Looking back at Grunwicks
Indomitable..... JAYABEN DESAI
(thanks for this excellent photo to
IT will soon be 30 years since a group of mainly Asian women working in a backstreet factory in Willesden, north-west London took a decision that would lead to one of Britain's toughest industrial disputes, lasting two years and involving clashes with police, hundreds of arrests, legal battles and a Cabinet crisis.
A few of us from Brent Trades Union Council were in the Tricycle Theatre, in Kilburn, on Saturday discussing arrangements to commemorate the Grunwick strike with a major event in September.
The workers at Grunwick photo processing were earning around £28 for a forty hour week when the national average was £72 a week. Conditions particularly in the mail order department were bad, and work was being speeded up to meet Summer demand. The women's toilet breaks were timed, and the management instituted compulsory overtime. There were complaints of harassment and bullying, and allegations that white workers had been paid more than the others.
When Mrs Jayaben Desai was told to work overtime she refused and, together with her son, who also worked at the plant, walked out. She returned to stand outside the factory collecting signatures demanding trade union recognition. Other workers joined her. They'd got a picket.
The clerical union APEX, far from the most militant in the country, made the strike official.
Gone was the myth that Asian women were docile and uncomplaining. Workers from elsewhere rallied to the support of these workers standing up against injustice and exploitation. The right-wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF) and racist Lady Birdwood's Self-Help group organised strike-breaking operations. Police swarmed into Chapter Road, the street outside Grunwick, to battle pickets.
Some 600 arrests were made, including miners' leader Arthur Scargill who had brought some of his members to join the pickets, and some Labour cabinet ministers who were members of APEX. Some policemen plainly enjoyed brutally attacking workers and student supporters, and some magistrates boasted of their harsh treatment of those brought before them for alleged picketing offences.
One group of workers who took vital action in support of the Grunwick strikers were the postal workers at Cricklewood who refused to handle Grunwick mail. Post Office management responded with a lock-out, stopping other people's mail. The NAFF helped Grunwick boss George Ward take legal action against the Union of Postal Workers, which dropped its ban in return for a supposed promise of arbitration.
Grunwick was a turning point for the workers, who showed their willingness to fight, and found they were not fighting alone. Unfortunately it was a turning point in another sense for the unions.
With powerful allies, the company refused to back down even when an inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman recommended re-instatement of strikers and union recognition. The unions which could have closed Grunwick by cutting essential services backed off, partly fearing legal action - the UPW actually disciplined its Cricklewood members - but also waiting for a call from the all-too 'moderate' APEX, which never came. The Grunwick strikers were reduced to calling a hunger strike outside the TUC headquarters, Congress House.
To reclaim a saying from the right, moderation in the defence of liberty is no virtue, and in the following decade we paid the price for being too reasonable. While the TUC leaders bleated about "partnership", the police were used en masse against the miners, and the printworkers at Wapping, while the Tories armed themselves with the anti-union laws which Blair's New Labour has still not repealed.
More recently it was the Gate Gourmet workers who tried to hold the line against sackings, pay cuts, union busting and organised scabbing, and the baggage handlers at Heathrow who stopped British Airways in solidarity, and were victimised. With the law threatening in the background the TGWU accepted a compromise which has left striking workers outside the gate.
Jayaben Desai is getting on these days, and not in the best of health, but she has promised to attend the Grunwick commemoration at the Tricycle on Sunday, September 17. TGWU deputy secretary general Jack Dromey who was secretary of Brent TUC at the time of the strike will be there, and so will Derek Walsh, who was UPW district organiser, and Arthur Scargill too.
But most important, if you were involved in the strike at Grunwicks, or came down to show solidarity on the picket line, or if you are too young but would like to know what it was all about, and what it means for working people now, this is going to be an occasion for you.
There'll be a film, "Stand Together", an exhibition, and some Indian food. It will be a celebration of solidarity, a time to remember and look back at our history, but also a time to gather our forces and think about the issues that are facing us today.
more info. and scope for comments at http://tinyurl.com/o9uy2
see also: http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/