



2020.8.30-2021.4.13. I hate cars because I walk the picket line. On the line I am face-to-face with cars that threaten to run us over in pursuit of a six-dollar cheeseburger. Yesterday Nazis came to town. It seems like one of them got shot. The fascists were running people over, shooting and macing them from the beds of trucks, waving huge Trump and USA flags. The USA is a grim parody of itself. It should come as no surprise that running people over would come naturally to a large portion of this country’s population. At the core of the USA is a worship of the automobile, made manifest as a lifestyle in the machinery of the fast-food industry.

In The Founder (2016, dir. John Lee Hancock), we get a biopic of Ray Kroc (portrayed by Michael Keaton), the businessman who expanded McDonald’s throughout the entire USA and then the world. The film’s tone is challenging to parse. At times the film takes on the tone of a hagiography, portraying Kroc as an all-American entrepreneur, an innovator and an inventor. Throughout the film, however, it is also often demonstrated that Kroc is a huckster and a charlatan. He does not invent McDonald’s “Speedee System,” nor found the company, yet he claims to have done both as he maneuvers to usurp control from the founding McDonald brothers. (portrayed by Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch) Kroc is a salesman, a speechifier, and his speeches always carry the same vague theme: America. With little elaboration or justification, he presents the McDonald’s brand to potential franchisees—middle-class families looking for an investment—as an emblem of patriotism, synonymous with the flag and US-American values. The evidence is not verbal, it is visual. Elsewhere in the movie, when he first witnesses a McDonald’s store, we are treated to a slow pan across a parking lot full of happy white families eating hamburgers. This image provides the foundation for a world order organized around cars, beef, gender normativity, and whiteness.

The lacuna at the center of this world image is the fast-food worker. Kroc pitches the McDonald’s Speedee System to investors as a “fully-automated” system for making and selling hamburgers. Inside of this meatmachine, however, human workers made of flesh and blood toil for low pay with erratic schedules. In 2013, it was reported that the average age of a fast-food worker was 29The fast-food capitalist prefers to mystify the situation with an image of the fast-food worker as a young teenager. Kroc, in a reversal of his disdain for the “riff-raff” of the rock-and-roll youth that he displays early in the movie, later extols the values of teenagers as fast-food workers: they are energetic, they are ambitious, they are hardworking. Today, McDonald’s advertises employment to potential workers with the slogan “Committed to being America’s best first job.” We see that the image of the teenage fast-food worker is essential to the functioning of the fast-food industry as not just a superfast hamburger assembly line, but as a spectacle of youthful vigor and obedience. The capitalist uses the image of the fast-food worker as a teenager to exploit the worker with a smile. Factory work becomes re-branded as an entrepreneurial opportunity for young people, or as a way to keep teens out of trouble. The consequence is low wages, a machine of social control, and a relationship of fetishism and disdain towards the people who work at these restaurants.

Often the people who try to run us over will tell us that fast-food workers do not deserve a living wage, because fast-food is meant to be a first job for teenagers. They yell this notion out of their car windows, spraying spittle everywhere as they ram their way towards the drive-thru menu. When the truth of fast-food labor is brought to light by a crowd of marching picketers, fantasy becomes threat. Kroc’s genteel utopia of white families frolicking in a parking lot shades over into a homicidal anti-communism. The depravity of the driver is the depravity of the meatmachine. From one angle, this meatmachine is, to use the word repeated by Kroc in his pitches to investors, the “fully-automated” heart of US-American paradise. From a different angle, the meatmachine is a complex of speed, extraction, and violence that flattens the worker into a continuum of meat and money. They are the same machine.



2021.4.13. The fast-food kitchen and the picket line can both be understood in terms of cybernetic systems. Norbert Wiener, a founding theorist of the military science of cybernetics[3], used the term “cybernetics” to designate “the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal,”[4] Important to cybernetics is the concept of homeostasis, borrowed from biology, which refers to “the ability of living organisms to maintain steady states when they are buffeted by fickle environments”[5], through reflexive feedback loops carried out by internal regulatory systems interfacing with external sources of information. By drawing a conceptual equivalency between humans, animals, and machines, cybernetics could be used to transport this concept of homeostasis beyond the realm of biology. Practitioners in the sciences and other disciplines could then use cybernetic theory to analyze and design systems that regulated themselves using feedback, similar to how an organism would maintain homeostasis through the interfacing of external stimuli with internal regulatory systems.

In the example of the kitchen at my Burgerville, we are presented with a system whose state of homeostasis is a certain minimum of revenue. This state of homeostasis depends on the bidirectional flow of various forms of information and matter. Customers line up in their cars at the drive-thru. These customers speak into a communication device, providing information to the drive-thru worker in the form of a food order. The worker receives this message through a wireless headset, as do the cooks. The cooks begin cooking as the order-taker types the customer’s message onto a touchscreen attached to a cash register. The order is automatically relayed onto a series of screens above the various stations in the kitchen for preparing and distributing food. The information on these screens dictates the movements of every worker in the kitchen, who all work in concert to maintain a rapid flow of meat and dairy out of the restaurant and the speedy processing of external information and money into the restaurant.

