PETER FROST remembers a two-year strike in Willesden forty years ago. When the Lions of Grunwick bit the bosses back.
“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.”
The speaker is a 4ft 11in Asian woman, Jayaben Desai (Pictured above); the place, the Grunwick photo processing sweatshop in Willesden; the time, five to seven on the evening of Friday 20 August in the long hot summer of 1976 – forty years ago.
Jayaben and her lions would indeed bite back. Her declaration would start a two-year strike that would involve thousands of working people and eventually change trade union law in this country forever.
Jayaben was getting ready to leave for home after a long hot week. Earlier that day she had witnessed one of her fellow workers, Devshi Bhudia, being sacked for working too slowly. Three other employees, Chandrakant Patel, Bharat Patel and Suresh Ruparelia, walked out in support of him.
Now Jayaben is told by a manager that she must stay on to work overtime. When she protests she is given a formal warning. At Grunwick pay is low – just 70p an hour, overtime is compulsory and the bosses expect the many East African Asian women employed at the factory to do exactly what they are told.
They haven’t reckoned with Jayaben. She addresses 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.”
Jayaben, and her son Sunil, walk outside where the four workers involved in the incident earlier in the day have formed a picket line. She and her son join them. It is a tiny start to what will become a huge historic dispute.
Of Grunwick’s 440 employees, 80% were of Asian origin and 10% Afro-Caribbean. Company job application forms routinely ask for passport numbers and “date of arrival in the UK.”
More Grunwick workers joined the first six strikers. Numbers grew to 137 and when the pickets approached to local Citizens Advice Bureau they are advised to join a union, perhaps the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX). They also contacted the Brent Trades Council.
Within weeks, via the Trades Council the strikers gained support from the local community and from other trade unions, including key support from postal workers. This was important, for a huge percentage of the Grunwick business was by mail order
So what was Grunwick’s business? Today with every phone having a digital camera it is hard to imagine when all photographs were taken on roll film that had to be developed and printed.
Grunwick was a photographic processing business. Customers mailed undeveloped films to the firm and received finished photographs back through the post.
On 2 September the Grunwick directors provocatively sacked all the strikers. They repeatedly rejected all approaches from APEX to discuss re-instatement.
Dan Jones captures the spirit of Grunwick in his painting.
On the picket line the strikers suffered increasing harassment, not just from local police, but from the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.
Grunwick was the first time that this paramilitary police unit had been used against pickets and to allow buses of strikebreakers to get past the pickets and into the factory (above).
The bitter winter weather also sapped the morale of strikers many of whom were more used to warmer climes. Only many acts of solidarity bolstered their spirits and kept them going.
Arbitration from ACAS recommended that the company recognise APEX, but George Ward (below right), who owned and ran Grunwick, refused. He was encouraged by local Tory MP John Gorst (below left) and his National Association for Freedom.
Monday 13 June 1977 was earmarked as women’s day. The police attacked like never before. They kicked and punched women pickets dragging some by the hair. That day the police arrested more than 80 women.
On 11 July thousands of miners and other trade unionists joined a mass picket in a huge show of solidarity. The police proved far less brave and aggressive than they had when faced with women pickets a month earlier.
When the Labour government set up a Court of Inquiry under Lord Scarman APEX agreed to wind down the picketing and the postal union reluctantly called off the embargo.
The Scarman report was issued on 25 August. It condemned the mass picketing and unofficial postal blockade, but said that Grunwick should recognise the trade union.
The report was cautiously accepted by the strikers. Grunwick totally rejected the report.
As Christmas approached both the TUC and APEX felt that the dispute could not be won. They effectively withdrew their support from the striking workers.
Jayaben and the strikers were made of sterner stuff. Feeling abandoned and disillusioned they mounted a hunger strike outside the TUC headquarters (below).
Jayaben summed it up “Trade Union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”
The hunger strike was to no avail. The momentum of the strike drained away although It was not officially ended until 14 July 1978. The vindictive management made sure no strikers were reinstated and unions were never recognised
No one was surprised when The House of Lords ruled to uphold Grunwick’s right not to recognise a union. The intense anti-trade union attacks from the Tories and the media became even more relentless.
The battle to destroy Britain’s trade unions had started and leading the attack was Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher had become Tory party leader and Leader of the Opposition in 1975. Now, studying Grunwick, she started to plan her long term strategy to destroy trade union solidarity in Britain. It would become her lifetime crusade.
Today in Willesden, in the streets where Grunwick had its factories 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 remember the massive support of rank and file trades unionists like the coaches full of miners led by Arthur Scargill (below). But they also remember the betrayal of the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC and of the scurrilous attacks on trade union rights by Tories and most of the media.
The Strikers in Saris at Grunwick shattered forever the myth of the passive, subordinate Asian woman. Yet forty years on migrant workers are still largely the poorest paid and worst organised.
Brent Trades Council are planning to organise an exhibition and conference commemorating the Grunwick strikers, and it is hoped to create a mural close to the original factory site as a tribute to Jayaben Desai and all her Lions that bit back at the bosses.
You can find out more from https://twitter.com/grunwick40
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Morning Star 20 August 2016.