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A truly working class hero(ine)

An obituary of Jeyaben Desai, by Pete Firmin of Brent Trades Union Council.

January 19, 2011
4 min read

An indication of the regard in which Jayaben Desai was held was the fact that on a miserable December weekday morning over 100 people turned out for her funeral in Golders Green, a good proportion of them there to show their respect for the inspirational woman who came to represent the Grunwick strikers of 1976-1978. Among them were 2 MPs and one present and one past General Secretaries of trade unions. Mrs Desai died aged 77 just before Christmas.

Many photographs of the strike show a diminutive Mrs Desai towered over by large policemen, but she was never intimidated by anyone. When she walked out of the photoprocessing plant she said to the manager “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr manager.” She proved herself to be such a lion throughout the course of the 2 year long strike which followed for union recognition.

The strike was in many ways a major turning point for the movement. After several disputes where migrant workers were given little support, or worse, from their trade unions, Grunwick saw large scale solidarity action in support of the strikers. And the presence of mass pickets at the factory gates was clearly an impetus for the Tories to change the law on union action when they came to power a few years later.

In many ways the dispute brought out both the best and the worst of the movement. While thousands turned out to picket, risking injury and the mass arrests by the police, the strikers had an additional constant battle with their own union, APEX (now part of the GMB) and the TUC, who wanted the mass pickets called off. While local postal workers took solidarity action, refusing to deliver Grunwick’s mail in November 1976 and again in the summer of 1977, their leaders were actually fined by their union (the UPW) and threatened with expulsion from the union for doing so on the second occasion. Other unions called on to cut off services to Grunwick’s (water and electricity) either refused point blank or demanded levels of support they knew wouldn’t be agreed. Trade union “officialdom” showed itself unwilling and incapable of taking on a ruthless employer who refused to play by the rules.

In the end the desperation of Mrs Desai and the strike committee at the lack of support from the unions led her and 3 others go on hunger strike outside the TUC in November 1977. The response of their union was to announce that any strikers participating in the hunger strike or involved in the organisation of any further mass picketing would be suspended from office in the union and lose strike pay for 4 weeks. It took 30 years for the GMB to get round to apologising to Mrs Desai for this incredible act of treachery.

Despite the strike losing – the strike committee eventually conceded defeat in July 1978 – Mrs Desai always pointed out the positives.   “We have shown,” she said, “that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” Even those workers at Grunwick who refused to join the strike gained from it in improved pay and benefits.

The regard with which she was still held was shown by the standing ovation she got when she spoke at the event which Brent Trades Council organised to commemorate the strike 30 years after. Many at that event spoke of her inspirational role.

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