Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
I first met Jayaben Desai in autumn 1976, on the Grunwick picket line. When, eventually, I asked to interview her, she readily agreed, inviting me to her home. In the next few weeks and months, as the events of the strike unfolded – the huge and exciting first mass meeting at the Brent Trades and Labour Hall that brought such a tremendous release of tension for the workers; the agonising months of foot-dragging by the leadership of Apex, the union they had joined; and the pointless negotiations by the government’s conciliation body Acas which achieved nothing – I recorded a series of interviews with Jayaben.
She told me that the workforce at the Grunwick film‑processing plant were mainly newly-arrived refugees from east Africa who, while they had once been comparatively privileged, were now extremely poor and vulnerable. She told me of their day-to-day experiences. ‘Imagine how humiliating it is for us,’ she said, ‘particularly for the older women, to be working and to overhear the employer saying to a young English girl, “You don’t want to come and work here, love. We won’t be able to pay the sort of wages that’ll keep you here.”’
Jayaben analysed the nature of the exploitation she and her co-workers faced. Her comments are still as relevant today to the way global capital operates in service sector work, sweatshops and component factories across the world – in India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Vietnam, Mexico and elsewhere. These factories, with their predominantly female workforces, mirror Grunwick, Burnsall and other workplaces made famous by the Asian women’s strikes. Here too, as in the London borough of Brent in the 1970s, ‘it is the poverty of whole areas and communities which traps people in this kind of employment, because they have no other alternatives.’ Here too the workers are taking on employers in drawn-out disputes.
In June 1977, the Grunwick strike committee, tired of the bureaucratic manipulations of Apex and Acas, called on the support of the rank and file of the labour movement.
The result is well known – hundreds were drawn to the picket line, from the Yorkshire miners and Arthur Scargill to individual feminists.
On 15 June, in response to a personal request from Jayaben, local postal workers started a boycott of Grunwick mail. The plant was paralysed – and at that point victory for the workers seemed a matter of weeks if not days away.
But as in countless other strikes, for the workers themselves to take control of the dispute was not acceptable to the union leadership. Apex limited the number of pickets and the TUC declared that control must remain firmly in the hands of the Apex executive and any action by trade unionists must be at the union’s official request. The postal workers who had boycotted Grunwick were laid off by the post office management and threatened with withdrawal of strike pay by their union, the UPW.
Effectively, the strike was lost – although it carried on for four months longer, ending in a hunger strike by Jayaben and three other strikers outside the TUC offices. Apex immediately suspended them and took away their strike pay. Jayaben said on that last day, in a prophetic comment, ‘They have tied the workers’ hands and we shall have no chance to do anything. It …will apply to everybody, not just to Grunwick strikers.’
When the Tories were elected in 1979, Margaret Thatcher used the Grunwick strike as an excuse to impose a raft of anti-union legislation. The process of undermining the unions continued into New Labour’s rule.
Through all this, however, often unreported by the media, the heroic struggles have continued. Now the workers are refugees from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, working on the London Underground or other service sector jobs that cannot be outsourced, and today resistance and solidarity is again in the air. Will the union leaderships deliver?
As Jayaben Desai told me in 1994, speaking in support of the Burnsall strikers, ‘The TUC are saying, without an army we can’t fight … The army is still there. One shout will bring thousands of people but the generals are sleeping.’ Will they wake up now?
Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race, gender and south Asian politics. Her books include Finding a Voice, Asian Women in Britain (Virago, 1978) and Dreams, Questions, Struggles – South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto, 2006)
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi