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)
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
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
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
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill