Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contagion: How the Crisis Spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How Empire Struck Back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en Vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally


2