Friday, August 25, 2006

A piece of local history that's too "political"?

IT'S 30 years since a strike by 130 workers, mainly Asian women, at the Grunwick photo processing laboratory in Willesden, led to clashes on the street and battles in the courts, but this episode in history is once more a live issue causing controversy in north-west London.

Trade unionists from around the country rallied to the side of the Grunwick strikers in their fight for union rights and conditions. Unthinkable as it now seems, Labour cabinet ministers like Shirley Williams (a member of their particularly moderate trade union, APEX) joined the picket line. Post office workers at Cricklewood refused to handle Grunwicks mail until they were locked out and their union, facing legal action, disciplined them.

On the other side the Metropolitan Police were out in strength to keep Grunwicks open for scabs, and the right-wing National Association for Freedom intervened to support Grunwick boss George Ward with both strikebreaking and legal moves.

Now thirty years later, the Grunwick strike seems to have divided Brent borough council.

Brent Trades Union Council, whose then leader Jack Dromey made his name rallying support for the strike, is planning a commemoration event on Sunday, September 17. Bro.Dromey, now deputy secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and until recently Labour Party treasurer (as well as partner of Solicitor General Harriet Harman) has agreed to speak. Arthur Scargill, who brought Yorkshire miners down to join the picket is expected too. Jayaben Desai, whose refusal to work compulsory overtime started the strike, and who became the best-known of the strike leaders, may not be able to come now due to family illness, but another of the original strike committee has agreed to replace her.

Besides the speakers there's to be a photographic exhibition and a film.
The event takes place at the Tricycle Theatre, in Kilburn, on Sunday, September 17, and you can find out more by visiting

Two weeks ago the trades unionists delivered leaflets advertising their event to local libraries in Brent, which took them without any problem.
But then a week ago librarians contacted the trades council to say they could not display the Grunwick commemoration leaflets. Asked why, one said there had been complaints, including from local councillors, and the head of Libraries in Brent, had decided "the subject matter is political and therefore unsuitable for display in libraries". .

Brent TUC secretary Ben Rickman made some enquiries and found that the request to pull the leaflets came from Linda Silver in the Tory group office at Brent Town Hall. Apparently Tory Cllr Bob Blackman was involved.

So Brent trades unionists, including those who work in the libraries staff, were pleasantly surprised this week to see a press release announcing that Brent's local history museum - now housed in the Willesden library centre - is holding an exhibition to commemorate the Grunwick strike. The release quotes Cllr Alec Castle, Brent Council’s Lead Member for Human Resources and Diversity, Local Democracy and Consultation, praising the museum's work in encouraging residents "to learn more about our rich local history".

“Many people may not realise that an event of national importance happened close to where our own local museum is located. We would encourage residents to take some time this month to go and learn more about the Grunwick Strike and about the people involved who risked a great deal to stand up for what they believed in.”

Someone remembered that Councillor Castle, nowadays a Lib Dem, was on the Grunwick picket line. It was also noted that Grunwick boss George Ward resurfaced almost ten years ago as secretary of Hendon Conservative association, in the neighbouring borough of Barnet.* But that can't possibly have had any influence on fellow-Tories in Brent. Incidentally, I wonder who those "members of the public" were who complained, if such really exist, and how their complaint came to be routed via the Tory councillors' office. And what size boots they take.

If they get away with censoring leaflets what next? The exhibition at the museum? Publicity for plays at the Tricycle (which are sometimes "political")? Or newspapers and library books?

* Hansard, 6 April 1998:

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): As we have already heard one or two blasts from the past, would it surprise my hon. Friend to learn that the infamous anti-trade unionist George Ward is chairman of Hendon Conservative association?
He has not lost his anti-democratic principles, and that association has, recently been suspended from the national association, on the ground that Mr. Ward, among others, has been trying to infiltrate the Conservative association
with his friends and relatives and employees of Grunwick?

PHOTO ABOVE of police at Grunwick is from Marg Nicol's Resist gallery.

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