KODIAK — As I’m sitting down to write this column, we are heading into our second week of the Inlandboatmen’s Union strike, which has essentially shut down the Alaska Marine Highway System and stranded hundreds of Alaskans and tourists during the busiest travel season of the year. Here in Kodiak, the M/V Tustemena is still docked while IBU members picket on shore, and the state on Wednesday said that Alaska is losing about $200,000 a day.
But the workers deserve reasonable pay and benefits, and I can’t wait to see how they fare in negotiations against the state’s labor relations manager, Jared Goecker, a 25-year-old who the governor appointed a couple months ago to handle these kinds of issues. Before working for the Dunleavy administration, Goecker’s most recent job was as an apartment manager. No wonder IBU went on strike.
Strike is the modern spelling of the Old English strican, but to speakers of Old English, the word meant something more like to smooth, rub, or proceed. Its European root is in the Proto-Germanic strikan, which is also the source of stroke and streak. Even the Proto-Indo-European root is strig, meaning to stroke or press.
It wasn’t until the 14th century that we start to see the word strike used in the sense of dealing a blow or colliding. Over the next hundred years, it took on some other familiar meanings: to hit with a missile, like an arrow; to cancel with the stroke of a pen.
In the 19th century, strike also comes to mean to find something like striking gold, and hence, striking it rich.
But how IBU is using it—refusing to work to force an employer to meet demands—was coined in 1768. That’s right—last year, we celebrated 250 years of the word strike (it was actually kind of a big celebration in the world of labor relations).
And, coincidentally enough, has a marine connection.
In 18th-century marine jargon, if your captain asked you to strike, you would remove the topsails of the ship, which keeps the vessel from moving. At a standstill. Motionless.
It was the London Strikes of 1768, bringing commerce in England to a standstill, that brought us this new connotation for the word. Demanding pay raises, sailors in Sunderland (along with sailors in Liverpool and elsewhere) lowered the top sails of their ships, preventing them from leaving. News spread of their “strike”, and at one point, more than 14,000 workers marched to Parliament. The phenomenon soon spread to the United States.
Back then, though, they didn’t picket. They banged drums and marched with flags in front of stores where they could no longer afford to shop, which, frankly, seems like a more effective strategy of striking. Picket, though, in relation to strikes, didn’t catch on until 1867.
Picket comes from the French piquet, meaning pointed stake, and the English picked it up in the 1680s. The French verb, piquer, means to pierce or puncture, and is where we get our word pike.
The word could be found in Old French, as pic, and in other Celtic sources, but we’re not too sure of its ultimate origin. Some etymologists believe it’s related to the Latin word for woodpecker: picus.
By the 16th century, pike was exclusively a weapon with a long shaft and pointed metal head for military use, replaced in the 18th century for the bayonet used by infantry. In 1761, these bayonet-yielding infantry were beginning to be called pickets, specifically those soldiers on the lookout for the enemy. And by 1856, their formation was called the picket line.
So it makes sense that, in 1867, when workers on strike stood in front of their factory to prevent scabs and hired strikebreakers from entering the building, these workers were called pickets: on the lookout for the enemy. Though it wasn’t until 1945 that they were officially called a picket line.
From seeing pictures of old strikes, I had thought it was merely called a picket line because striking workers made signs out of fence pickets or beat scabs over the head with, but the connection is much more violent than that. Even the iconic American white picket fence trend that started after the War for Independence was influenced by the medieval palings meant to enclose war captives.
I don’t foresee the IBU strike getting violent, I but I do hope for a swift resolution. I need to buy a new car, and I really need that ferry to help get it down here.
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