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Biting lions: remembering the Grunwick strike 40 years on

As the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick strike approaches, Sujata Aurora looks at its legacy and lessons for today

April 11, 2016
6 min read

On the picket lines: the strike grew from six pickets, including Jayaben Desai, to 137 workers with support from their union APEX and then from across the labour movement. Photos: TUC Library Collections

It’s summer, 1976. Jayaben Desai is packing up to leave work at the Grunwick photo processing factory in Willesden, north west London. She has just finished another week at the boiling factory in one of the hottest summers on record. She’s earnt a below-average wage of 70p per hour in the high-pressure mail order department, seen one of her colleagues sacked earlier that day for working too slowly and watched three others resign in protest.

She is approached by a manager who demands she work overtime, but protests. She is issued a formal warning. In this job, pay is low, overtime compulsory. Jayaben is one of a large number of East African Asian women employed at the factory for their supposed submissiveness and compliance. Management are used to acquiescence.

Jayaben snaps. She opens the manager’s door and yells to her fellow workers in Gujarati: ‘My friends, listen to this – what is happening to me today will happen to you tomorrow. This man wouldn’t speak to white workers the way he speaks to us.’ She, and her son Sunil, walk out to join the four workers picketing outside. No one follows.

Thus began a strike that lasted until 1978. More joined the initial six. Their numbers grew to 137 and their union, APEX, were quick to offer official support. Although local, the strike gained national prominence. Within weeks, the strikers gained support from community members and other trade unions, including postal workers – who, for a short time, cut off the company’s mail deliveries. An emergency parliamentary debate was called as solidarity action threatened electricity and water supplies to the factory. At its height, Grunwick saw an estimated 20,000 people turn out for one solidarity picket in the cramped backstreets of Dollis Hill and Willesden Green to offer support to the strikers.

The Grunwick strikers demanded that their employers allow them the right to join a union, in order to negotiate better conditions and pay. In this they were not successful, and almost two years later, when a strategy of protracted court battles and reliance on arbitration procedures failed, APEX and the TUC withdrew support. Yet this year, on the 40th anniversary of that first night, Grunwick 40 – a project initiated by Brent Trades Council and Willesden Green Town Team – will launch a programme of events to commemorate the actions of the Grunwick strikers and explore their legacy. What’s to celebrate?

Solidarity forever

We celebrate because Grunwick showed us the true meaning of solidarity. Local people still speak of how they or their older relatives offered support to the pickets – taking them tea and snacks on cold days. They speak of how bonds were forged between the long-established Irish community and the newer Asian migrants. They speak of how moved they were to see coaches full of miners travel hundreds of miles from the north of England to come and support a group of Asian women on their picket line and how the dispute changed the perception of the trade unions as being the sole preserve of white men. Steeped in a tradition of anti-colonial struggle against the British Raj, these workers shattered forever the myth of the passive, subordinate Asian woman.

We celebrate because the events of 1976-78 marked a turning point in the fight for equal rights. Whereas previous strikes by Asian workers, such as at the Imperial Typewriters factory in 1974, had faced outright racism from both management and white trade unions, the Grunwick dispute crossed racial boundaries. For the first time white workers were able to clearly see a group of Asian workers fighting for better pay and conditions for all workers, directly contradicting the popular National Front propaganda of the time that migrant labour depressed wages.

Similar interests

Forty years later, we still have lessons to learn from Grunwick. The poisonous debate on Britain’s EU membership means that we are again having to make the argument that migrant workers and British workers have fundamentally similar interests. And the gulf is still apparent between the trade union leadership and migrant workers – who are still largely the poorest paid and most precariously employed. Whether it is the 700 women at Gate Gourmet who were sacked in 2005 for resisting changes to their contracts or the more recent outsourced cleaners of the 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London, who felt so betrayed by Unison that they left to join an independent trade union, it is clear that there is much further to travel.

And yet there is so much to thank the Grunwick strikers for. As a movement we owe an enormous debt to the bravery of trailblazers like Jayaben Desai and others. The Grunwick 40 commemorations will offer an opportunity to explore this history and its relevance to today.

As Jayaben left the factory on that first day in 1976, she offered a parting shot to the Grunwick management: ‘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 can dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.’

This year, Grunwick 40 will be remembering those lions.

Get involved at facebook.com/Grunwick40, on Twitter @Grunwick40. Support our crowdfunder to raise funds to organise an exhibition and conference on Grunwick, as well as a mural close to the original factory site, to ensure this legacy is not lost. See crowdfunder.co.uk/grunwick40 or send cheques payable to Brent Trades Council to Grunwick 40 c/o Brent Trades Hall, 375 High Road, London NW10 2JR

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