Double podcast episode about the iconic strike of mostly East African Asian women workers at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London in 1976-8. Featuring Amrit Wilson, Jayaben Desai and Colum Maloney, who took part in the dispute, and Sujata, chair of the Grunwick 40 group.
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This is an improved, extended and partially re-recorded version of our first ever podcast episode. We have added more audio clips from other participants in the dispute and added narrative for additional detail, context and to tell the story in a more cohesive manner. Whether you listened to the original episode or not, we hope you enjoy it!
- Part 1: Background to the dispute, how the strike began and developed.
- Part 2: The scope of the dispute, the role of police, the media and the trade unions, how the dispute concluded and its legacy and lessons for today
In addition to struggles in workplaces, Asians in Britain fought racism in the streets, forming militant Asian Youth Movements around the country. Learn more about those in episodes 33-34 of our podcast with Tariq Mehmood.
To learn more about the struggles of Black and Asian workers in Britain, get Ron Ramdin’s excellent book The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain here in our online store.
- For a short video history of the Grunwick strike see here on our YouTube channel.
- Check out their website of Grunwick 40 here: grunwick40.wordpress.com/
- The website of the South Asia Solidarity Group is here: www.southasiasolidarity.org/
- Before Grunwick, there were other strikes by Black and Asian workers in the UK, where the unions basically adopted a racist approach and supported preferential treatment of white workers. Notably these included the 1974 Imperial Typewriters strike, the 1973 Standard Telephones and Cables strike and the 1972 Mansfield Hosiery strike.
- Also mentioned during the podcast was the “colour bar” on public transport in Bristol enforced by the TGWU union which was eventually broken by a boycott in 1963.
- Various, “The Grunwick Strike: Struggle, Solidarity, Betrayal and Defeat,” 1978, accessed June 19, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/grunwick-strike-struggle-solidarity-betrayal-and-defeat.
- A. Sivanandan, Grunwick,” Race & Class, Vol. 19, no. 1 (summer 1977), accessed June 15, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/grunwick-strike-sivanandan.
- Chris Thomas, “Unedited interviews for ‘The Great Grunwick Strike, 1976-1978 – a history’; finished DVD, 2006-2007,” Warwick University Modern Records Centre, accessed June 16, 2022, https://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/GGS/1.
- Chris Thomas, dir, “The Great Grunwick Strike – a History,” (documentary) 2007, Chris Thomas Vimeo, accessed June 20, 2022, https://vimeo.com/100301347.
- Bennie Bunsee, “Women in struggle: The Mansfield Hosiery strike,” Spare Rib 21 (1974), accessed June 15, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/women-struggle-mansfield-hosiery-strike.
- Ron Ramdin, The Making Of The Black Working Class In Britain (Verso, 2017).
- “The 70s,” Working Class History TikTok, 2022, accessed June 19, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@workingclasshistory/video/7050490777159372037.
- Viv Groskop, “Was the summer of 1976 the best Britain ever had?,” Guardian, July 30, 2016, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/30/was-summer-1976-best-britain-ever-had.
- Atieno-Odhiambo, E.S. “The Political Economy of the Asian Problem in Kenya, 1888–1939.” Transafrican Journal of History 4, no. 1/2 (1974): 135–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24520203.
- Donald Rothchild, Racial Bargaining In Independent Kenya (Oxford University Press, 1973), 188.
- Sathyamurthy, T. V. “Asia: Portrait of a Minority: Asians in East Africa. Edited by Dharam P. Ghai (Oxford University Press, 1965). 154p. 15s.” India Quarterly 22, no. 4 (October 1966): 392–95. https://doi.org/10.1177/097492846602200408.
- “The Grunwick Dispute,” Striking Women, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.striking-women.org/module/striking-out/grunwick-dispute.
- Mark Lattimer, “When Labour played the racist card,” New Statesman, January 22, 1999, accessed February 29, 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/when-labour-played-racist-card.
- “Employment Act 1980,” Legislation.gov.uk, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1980/42/enacted.
- “Employment Act 1990,” Legislation.gov.uk, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/38/enacted.
- “The Grunwick dispute,” Warwick University Modern Records Centre, accessed June 15, 2022, https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/research_guides/grunwick/.
- “Postmen put themselves off side,” Times, November 4, 1976, 17.
- “UK Commentary.” Race & Class 19, no. 3 (January 1978): 289–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/030639687801900305.
- “Grunwick strike, 1967-1978,” Working Class Movement Library, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/protest-politics-and-campaigning-for-change/grunwick/.
- Abolish the Police,” (podcast) Upstream feat. Working Class History, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.upstreampodcast.org/abolishthepolice.
- Evan Smith, “A Bulwark Diminished? The Communist Party, the SWP and Anti-Fascism in the 1970s,” Socialist History 35 (2009), 59-80, accessed June 14, 2020, https://www.academia.edu/197826/A_Bulwark_Diminished_The_Communist_Party_the_SWP_and_Anti-Fascism_in_the_1970s.
- Paul Lewis, “Blair Peach killed by police at 1979 protest, Met report finds,” Guardian, April 27, 2010, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report.
- “ACAS’ inability to question stay-at-work employees renders report void,” Times December 15, 1977, 20.
- Toby Helm, “Ed Miliband to set his promises in stone,” Guardian, May 3, 2015, accessed June 16, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/03/ed-miliband-sets-promises-in-stone.
- Helen Lewis, “Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers,” New Statesman, July 23, 2017, accessed June 17, 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2017/07/jeremy-corbyn-wholesale-eu-immigration-has-destroyed-conditions-british.
- Ramona, “100,000,000 workers grind India to a halt in one of the world’s strikes ever,” libcom.org, February 28, 2012, accessed June 17, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/100000000-workers-grind-india-halt-one-worlds-biggest-strikes-ever.
- “Over 250 million workers joined national strike in India,” Industriall Union, November 26, 2020, accessed June 17, 2022, https://www.industriall-union.org/over-250-million-workers-join-national-strike-in-india.
- “Jayaben Desai – The Grunwick Strike – Black History Month,” (video) Trades Union Congress, October 2, 2019, accessed June 15, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/tradesunioncongress/videos/533252470811064/.
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible.
- Episode graphic courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/11561957@N06/39452997960, CC by NC 2.0
- Edited by Tyler Hill
- Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here or stream it here.
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In 1976 East African Asian women workers in London launched one of the iconic industrial disputes of the decade. For the next two years the women fought against their employer, the police, the Labour government, the media, the court system and the leadership of the trade union movement. While it didn’t achieve its immediate goals, it was successful in galvanising a seachange in the workers’ movement and the struggle against racism in the UK. This is Working Class History.
Before we get started today, I need to explain something. Long-term listeners may recall our first ever episode being about the Grunwick strike. But like all of our earliest episodes, it was basically raw audio from our interview about the dispute, so the sound quality was pretty bad and there was no narrative to fill in any gaps, explain context and pull the story together. In addition to producing new podcast episodes, we are also going back over our earliest episodes to re-edit and release them in the new, narrative format we use for all of our later episodes.
And This is our third re-edited and rereleased episode now. So the interview audio will have the same quality as before, but there will be extra audio clips from participants who were involved at the time, as well as added narrative with better quality audio to explain things better and hopefully tell the story in a more cohesive manner. The original interview audio isn’t the best quality, because we didn’t really know what we were doing at the time, and we recorded it in an absolutely freezing union office in North West London, round the corner from where the strike happened. It was so cold we had to have an electric heater blasting, which affected the audio quality. But especially with the new narrative and good quality clips we think it should be good enough for listeners to enjoy and get something out of, which we hope that you do.
Also, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to both parts of this double episode now. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
As with all of our stories, the strike at Grunwick didn’t appear out of thin air.
Amrit: What we’ve also got to remember is that Grunwick didn’t just happen out of the blue. There were a whole series of dozens of Asian and Black workers’ strikes and in almost all of these strikes, workers had to face the racism either from co-workers or, more often, from the union hierarchy.
This is Amrit Wilson. Amrit is a writer, activist and member of the South Asia Solidarity Group, who was heavily involved in organising support for the Grunwick strikers. Amrit is also author of the book Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, which was first published in 1978 and has recently been republished in a new, expanded edition.
Sujata: I think this context, that Amrit is talking about, is really important because one thing I always get asked is if there was this context of the trade unions effectively scabbing on a lot of Black and Asian workers’ strikes before Grunwick, why did they change their minds? I think it’s an absolutely crucial question. I think you can only really answer it if you understand this context because these strikes that had been going on, Iike Imperial Typewriters and Mansfield Hosiery where the unions had been either very reluctant to support them or had actively opposed them in the case of Imperial Typewriters.
This is Sujata Aurora. Sujata was very involved in the Grunwick 40 group which commemorated the dispute on its 40th anniversary, between 2016 and 2018.
These strikes which preceded Grunwick a really important, in order to understand the context in which the Grunwick strike occurred, and how transformative it was. There is a fair bit of ground to cover, so I’m going to be speaking a fair bit in the first half of part 1, but please rest assured, I will soon be shutting up, and you will hear lots more from our interviewees and people who were involved at the time.
For non-UK listeners, just to clarify that in standard UK terminology, the term “Asian” typically refers to people of South Asian descent, and that’s how it is used in this episode.
What is generally considered the first significant strike of Black, Asian and migrant workers of the period was the Red Scar Mill strike in Preston in 1965. Its story, as well as the story of the other similar strikes of the period, is told in the excellent book, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin, available on the link in the show notes.
Sujata mentioned two key disputes which occurred after this, the first of them was the Mansfield Hosiery strike, which took place in Loughborough in 1972.
First off, in November around 250 Indian men and 50 women walked out on strike at the mill for higher wages and for promotion rights to jobs which were reserved for white workers. A few days later 80 more women workers at a subsidiary factory joined them. One of the women explained they did this because: “The colour bar applies to us all. If our brothers are on strike we have to give them support. They need to feel self-respect, when they are treated like dogs how can we go in, if our brothers are out”.
“Colour bar” was standard terminology referring to racial segregation in employment. In the UK it wasn’t as formalised as, say, in the US under Jim Crow, or apartheid South Africa, but it was a fact of life in many places. So, for example, at Mansfield Hosiery, the lowest paid jobs like cutting were almost all done by Asian women at piecework rates. Whereas more senior jobs paying regular salaries be done by white women.
Elsewhere, colour bars sometimes were very formalised. Like on the buses in Bristol, where white workers in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now part of Unite) pressured their employer to ban Black and Asian workers from being hired. This was overturned in 1963 following a bus boycott organised by Black residents in the city. But more informal colour bars persisted, and often did so with the agreement of the trade unions.
At Mansfield Hosiery, for example, the union, the National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers, refused to back the strike until eventually it was forced to do so following the occupation of its offices by the strikers. However, the union still refused to call out its white members, who in any case benefited from the discrimination against Indians with better opportunities for promotion.
The dispute ended in December with the workers winning concessions.
A couple of years later, in 1974, hundreds of mostly East African Asian women workers walked out on strike at the Imperial Typewriters factory in Leicester. The strike was partly over a bonus scheme, for which they were being underpaid, and it was also about discrimination Asian workers experienced, compared with white colleagues. So while 1100 of the 1600 workers were Asian, the union representatives – shop stewards – were white, and the Asian workers were unable to elect their own reps. And as in the case of Black auto workers in Detroit in our episodes 61-62, workplace regulations, disciplinaries etc were applied in very uneven ways between white workers, who were treated relatively leniently, and workers of colour, who were treated much more strictly.
The strikers got lots of support from the local Asian community, but not really from anywhere else. The local branch of the fascist National Front harassed the strikers, police arrested several strikers, the employer sacked most of strikers and their union, the TGWU denounced them. Their negotiator, George Bromley, who was also a activist in the local Labour party, said the following of the workers. And I hope listeners will forgive me for repeating his racist language:
“The workers have not followed the proper disputes procedure. They have no legitimate grievances and it’s difficult to know what they want. I think there are racial tensions, but they are not between the whites and the coloureds. The tensions are between those Asians from the sub- continent and those from Africa… In a civilised society, the majority view will prevail. Some people must learn how things are done…”
Bromley also made the preposterous claim that the strike was organised by the Chinese Communist Party.
Eventually, the strike was defeated, but it helped further inspire the Asian, Black and migrant working class to organise and fight for its own interests.
Sujata: These strikes were getting increasingly militant and you saw that this Black and Asian workforce in this country was one of the most militant sections of the working class. They were effectively outside of the control of the trade union movement and the establishment.
The establishment’s fear of this autonomous, self-organised Asian and Black working class was very real. After the Mansfield Hosiery strike, a government commission of inquiry wrote a report detailing union complicity in racist practices, and warned that if unions did not desist in their racism then Black and Asian workers would form their own.
On top of this wave of strikes, it’s also important to understand the general political environment in the UK at the time.
Amrit:[DC1] The miners’ strike of 1974 actually got rid of the Heath Government and so you had the resurgent Left at that point
The Conservative government of Edward Heath had been brought down by a strike of coalminers, after which first Labour’s Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, followed by James Callaghan in 1976. The traditional, mostly white, working class was very well organised, and had a lot of power, and had won a lot of improvements to pay and conditions since the end of World War II. Economic inequality and absolute poverty were at their lowest level in history. All things which are part of the reasons the British right today hate the 1970s and constantly bang on about it.
Sujata: When we came to 1976, we had what was a very right-wing Labour Government who had this kind of corporatist ideal of the Social Contract where they liked to sit down with business and trade union leaders and have tea and sandwiches and get everybody to agree and say, ‘You don’t go on strike. We’ve got unemployment and inflation and we’ve all got to work together.’ So there was this kind of need to incorporate anything that could be deemed militant into that fold and make sure that it could all be controlled within the Social Contract. The trade unions were very scared that some group of militant workers weren’t going to come along and blow a lid on their nice plans and their nice arrangements that they’d cooked up with business leaders.
So you had a situation where white workers were pretty well organised, with relatively good pay and conditions. And so many employers tried to save money by hiring recent migrant workers, giving them the worst jobs and paying them much less than white colleagues.
And rather than join together with Black and Asian workers to win higher pay for everyone, many white workers in unions instead chose to try to defend pay differentials and promotional opportunities for themselves only, not realising that this just enabled lower pay for everyone overall.
One plant which had hired large numbers of migrant workers was Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in North West London, with around 400 employees.
Sujata: The Grunwick factory had quite a reputation before the strike broke out. It had quite a reputation for poor wages, poor conditions and also of the owners being very anti-union. Before the strike in 1976, there had been an attempt to organise by some of the delivery drivers and that was unsuccessful and they were all dismissed at that time. So Grunwick was known locally as a firm that didn’t like unions. The owner, George Ward, was known as very anti-union. Some of the conditions in the factory were described by the local MP at the time as sweatshop conditions. There were things like women not being given time off to go to doctor’s appointments when they were pregnant. They were overlooked by their manager in a kind of glass office who was overlooking their work and bullied into working faster and faster. At one point, in the factory, they had to put up their hands to go to the toilet. So it was an indignity upon indignity and it wasn’t this one big incident that provoked the strike, if you like. It was a succession of incidents of bullying and petty humiliations combined with very low wages. I think the average wage at the time, in the processing department where the strike started, was £28 per week and that compared to an average at the time of £40.
While £28 a week was considerably lower than the pay for an average woman manual worker at that time, which was £44 a week, it was particularly tiny compared to the average wage nationally in Britain at that time which was £72 a week.[DC2]
Around 10% of the workers at Grunwick were white, 10% Afro-Caribbean, and the rest were of Indian and Pakistani descent.
Amrit: The workforce who were employed at Grunwick were mainly people who had fled from East Africa. They had had a very hard time getting to Britain because of the policies of the then Labour government. They then found themselves in a completely alien situation. Most of them had been middle-class and so the men found it very hard to do the types of jobs which were available and which were quite few in number. Some of them managed to find reasonable jobs and the women added to the family income by taking on sweatshop work.
While some South Asian people had lived in Africa for a long time, the number expanded significantly during the period of British colonial rule, especially in East African countries like the ones which are now called Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Britain used Indian soldiers to conquer and suppress rebellions in Africa, and used large numbers of Asian workers to construct and staff railways which they built to help plunder local resources.
While all British colonial subjects across the Empire held British passports, this did not entitle them to equal treatment and colonial authorities implemented highly racist structures. And while most Asians in British East Africa were on average better off with more social and economic advantages than Africans, they were still colonial subjects who were discriminated against heavily. For example in public services, senior posts were reserved for Europeans only, and European and Asian public sector workers had different rights.
So after these colonies gained independence, the new governments implemented measures to try to reverse the decades of hyper-discrimination against Africans. So in Kenya, for example, European and Asian settlers were given two years to give up their British passports and adopt Kenyan citizenship. But most of the 180,000 Asians in Kenya chose not to give up their British passports. As a result, many were fired from jobs as a policy of Africanisation was implemented.
In Uganda, the dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of all 80-thousand Asians from the country. As British subjects and passport holders, many chose to flee to the UK.
But as Amrit mentioned, getting to Britain wasn’t easy. Anticipating arrivals of significant numbers of Asian refugees and migrants, the Labour government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968. Labour claimed that the law wasn’t racial, but secret papers released decades later showed that it purposely targeted “coloured immigrants,” and cabinet was even advised that the bill would breach international law. A confidential memo to prime minister Harold Wilson said that they could argue “the Asian community in East Africa are not nationals of this country in any racial sense and that the obligations imposed, for example, by the European Convention on Human Rights do not therefore apply.” Though most Conservative MPs voted for the law, even the conservative Times newspaper described it as “probably the most shameful measure that Labour members have ever been asked by their whips to support.” Tory Lord Ian Gilmour, who opposed the bill, described its purpose very straightforwardly to journalist Mark Lattimer: “to keep the Blacks out.”
As we discuss in our episodes 33-34, at the time in the UK all people of colour were considered “Black”, from Afro-Caribbean to Asian to Chinese to Australian Aboriginal peoples.
But despite the law, a good number of Asians did manage to come to the UK, and many employers were happy to hire them on poor pay and conditions.
Sujata: I think the owners of Grunwick were very explicit about the fact that they wanted to employ these types of women because they thought that they were very passive and that they would accept the kind of wages that were being offered and they wouldn’t be able to get other people to do this kind of work.
Amrit: If a white woman came in, the foreman would say, ‘No, love. This isn’t for you because we can’t pay the wages which would keep you here. We don’t have the conditions which would keep you here.’ I mean it was pretty blatant.
One of these workers was Jayaben Desai, who was interviewed by Chris Thomas in 2007 for his excellent documentary, The Great Grunwick Strike, who kindly let us use extracts of his interviews in these episodes.
Jayaben Desai: I worked with them as a part-time worker and slowly and gradually, I saw that most of the English girls who were working there left and they were replaced by Indian people. Afterwards, I heard that they put posters door to door saying, ‘We won’t discriminate and we can employ you. Come here and we will give you employment.’ They put those types of leaflets door to door and so many people applied there one after another and thinking, ‘If I go there, I can bring my friends.’ That way they all came into that factory and most of the people were then Indian. The English girls said, ‘Look, this is not the place. We want our social hours as well. We are not working 5 o’clock,’ because they were pushing them to work more overtime. They were telling them, ‘Look, this is not the place for you,’ so they were leaving and were replaced by our people.
Workers were forced to work overtime constantly. And that was only just one of the problems with how workers at the plant were treated.
Jayaben: They were very rude because they were telling so many people, ‘This is not the time to go to the doctors.’ Some ladies were going to the doctors and they said, ‘Somebody will be at home like a family member who can take your child to the doctor. Why are you going absent for that?’ There were so many things they were doing. We also had to ask them if they would give permission and then we could go to the toilet. Somebody said that the women were staying there for a long time. There were a lot of things they were doing.
Discipline at the company was also harsh and arbitrary.
Jayaben: After September, when the business was low, he was sacking those who were not good enough by hook or crook. They were finding any reason and said, ‘You dropped the paper, so you’re sacked,’ or ‘You were five minutes late, so you’re sacked.’ In the same way they were sacking and so everybody was afraid and thinking, ‘Our turn will come and they will sack us.’ Because everyone was in fear, they were working harder and harder. They then applied one system where they were writing the name on the top of the board who was working hard and making more packets and who had done less, their name was at the bottom. Psychologically, they were attacking people by saying if you were doing less work, you were the first person who would be sacked by them.
Eventually, on 20 August 1976, came the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the strike began.
Sujata: The strike started very small. It started when four workers walked out of the factory one afternoon. One was sacked and three others walked out with them. Later on that evening, Jayaben Desai, who became the leader of the strike, was asked to do overtime and refused. She got into a confrontation with a notoriously difficult and oppressive manager and walked out on strike and took her son with her, who was also working at the factory.
Jayaben: I told him, ‘I’m leaving now. I don’t work with you anymore. I’m the person who is leaving. Give me my card straightaway. I don’t want to work with you in this situation.’ That’s what I told him and I left.
Jayaben’s son, Sunil, earlier that day had been reprimanded by a manager after he got tickled by a colleague, who told him: “this is not a zoo”. When Sunil walked out in support of his mum, what he said to the manager became an iconic phrase associated with the dispute.
Jayaben: My son said, ‘You told me this afternoon that this is not a zoo but this is the zoo you are running… There are a lot of monkeys who can dance on your fingertips but I am a lion. I can chop your head like that and I’ll prove it.’
Workers who had either been sacked or walked out then had a chat in the car park outside straight afterwards.
Jayaben: When I came outside, I saw the boys standing outside and said, ‘Are you are the boys who were sacked this afternoon?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What have you been doing here up until now?’ They said, ‘Look, we are not going to go away before doing something. We are going to break their windows and their cars.’ I said, ‘Don’t do that. You will damage yourself. They will call the police and it’s all insured. Nothing will happen to them but you will damage yourself. Why don’t you do something else?’ They said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘We can organise ourselves and we can make a union.’ My husband was working with the union at that time and he told me a lot of things when I was coming home at the dining table. We were talking and I was saying, ‘This is happening.’ He said, ‘You need a union in your company.’ That was in my mind and I said to the boys, ‘We can make a union here.’ They said, ‘We don’t know anything about it.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t know anything also but we can find out.’
Sujata: At the time, they didn’t know anything about trade unions, like how they operated and how they worked, but over the weekend, they started thinking about it, doing a bit of research and talking to people.
Wondering what to do, the workers headed to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB).
Sujata: The Citizen’s Advice Bureau said, ‘You need to join a trade union.’ They joined the APEX trade union which was a fairly respectable, professional, white-collar workers’ union who then made this strike official.
Amrit: It’s worth remembering that APEX was actually a fairly right-wing union and the fact that they joined APEX did, I think, make a bit of a difference because APEX was very reluctant to take any kind of militant action.
Making the decision to strike wasn’t easy, especially for women members of the Hindu Gujarati community.
Amrit: I think it was very difficult because a lot of them had never worked outside the home. Some may have done some sort of accountancy work or something connected to their husband’s work but they hadn’t really worked independently and so there was a great reluctance. There were also issues of patriarchy where women are not supposed to take a stand, or be militant, or speak out but that did change over the course of the strike. That made it that much harder for them to join the strike. There were other aspects as well. One thing you’ve got to remember is that this was a very particular community. It had been comparatively middle-class or middle-strata in Africa. In East African countries, they were sandwiched between Africans and White people because, essentially, they would talk to the Africans. They had imbibed a lot of this sense of superiority which went with that. All of these factors meant that not only were they not political but they were not of a class which normally took part in political action. I think it was very, very difficult for them. There was a feeling that they shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing. There was a sense of shame that they would be going out and demanding their rights because then people would know that they were doing these jobs.
Jayaben: Yeah, some people got the family pressure as well and some people lost hope as well when they said, ‘It’s no good to stand outside.’ Some told me as well and some told my husband as well that this wasn’t good and that women standing on a picket line wasn’t good. The Indian community has never done this type of thing in their lives. Only in Gandhi’s time, the women were on the picket line and only a very few people know that because those who recently came from East Africa don’t know the history of India. I know all these things and so I took that initiative and I felt no shame on that picket line.
Despite these issues, the small group of initial strikers managed to sign up more and more people to join the union and the walkout.
Jayaben: We asked everybody going inside to join the union and everybody signed on the computer paper because we didn’t know what to do. We asked them to sign that they were ready to join the union and everybody signed.
Sujata: The following weeks, more came out on strike. The strikers began to get strike pay. They got the support of APEX and the local trade union movement and it started to become a big thing.
Jayaben: There were also some drivers, some Black guys and some Indian girls. They joined with us and altogether, there were nearly 70-80 people.
Between them they were able to keep up a rotating picket line, to balance picket duties with personal and family lives.
Jayaben: Two hours service would do and they can go easily because many people were on the picket line. So every two hours, we were calling one person and before time, another two people would come and then those two people would leave after one hour. So continuously, the picket line was there.
The workers elected a strike committee and agreed formal demands, a central one of which was formal recognition of their union, APEX, at the plant.
Soon, nearly 150 workers had joined the strike, and Grunwick retaliated by firing all of them with the company offering to rehire them if they gave up their demand for union recognition. APEX then requested for support from the main UK union federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Sujata: At that time, solidarity action was quite a common thing. It wasn’t outlawed like it is today. Other workers started to think about how they could build solidarity with the Grunwick workers.
Solidarity, or sympathy action as it is sometimes known, was common before the 1980s in Britain, when workers were much more likely to win disputes. It refers to when one group of workers walk out on strike in support of another group.
Banning solidarity action was one of the main tools used by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s and 90s to create the situation we have today, where the working class is much weaker and more atomised. This ban was never repealed by Labour once they regained power.
After the dispute began, not much happened at first in terms of intervention from the official trade union movement.
Amrit: Initially, I think there was very little reaction but after they went around actually talking to people in their workplaces, that made a huge difference. Also, the unions were not able to conceive of a situation where low-paid workers in a sweatshop would fight back. They just were not able to comprehend how to move forward.
But then the Grunwick workers had an idea.
Amrit: They thought of directly approaching rank and file workers. They had this big tour around the country which was amazing.
Jayaben: Yeah, the committee was deciding who would go and where to go. Sometimes, the boys would go and some girls were with them. Sometimes, I had to go and some boys were also with me but I couldn’t go everywhere myself, so I gave everybody a chance.
Sujata: The strikers started building support, pretty much, around the country for what they were doing. One of the ways that they managed to build such support was because they weren’t reliant on regional or national trade union officials. They organised a speaking tour to go right around the country. I was going to say they did this over the heads of the trade union bureaucrats but, effectively, it was under them [laughter]. They spoke to grassroots trade unionists themselves rather than relying on the big machines to build that kind of support. Other groups of workers started to look at what sort of solidarity action they could bring and one of the most important ones there was the local post office workers. Grunwick was a mail-order company and used to process films. Way back in the ’70s, when you used to get the little canisters of film and send them off in those envelopes to get your photos processed, they used to end up at a factory like Grunwick. The whole business was based around mail-order and so when the postal office workers said, ‘Actually, we’re going to black Grunwick’s mail. We’re not going to take it out and we’re not going to deliver it,’ that could have brought that company down.
Colum Maloney was a postal worker who was also the chairman of the local Cricklewood branch of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW). Chris Thomas also interviewed him back in 2007, and he explained how the boycott came about.
Colum:Grunwick was in Chapter Road, which came under the postal area which Cricklewood was responsible to deliver the mail in, and my drivers and walking postmen who attempted to deliver mail there on a regular basis were reporting back quite regularly that the management of that particular company, i.e. George Ward and Grunwick, were not prepared to allow what was a parliamentary right of the individuals working there to belong to a trade union, and they felt that we as a sister union should do something to assist the strikers at that particular company.
We wanted to make sure that we didn’t affect other businesses in that area which meant that people working there would be affected as well. So we decided that we would not deliver the mail to Grunwick on the basis that they were not acting in a proper and reasonable and lawful way, and we could do that my refusing to deliver or indeed to accept mail from Grunwick.
We gave instructions to our drivers and our delivery persons not to cross the line, and that was agreed at a meeting of all the members in the office.
Jayaben: Oh, it was beautiful I think. They took the decision and they stopped the Grunwick post. There was a pile of post that was untouched by them
The boycott was hugely powerful.
Sujata: In fact, while it was going on, George Ward, the owner himself, said that the company would have been ruined within weeks if that action had been continued. There was a huge, huge move towards action and solidarity.
Faced with defeat, an outside organisation came to the aid of Grunwick management, in the form of a group with the amusing acronym NAFF, the National Association for Freedom (for US listeners, “naff” basically means “crap” or “tacky”). NAFF took legal action against the UPW, arguing that the boycott violated the 1953 Post Office Act. Most observers considered the legal action a long shot, because the law had never been used before to block industrial action in the postal service. But regardless, the UPW agreed to call off the action in return for Grunwick management agreeing to meet with the government conciliation service ACAS. An agreement, which is worth pointing out, meant absolutely nothing to Grunwick workers.