The picket line depends on a conflicting relation of flows. Holding the line involves blocking the flow of scabs and customers into a work site. Like the fast-food kitchen, the picket line maintains homeostasis through the reception and transmission (i.e. communication) of information and matter. The picket line forms a temporary system, a body that processes feedback. Successful street actions depend on robust forms of communication, which is why roles on the picket line are largely communicational in nature: the picket captain, the chant leader, the de-escalators, the flyerers, the videographers, the press talkers, the cop talkers. These roles translate information about potentially chaotic systems into messages that control (or fail to control) the movements of picketers and the people around them.

In both the fast-food kitchen and the picket line we are presented with apparatuses for disciplining the bodies and souls of their constituent members. The discipline of the body in these systems is meant to flow as a consequence of the desire residing in the soul. As Burgerville’s CEO Jill Taylor once said at the negotiation table to the Burgerville Workers Union, the goal of her company is to “bind workers’ souls” to their bodies. Internally, Burgerville’s workers are encouraged to “serve with love,” a slogan present in work trainings, on our work uniforms, and on the small pins given to employees who have worked at the company after a certain number of years. In practical terms, this command to “serve with love” means grueling work for shit pay and frequently abusive management. The picket line, whose participants may or may not be paid, similarly depends upon and makes demands on the interiority of its participants, in this case a feeling of solidarity and a desire to act upon it. This feeling is reinforced by singing and chanting on the picket line, just as the feeling of service toward Burgerville may for some accumulate with each canned interaction. These interiorities are also reinforced by more corporeal habits: defiantly marching in front of cars or wrapping hamburgers in wax paper. Dedication is cultivated not just from speech but also from the physical repetition of labor in service of a cause. They are, in either case, like a sort of programming or counter-programming of the working-class subject.



2021.5.1-5.3. Cybernetics as a conceptual framework emerged out of military efforts to develop anti-aircraft missiles[6]. The explanatory power of cybernetics lies in the theoretical equivalency made at the level of behavior between humans, animals, and machines (246). Military cybernetics establishes this equivalency with the goal of establishing dominion over complex systems. The root of the term “cybernetics” is the Greek word χυβερνήτης or kubernetes, meaning “steersman”. Control—over bodies, animals, machines, and their interrelations—is the overarching philosophy and aim of cybernetics. To appropriate cybernetics in an analysis of fast-food kitchens and pickets is to analyze these phenomena as conflicting modes of control over systems of humans, animals, and machines.

Beyond existing as a system of humans and machines organized for the quick processing of meat into hot food, the fast-food kitchen also functions as a site of class-based social control and of the reproduction of a peculiarly US-American capitalist ideology. In this ideology, cars reign supreme, beef is sacrosanct, and the young and poor are kept in line. These themes have become shockingly explicit as of late. In Florida, Ron DeSantis signed a law granting civil immunity to people who drive over crowds of protestors, arrogantly proclaiming “We’re not going to end up like Portland” . Right-wingers like Tucker Carlson scaremonger against the Green New Deal with the line that liberals are going to impose rationing on cheeseburgers. And fast-food bosses across the country have made headlines claiming that there is supposedly a worker shortage, which they then blame on unemployment benefits and workers’ laziness rather than the deadly pandemic going on or the poverty wages these jobs all pay. All of these complaints and interventions have the same overarching theme of white supremacist capitalist (i.e. colonial) control over nature and other human beings. The clearest image I can think of to represent the spirit of all of these developments is the small business tyrant in his SUV screaming at a fast-food picket line to let him through.

Appropriating cybernetics in an analysis of fast-food picket lines also invites us to imagine these pickets as sorts of counter-war machines that strike at the very foundation of the most fascistic tendencies of US-American culture. The picket line is hated by bosses, cops, and fascists alike, because it works to unravel and attack the heart of capitalism as an economic system and as a system of social control. The picket line is remarkable because it not only refuses the boss’s control over the worker, but takes the process a step further in asserting the worker’s control over the boss’s workplace. It completely reverses, if temporarily, the power dynamic that organizes the entirety of our society. Every production-halting picket and strike is revolutionary in the way that they momentarily suspend the rules of capitalism and reverse the terms of power. They are revolutions in miniature. The means by which the picket line operates are similar to the fast-food kitchen insofar as they involve the disciplining of groups of people via complex systems of communication. What is different are the types of society and subjectivity they are aiming to produce, as well as whose class interests they are each representing. The fast-food kitchen is a system of exploitation for the enrichment of the capitalist, whereas the picket line is an abstract war machine fighting as the working class in its own self-interest. The fast-food kitchen is meant to produce pliant and infantilized workers who are eager to be exploited, whereas the picket line is meant to produce militant revolutionaries and revolutionary sympathizers. The fast-food kitchen is the foundation for US-American capitalism, whereas the picket line is an incubator for a revolutionary society that is yet to come.

[1] (2008) http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/ 7179782.stm

[2] Feuer, Alan. “Life on $7.25 an Hour.” New York Times, 28 Nov. 2013)

[3] Katherine Hayles page 7, How We Became Posthuman (1999)

[4] Norbert Wiener. “Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Reissue of the 1961 second edition.” (1948, 1961, 2019) MIT Press, page 104

[5] Hayles 8

[6] Peter Galison “The Ontology of the Enemy” 229

[7] Wiener 104


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