Who decided to bust Grunwick pickets?
POLICE hold line at Grunwick. Home Secretary Merlyn Rees told strikers they had right to halt buses and persuade people not to go in. But police evidently had different instructions.
(pic P.J. Arkell, Marg Nicoll collection)
AROUND 400 people must have attended Brent Trades Union Council's event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Grunwick strike on Sunday. Contrary to my earlier expectation, strike leader Mrs.Jayaben Desai was able to come and speak, despite recent illness and a family tragedy (a son's death). This is one frail but very determined lady.
Jayaben shared a platform with niners' leader Arthur Scargill, who led miners to join the Grunwick picket line, former Brent TUC secretary Jack Dromey who gained prominence supporting the strike, and Derek Walsh, whose postmen defied the state and their own union leadership at the time by refusing to handle Grunwick mail.
Among tributes paid to the diminutive strike leader perhaps the most moving came from a young woman trade unionist of Asian background who said she had not been born at the time of the Grunwick strike, but had always been inspired by the picture of Mrs.Desai to know that she could stand up and fight for what was right. In response, Jayaben said modestly that she had only reflected her times, along with her fellow-strikers, and was thankful for having had the chance.
Besides reminiscences and discussion, which inevitably turned to more recent struggles like Gate Gourmet, the role of the unions and union officialdom, and the failure of Labour to repeal Tory anti-union laws, there were films and a photographic exhibition, Indian food, and performance by the Banner Theatre and singer Leon Rosselson. All in all, though not without controversy, the day was a good one for all.
Not that everybody was happy to see Grunwick being commemorated. Tory councillors in Brent had the Trades Council's publicity leaflets banned from the borough's libraries. The Tricycle Theatre which hosted the event received a letter from someone who said she was a former Willesden resident, denouncing those who had joined the Grunwick picket as a "rentacrowd", and claiming she had seen miners sticking knitting needles into police horses. Oddly enough, despite plain-clothes police mingling among the crowds, hundreds of arrests in the two-year strike, and some pretty imaginative charges, this lady and her shocking evidence of equine abuse doesn't seem to have figured in any of the court cases.
On one day alone in 1977 some 243 people were injured outside Grunwick. Many had bones broken. When a policeman was hurt it made front-page headlines. Meanwhile magistrates boasted of the stiff sentences they were handing down on people arrested at Grunwick.
Thinking about the police determination to bust the pickets and keep supporting trades unionists and students away from Grunwick, I remember a conversation I had about a year before the strike with a young police officer in the West Midlands. He told me he had been on duty at Saltley coke depot in Birmingham in 1972 when engineering factory workers decided to come to the aid of the picketing miners. "The moment we saw those union banners coming over the hill we knew we were defeated".
The police decided to withdraw from Saltley depot that day, the gates were closed, and workers claimed a victory for which the Tories never forgave them. But by the time of the Grunwick strike a decision was evidently taken to beat the strikers and their supporters by whatever means were necessary. Admittedly the Metropolitan Police were probably less inhibited than their Midlands counterparts about turning local streets into battlefields, and attacking working people. In the newsreel film you can see the Special Patrol Group thugs enjoying their violence. But the use of tough measures and horses was a sign of bigger and worse to come against the miners, and the printworkers at Wapping. There's your rentamob, and well-paid for it.
There were 4,000 police to guard Grunwicks, many more than there had been at Saltley. Unless we imagine a backstreet colour processing lab was somehow as important as a major fuel depot - or Murdoch's presses - we have to see the decision to break Grunwick's pickets was political. But whose decision was it, considering Labour cabinet ministers, including the now Baroness Williams actually came on the picket? Again, who decided that the Post Office could allow the right-wing National Association for Freedom(NAFF) to handle Grunwick mail, in breach of the Post Office Monopoly Act, as Derek Walsh says, and yet to lock-out Cricklewood post office workers for refusing to handle Grunwick mail, thus breaching its own obligations to ensure mail service to the public? Who decided that post office unions could be dealt with under laws designed to deal with mail robbery if they did not discipline their members?
The unions retreated from solidarity action, letting the dispute go to ACAS, and law. The Scarman tribunal recommended reinstatement of the strikers, and recognition of the union. But Grunwick boss George Ward ignored it, and the House of Lords found for Grunwick. There was no law for the workers.
Having signed up for the International Monetary Fund's loan, the Callaghan government had to adopt the austerity measures which led to the so-called "winter of discontent". Discussion at Sunday's Grunwick commemoration rightly turned to how right-wing union leaders helped the government by doing everything to weaken and undermine the kind of solidarity shown at Grunwicks. But should historians be interested, there is also much to be uncovered about how, and where, and by whom, decisions were taken about the use of force against workers, that should help us understand more about how Britain is really governed.
COPIES of the films Stand Together and Look Back at Grunwick produced by Newsreel Collective were made available on one DVD for the event and at £6 sold like the proverbial hot cakes, or whatever. It may be possible to order, though I'm not sure of the price, from Brent Trades Union Council, 375 High Road, Willesden, NW10 2JR