The intervention of NAFF upped the stakes of what had been a small, local industrial dispute.
Sujata: When the National Association for Freedom intervened, which was very right-wing and the forerunners of what we know today as the Freedom Association and they had John Gorst in Parliament and Margaret Thatcher, there came a point when it became a political dispute with a big ‘P’. At that point, people really felt that they had to step up and it was that side that was making it political with a big ‘P’ and they had to respond.
Sujata: I think that was a very important part of why the trade unions backed Grunwick at a high level because they were really worried about what would happen if they didn’t.
Sujata: The response was these mass days of action: these really enormous pickets that were happening outside the factory. The owners of the factory, of course, were hiring buses to bring in scabs in order to continue doing business.
The workers were taken aback by how many people showed up to support them for the first mass picket.
Jayaben: I didn’t expect that many but there were so many people. There were 5,000 people I think and for more than a five-mile area, the traffic was banned.
Colum: That was unbelievable. To see that whole sea of people behind you. It’s just overpowering; it’s just unbelievable that a small little post office like ours in Cricklewood, a small little group of Asian women and men in a small dingy little factory in Chapter Road could raise that sort of solidarity and support
Amrit was someone who quickly became a supporter of the strikers, and took part in many of these pickets.
Amrit: Because of my political stance, I was supporting them anyway but I was also working as a freelance journalist at the time and I was also writing a book about South Asian women. I went to the picket line quite early on in 1976 actually. Not much was going on at the time. It was comparatively quiet and I talked to some of the strikers and talked to Jayaben Desai and she said, ‘You must come every day,’ and all of this. I did go a few times at that point but I couldn’t go every day because I had childcare issues at the time and it wasn’t possible. She said to me, ‘Look, you could be a lot more useful if you actually write about the strike because we’re not getting the kind of publicity we want. Also, nobody is writing about racism.’ She emphasised the point that there was absolutely nothing and said, ‘Please do tell the truth about this.’ Obviously, I was very fired up and I wanted to do this. She then said, ‘Come to my house and we’ll talk there.’ I went to her place several times over that whole year and we talked about a whole lot of different issues; about the strike and about the community and how it was responding. We became very good friends. We talked about a whole lot of problems around correctly representing Asian women’s lives and Asian workers’ lives as well.
That brings us to the end of part 1. In Part 2, we talk more with Amrit and Sujata, and hear more from Colum and Jayaben about how the strike developed, the lengths authorities went to to try to crush it, and how the dispute changed the workers’ movement.
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If you want to learn more about the struggles of migrant workers in Britain around this time, we definitely recommend The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, by Ron Ramdin, which we mentioned earlier. You can get it on the link in the show notes, and as a listener to the podcast you can get 10% off it or anything else in our online store using the discount code WCHPODCAST.
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Welcome back to part 2 of our double podcast episode about the Grunwick strike. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I would go back and listen to that first.
Before we get started, just a quick reminder that our podcast is only made possible because of support from you, our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
One organisation which did a lot to support the Grunwick strikers was the local trades’ council in Brent, the London Borough in which the dispute was taking place. Trades’ councils are basically organising bodies in which mostly lay representatives, i.e. not paid union officials, from all different unions in a given area meet together and coordinate. Many of these today are quite moribund, but at that time many of them were highly active, as Sujata Aurora, a member of the Grunwick 40 group, explains.
Sujata: I think that, perhaps, if it had maybe been a different trades’ council who hadn’t been so receptive, the whole thing may have taken a completely different trajectory. The fact that Brent was relatively open-minded and progressive at that time and open to these ideas absolutely had an impact.
Amrit: It made a huge difference, I think.
This is Amrit Wilson, author and activist, who was deeply involved in supporting the Grunwick strike is at the time.
A key issue in the difference in response to the Grunwick strikers, compared with previous strikes of Asian, Black and migrant workers, was that the struggle was over union recognition itself, and the right of workers to join and form unions.
Sujata: One of the important differences at Imperial Typewriters was that workforce was unionised. Whereas at Grunwick, they were fighting for union recognition. Within Imperial Typewriters, the workforce was unionised and the trade unions were supporting a wage differential between the white workers and the Asian workers. It was very much seen as ‘we represent the white workers and we are representing our interests’. They didn’t regard the Asian workers as being part of the trade union or as even figuring as deserving protection.
Sujata: The strike became a strike for union recognition rather than a strike because there was racism in the factory or a strike because there was sexism. People talk about dignity at work and that also got subsumed as well into this thing about ‘this is a strike for union recognition’. In that way, it became very easy for the trade unions to support it. Like you say, it was an existential question of their existence and their right to exist. That was why you were able to have Arthur Scargill come down on the picket line and say, ‘This is a fight for the entire working class,’ without mentioning issues of racism and sexism. In the process, I think, a lot of people’s eyes got opened to those issues.
The excellent journal, Race & Class, argued convincingly that the reason trade unions swung so much support behind the Grunwick strikers, relative to other strikes by Asian and Black workers, was that they were defending their part of the social contract with the government which Amrit discussed in part 1. In particular unions wanted to defend the Employment Protection Act of 1975, which covered rights to join unions, and which was one of the main things union leaderships believed they achieved in return for their pledge to try to keep social peace and prevent strikes under the social contract.
With the solidarity action by postal workers called off, to put pressure on the employer Grunwick strikers would have to shut down the plant, and stop scab replacement workers getting in. As we discussed in part 1, intervention of the right-wing, pro-employer pressure group the National Association for Freedom (NAFF) had made the dispute big national political issue, and large numbers of workers came to support the Grunwick strikers on mass picket lines. There, strikers and supporters came up against the violent force of the employers: the police.
Amrit: The police violence was very extreme. For a start, the first day of the mass pickets was actually called a Women’s Day. On that day, there were so many police there and they used a lot of techniques which have since become well-known. They started that there. The SPG was then called which was the Special Patrol Group. At first, they had been right out in Northern Ireland with anti-colonial stuff and then they were brought into Britain. In fact, shortly after Grunwick, they were used in Southall during an anti-fascist demonstration.
Amrit: They were really vicious. They would try two techniques which I saw myself. One was to go into the crowd and pull people out; sometimes, grabbing women by their breasts or just awful stuff. People were very badly injured.
Sujata: Obviously, the order to send in the SPG had come from the Labour government. I believe it was the first time they’d been sent into an industrial dispute. The Grunwick strike had a higher number of arrests than any other dispute had had in Britain since the General Strike.
By the time the dispute ended, there had been over 500 people arrested.
Sujata: The stories that you hear about the level of violence were really horrific.
Amrit: It was very scary just to be there because firstly, you were pushed right up, squeezed back and then you were encircled. It was a frightening situation to be in.
Sujata: The thing to remember as well is that, if you don’t know the area, where the Grunwick factory was is not some big, industrial estate.
Amrit: It’s a very narrow road.
Sujata: It’s a residential road. It’s a little back street that has nothing else on it, except for houses and the back entrance to the tube station. It’s a very, very narrow street that’s full of cars, and houses, and garden walls that got knocked over. The levels of crush were very, very frightening.
Amrit: They had their bus. They brought this bus in.
Yeah, it was full of scabs.
