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)