Jayaben Desai, one of the strikers, who was also the treasurer of the strike committee during the dispute, also had run-ins with the police. This audio is from an interview undertaken by Chris Thomas in 2007. One of the terms Jayaben uses, “blackleg” is another word for “scab”.
Jayaben: Let me tell you, some of them were racists but some were very sympathetic. On the picket line, we had types of experiences. Once, we had some female police and some people who were going inside were abusive to us. We called them a blackleg or something like that and one of them said, ‘Don’t do that. It will damage you and I’ll have to arrest you,’. In the same way, the police were there and sometimes some racists were there. Somebody kicked my foot once in a mass picket.
I think thought the police were there to protect everybody and not only management. Instead of that, the police were doing something totally different. They were doing everything according to the management and not the strikers. The supporters were also abused by the police. They were arrested by the police. They were hit by the police. Everything was done by the police.
People who don’t know about the history of the police often think that their role is to uphold the laws within a given country. The true story, of course, is very different. In disputes like Grunwick, their fundamental role becomes much more clear. So police when they are used to intervene in significant industrial disputes typically do not stand around and ensure that laws are not broken. In fact, in most cases they break laws, and help employers break laws, by violently attacking and arresting peaceful pickets, to enable employers to often unlawfully bring in scab replacement workers.
Sujata: What’s interesting is that there was a relationship between the factory bosses and the police and they were obviously working very hand-in-glove. In fact, there was a senior police officer in charge of policing the strike who later became Grunwick’s personnel manager during the strike. He left the police force and became their personnel manager. There was absolutely no question about which side the police were on. What was interesting about that whole process was if you talked to some of the strikers, a lot of them would say, ‘I started this strike and I didn’t really have any opinion about the police. I never really thought about it and never really considered what side they would be on.’ However, within six months of seeing how they operated, they were in absolutely no doubt at all about where they stood in relation to the police, which side they were on and about how the police were completely there just to enforce the will of the employer which corresponded with the British state.
Amrit: When you talk of the state, the police were completely in the pocket of the employers and you had the Home Secretary giving orders and so on but then you had the courts which gave horrible sentences. You then had the media which was, perhaps, the most powerful thing. They reported entirely on the violence of the pickets and nothing was said about the violence of the police at all.
In part 1 Amrit mentioned that the Labour government and the employer made frequent use of the Special Patrol Group (SPG). Forerunners of today’s Territorial Support Group (TSG), the SPG were notoriously violent, and had neo-Nazis and fascists within their ranks.
Amrit: Yeah, we’ve seen the National Front symbol on the police line.
Not long before the Grunwick strike, SPG officers killed Kevin Gately, a 20-year-old student, during a protest against the fascist National Front. And a little after the end of the strike, in 1979, SPG officers killed Blair Peach, a socialist teacher who was at an anti-Nazi protest in Southall. While no one was charged in connection with his death, decades later the police admitted that their officers had killed him, probably with an illegal weapon. When the SPG office was raided, they had a stash of illegal weapons including weighted truncheons, knives, crowbars and whips, and at least one officer was found with a personal collection of Nazi memorabilia.
Going back to the strike, another group of workers who showed particular solidarity with the Grunwick strikers were printers.
Sujata: There was immense solidarity from some of the printing unions, like SOGAT.As well as turning up on the picket lines, at one point, some of the unions refused to actually print some of the material that was going into some of the papers. It’s my favourite clipping in the whole of the Grunwick archive. There is a page in the Sun, from late 1976 or possibly 1977, where it appears with half a blank page because the printing unions said, ‘This is biased. This is not a fair representation of what’s happening in Grunwick and we are refusing to print this column.’ It was just distributed with a blank section. Those kinds of things were significant. I think it was difficult to counter the media stuff because, like you say, the press and the media were most interested in the violence.
This kind of working class censorship, you could call it, is something which occurred in the UK in quite a few different disputes, probably most famously during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, when print workers refused to publish a story in the Sun tabloid painting union leader Arthur Scargill as Hitler. This was most likely a major reason Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sun, were so keen to break the organisation of print workers, which they did in the Wapping dispute of 1986-7.
There was one minor incident which the media covered in great detail. Here we will just include the whole clip from our interview, including my co-host, Matt.
There was this one occasion where a police officer on the picket line was hit by a flying milk bottle and ended up in hospital.
Matt: Back in those days, it would have been glass.
Sujata: [Laughter]. It would have been glass.
Matt: I’ve only got vague memories of glass milk bottles [laughter].
Sujata: That’s the thing with it being a residential street. You used to have doorstep deliveries in those days and you would have had milk bottles.
John: So it may have been full of milk [laughter].
Sujata: I don’t know if it was empty or full.
John: I guess you left out your empties, didn’t you?
Sujata: That’s right. You left out your empties. This police officer was hit by a bottle and ended up lying on the floor for several minutes, so that there was plenty of opportunity for photographs.
Amrit: In fact, he lay there for an unusually long time [laughter].
Sujata: It’s like with footballers who take a dive.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Sujata: Those pictures of that police officer lying on the floor with his head cut open became, for the mainstream press, almost the defining image of the strike. It was everywhere. Where you’d think about an image of Grunwick, it was always that one. The violence against the police became the overarching narrative and so then it was very difficult to counter that.
The strike began to drag on for a long time. And support from union leaderships for the workers started to wane. From trying to win in streets and workplaces, the union leaderships had switched their attention to courts and conference rooms.
Sujata: They got to a year and a half, the winter of ’77, they had become embroiled in these very protracted legal arguments and ACAS disputes.
ACAS you may remember is the government conciliation service. And if you’re not aware of it, it is not a place where workers win disputes with employers. To prepare its report, ACAS had requested contact details for its employees from Grunwick, so it could canvass their opinions. But Grunwick management refused to pass on any information. So ACAS could only produce a report based on the workers it could contact. This report recommended that Grunwick recognise APEX. Grunwick, supported by NAFF, then took legal action to quash the report, arguing that because they hadn’t consulted all the workers, it was invalid. After months of court battles, the Court of Appeal overturned the ACAS report, effectively gutting the Employment Protection Act, because it meant that employers could block unionisation just by refusing to cooperate with ACAS.
Sujata: The trade unions had got distracted by these processes. They put their faith in them and called off the mass action and the picketing. They really lost momentum by deciding to wait out that process. It’s very sad that it kind of just fizzled out.
Sujata: Over the course of 1977, the trade unions had become very worried and embarrassed by the militancy of some of the action and the numbers. They were quite clearly having a lot of pressure put upon them by the government. You could see , at the very top level, how much concern there was about what was happening at Grunwick. You could see that there was pressure being brought to bear on the strike committee and the strikers by the APEX union. It very much felt like there was nowhere left to go, I think.
In June 1977, the strikers rebelled against the legalistic tactics being forced on them by APEX and the TUC, and they issued a new call to restart mass picketing. When rank-and-file workers started to respond to the call, this pressured APEX to support the call themselves in order to avoid losing all credibility with the strikers.
The picket took place on 13 June, and again pickets were violently attacked by police. 84 workers were arrested, and again the press focused on supposed injuries suffered by police officers.
Armit: There were some people but there was nothing like before.
These new wave of mass pickets were not as big as they had been. But on 15 June, something happened which could have changed everything. Rank-and-file postal workers defied their union executive and again began a renewed boycott of Grunwick’s mail. This was especially important given the time of year, which was just before the holiday rush, when people would be sending in their roles of film taken during their annual summer holidays. The boycott was hugely successful, but in early July, post office management fought back.
Colum: Unfortunately, for our action in support of the Grunwick strikers we were locked out. Contrary to common belief that we went on strike, we did not go on strike. We were willing to deliver the mail to people in the Cricklewood area at no cost at all to the Post Office. We were willing to deliver it free rather than be locked out
So the Cricklewood posties wanted to keep delivering the mail to everyone in the area, except Grunwick, and were even willing to give up their pay to do so. But post office management locked out the workers, so nobody got any mail at all. This led to a widespread impression that postal workers had gone on strike in support of the Grunwick workers, which was not the case. Despite being locked out the postal workers held firm for eight weeks, and had Grunwick management on the verge of bankruptcy. But the post office threatened to sack all of the workers, and the UPW told them to go back to work, and threatened them with disciplinary action and the withdrawal of strike pay. The national UPW also disciplined and fined several London officials over the boycott.
The Cricklewood postal workers gathered a mass meeting, and by the razorthin margin of 51 votes to 48, the postal workers voted to return to work.
Colum: People were crying that they actually had to go back, but people were under pressure because they had mortgages, they had rent to pay, some didn’t have families that could support them, some were very near pension age, and they were under great pressure. So being democratics that we were, and being a good union, a loyal union – a strong family, that’s what we were – we went back.
The strikers and some other rank-and-file workers made other proposals for solidarity which could have brought Grunwick back to the table. In the end, these didn’t result in practical action. The bank workers’ union declined to cut-off Grunwick’s access to funding, and the electrical workers’ union declined to cut off their power, both saying that their members were contractually obliged to provide services to everyone.
The Labour government commissioned an enquiry into the strike, and APEX then called off pickets once more to wait for the result of the enquiry. But the enquiry was toothless, as while APEX had agreed to abide by the outcome of the report, Grunwick management didn’t.
This effectively put the nail in the coffin for the workers’ last chance for victory.
In the end, the government report recommended the reinstatement of the sacked strikers, and suggested that union recognition could be beneficial. But Grunwick management just ignored the report, and so the strikers had no choice but to try to keep up the pressure, despite their union trying to demobilise them.
By November 1977, the relationship between the strikers and union leaders had got even worse. By this point, the Trades Union Congress (TUC)and their union APEX thought that the strike couldn’t be won. But the workers disagreed. Four Grunwick strikers began a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the TUC, demanding help in winning the strike. APEX retaliated by suspending them from the union and taking away their strike pay.
Jayaben illustrated how the attitude of one senior union official they worked with changed over time.
Jayaben: Oh, first when he came he told us very nice words that “We are supporting you, we are behind you, you are not to worry about all these things…” Good words. But he didn’t do anything. And when we went on hunger strike he called us inside and threatened us, and said “Look, what you have done: you are fighting your own people”. I said “Yes, up to now we were fighting with management, now we are fighting with our people because you have hung us here on the wire now we are spinning here: we want to die or we want to get down. Now tell us what you are going to do”. And he wanted to know who told us to do the hunger strike.
Increasingly isolated, the workers fought on, eventually alone, but by July 1978, almost two years after the strike began, they decided to call it off.
Now in terms of achieving its stated aims, of union recognition and reinstatement of the sacked workers, the strike failed. However, it was successful in forcing Grunwick to significantly increase pay for the workers who didn’t strike during the dispute, as well as other benefits like pensions and even transport to work when the factory moved.
But the most important legacy of the strike is how it transformed the UK workers’ movement.
It marked a turning point: from the mostly white, organised workers’ movement seeing Asian, Black and migrant workers as competitors for jobs, they now began to see them as fellow workers to unite with and fight collectively against the employers. This then helped combat the creation of almost a permanent underclass of workers to be underpaid and mistreated.
Many union members realised that rather than be impossible to organise, many migrant workers were actually more militant than those born here.
Colum:For the first time in many of the people and my members who worked in the Post Office had never seen an ethnic group, particularly Indian women, out on a picket line, and they thought that this was a great acceptance by them of living in England and taking up the English ways, but not only that, asking to be part of the established community by being members of trade unions, which they were denied. I think that was one of the biggest inspiring acts that made our members support that action.
Now this was partly based on misconceptions that white workers had about migrant workers, many of whom would have been involved in unions and strikes back home. But many white workers didn’t realise this. The dispute also helped many understand that fighting against racism wasn’t a distraction from fighting for better pay and conditions, it was a central part of it. Since institutional racism enables the creation of a super-exploitable layer of workers who can be used to undercut existing pay and conditions.
But now, a little over 40 years later, this lesson is in danger of being forgotten.
Sujata: I think now we’re in this situation post-Brexit where, once again, it’s become okay to talk about migrant workers bringing down wages. British jobs for British workers.
Sujata: Even within the trade union movement, it’s become completely acceptable to promote those kinds of ideas again. You just have to look at Len McCluskey during his Unite reelection campaign talking about free movement and needing stable communities. That whole kind of language has reasserted itself. At that time of Grunwick, the reason it was so important was that for the first time, white, British workers started seeing foreign-born workers as part of their working class. For that moment in time, it was a change and a very, very powerful moment within the history of trade unionism in this country.
So in recent years, for example, in the Labour party first you had Ed Miliband pledging to control immigration on a giant stone plinth. And more recently, on the left of the party, you had Jeremy Corbyn blaming “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry” of British workers. Now it’s not incorrect to say that some employers try to lower their wage bills by hiring migrant workers. But blaming migration for “destroying conditions” is just completely incorrect. Especially in the construction industry, deterioration in conditions is more down to decades of blacklisting, union-busting, subcontracting and attacks on workers’ rights and organisation, which we covered in our recent episodes on the 1972 builders’ strike. Furthermore, painting what is primarily the free and voluntary movement of working class people as “wholesale importation” is also highly inaccurate, and has echoes of the false far right “replacement theory”.
Speaking of the Labour party, many of the tactics which were used by their government first against the Grunwick strikers and their supporters, were applied later by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
Amrit: It was a preparation for Thatcherism. In fact, Jayaben Desai actually said, ‘It’s happening to us but tomorrow, it’s going to happen to everybody.’ It was also a lead-up to Thatcherism. It was also quite unique because there hadn’t been anything before that or after, to be honest, where you had such a huge number of people fighting the State. I think that was very, very special for Grunwick.
Amrit: I mean it was just so amazing. At the height of the pickets, there were 20,000 people there. This was against the employers and, in a way, against the State. Even looking back now, it was potentially a revolutionary moment but it was something which, somehow, was let go of. I think that’s partly for the reasons Sujata has mentioned about the unions being afraid and so on but also because, we have to face it, the Left didn’t have any strategies. It just literally fizzled out and the Left were there in force. Every single Left party was there.
While the Grunwick strike is now celebrated, particularly over the period of its 40th anniversary and the last few years, there has not been much in the way of looking at what went wrong in the dispute.
Amrit: I think it’s interesting that if you look at all the commemorations of Grunwick, apart from some which Grunwick 40 organised, the ones which have been done by the trade unions, in general, they have not looked at why Grunwick was defeated. It was this great moment when everybody came together but then what?
Jack Dromey, mentioned here, was a trade unionist on Brent Trades Council during the strike, who later became a very senior union and Labour Party official and MP. Frances O’Grady is the head of the TUC, and Clive Lewis a Labour MP.
While there is certainly a lot to celebrate about Grunwick, primarily in terms of the inspirational example set by the workers themselves, and in how so many rank-and-file workers came together to support them, from the mass pickets to the postal workers. But it is also true that at the height of its power, the British trade union movement couldn’t beat one small employer in North West London. An employer, it’s worth pointing out again, who admitted that he was literally days from defeat during the postal boycott. But time and again, union leaderships called off meaningful action in return for meaningless promises.
There was another element of much of the commemorations and media coverage of the dispute which was concerning to Amrit and Sujata.
Amrit: There has been a kind of an Orientalist approach towards looking at Asian women in struggle and particularly, Jayaben Desai. They built her up as a star which was done in a particular way which only relates to the way the white gaze looks at Asian women. Most recently, we went to a meeting where another speaker described Jayaben Desai as ‘a woman with sparkling words and sparkling eyes’. I mean you just think, ‘Would you say that to a white, male trade union leader?
On this, I’ve certainly never heard of union leaders like Bob Crow or Arthur Scargill spoken about like that…
Amrit: Yeah, at the same time, they would say that she was a ‘great star’, she was ‘this wonderful woman’ or ‘this little woman who was so great’. There is a scene in the film they’ve been showing consistently at every commemoration which is a real classic. I don’t know if you remember that, Sujata. She is making a speech and there is a very large, white, male hand on her shoulder.
Amrit: I just thought, ‘The person who didn’t edit that out, what were they thinking?’I thought, ‘What does this mean?’
Sujata: That’s a really important point. Of all the coverage that there has been over the last 18 months, and there’s been a huge amount of it, I think almost every mainstream media piece on it has used this phrase ‘strikers in saris’ which just drives me mad. Like Amrit says, it’s so Orientalist and it’s saying, ‘Yes, let’s mark out these people because of their ethnic clothing.’ It’s absolutely infuriating. We made a very deliberate decision during the commemorations that we, as a group, were not going to use that phrase anywhere. I think there’s a way that you can talk about how empowering and inspirational the strike was because they were Asian women without objectifying these figures for their difference. People always ask me, ‘Why are you involved in this? You weren’t in the strike at the same time.’ However, one of the most formative moments, for me politically, was the moment that I saw that picture of Jayaben Desai when I was teenager. It would have been about ten years after the strike ended. I saw the picture of Jayaben Desai standing on the picket line. It’s a very famous photo. She’s got her fist in the air, she’s wearing her sari and she’s got her trade union armband on. It’s so, so inspirational and such a powerful image. I was a young, Asian, teenage girl growing up and questioning all these various things about my place in society and my place with regard to my family. Seeing this figure like this was just an incredibly inspirational and powerful movement. I think there’s a way that you can talk about these kinds of things without just completely objectifying and Orientalising the fact that there was a striker wearing a sari. If you wanted to go and see a striker wearing a sari, you could have gone anywhere. You could have seen them at Imperial Typewriters and you could have seen them at Mansfield Hosiery.
Amrit: You could have seen them all over India [laughter].
Sujata: If you go to India, you’ll see strikers in saris [laughter].
John: Yeah, up to 50 million at a time.
Sujata: Absolutely. The last general strike in India had how many participants?
John: Over 100 million.
Here I was referring to a general strike in India in 2012, which had around 100 million participants. Since then, there was an even bigger one, in November 2020, with over 250 million participants. Many of them in saris…
Another issue with more recent coverage and cultural discussion around the strike, which is very common in the recounting of history was the reduction of events about thousands of people down to a couple of individuals. Amrit here is about to refer to a play which came out in 2018, called ‘We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager’.
Amrit: The whole spirit of the thing gets lost now, looking back at the strike, because culturally we live in a different era, we’re so much into individual success that there is also a tendency to create celebrities. You don’t know anything about the celebrity but they’re just there because they’re a celebrity. That’s what they have largely done to Jayaben Desai, unfortunately. You could say that it’s easier to express something that way but it’s also deeply unpolitical. It depoliticises it. For example, there’s the play that has been done about the Grunwick strike. In some ways, it’s a good play because the acting is good and it brings together some of the events of the strike.
Amrit: It’s very well done for what it is but it has some major flaws in that it focuses really on two main people; one is Jack Dromey and one is Jayaben Desai. I thought the main role of theatre was to challenge and make you think about how your life is related to that. That just wasn’t there. It was completely missing. You just saw these two heroic figures without any question as to where we are now.
The same thing could also be said about much coverage of many historical events. Like, for example, the British miners’ strike of 1984-5, which involved hundreds of thousands of people but is often painted as a personal dispute between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. And it is hard to strike the balance between bringing history to life by discussing real individual people, and getting across the involvement of masses of people.
Sujata: Jayaben Desai was named by Radio 4 Women’s Hour as ‘one of the seven women who had the most impact in the last 50 years’. I can’t remember what the phraseology was. Having her named, on the one hand, means that you get to tell some of the story behind the strike and why she became important but, like Amrit says, you lose that collectivity.
Sujata: A strike, by definition, is a collective action and so to venerate one individual is always going to give you a slightly false impression.
From both the successes and failures of the strike, there are things we can learn today, which was a central part of what the Grunwick 40 group attempted to do with all of their commemorative events.
Amrit: I think those lessons were brought out by Grunwick 40 and the event which you organised because now, low-paid workers or migrant workers (precarious workers) are organising independently in member-led unions and they’re winning. I think this is a key thing. This is what links Grunwick to what’s happening now and those points are never made which is deeply worrying and the fact that that link is not made.
Sujata: It’s the smaller unions, like United Voices of the World, the IWGB, who are member-led and are winning victories.
Sujata: Not at ACAS but through action. If you look at the way they’re operating, they’re incredibly dynamic and incredibly responsive to what their members want and need and they’re winning. They’re winning battles against outsourcing. They’re winning battles for the London Living Wage. I think these are some of the most inspiring actions that we’re seeing anywhere, at the moment, across any kind of sector. I think that making the connection between what happened at Grunwick and what’s happening amongst these groups of migrant workers was always, again, a really important part of the Grunwick 40 Commemoration project. It’s migrant workers who are, more often than not, at the forefront of fighting for better pay and conditions. It’s not because of migrant workers that you’re being paid less. It’s probably because of a migrant worker that you’re earning something close even to the London Living Wage.
The IWGB Sujata mentioned here are the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, another small, rank-and-file-run union in Britain. Along with the UVW, they have won some inspiring victories in London in recent years, by taking militant strike action.
And when workers come together to fight for our collective self-interest, it can be an unforgettable, beautiful thing.
Jayaben: Best memory is the support that we got. It’s the best support I’ve ever got in my life. When I saw the mass picket, my eyes were full of water, let me tell you. I can’t stop myself… What support we got, that’s what I feel. When I saw the support from the public… my heart is full of love, let me tell you.
That brings us to the end of our double podcast episode on the Grunwick strike, we hope you enjoyed it, and got something from it even if you had already listened to her original episode about the dispute.
You can learn more about struggles by Asian, Black and other migrant workers in Britain at this time in the excellent book, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin. You can get it in our online store, link in the show notes. As a listener to the podcast you can get 10% off the cost of them or anything else in our store using the discount code WCHPODCAST.
As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, transcripts, and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
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Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Tyler Hill.
Thanks to all of you for listening. Catch you next time.
Interview transcribed PODTRANSCRIBE
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