Farewell to Jayaben Desai
A GENUINE working class heroine died on December 23, aged 77 after some months of illness.
Jayabene Desai was the little Asian woman who became the best-known face of one of the biggest industrial struggles in Britain within living memory.
Grunwick is a film processing and photographic finishing business that was operating in back-street works in Willesden, north-west London, and trading under various brand names. Customers posted undeveloped films to the lab and received finished photographs back. With the growth of both commercial and amateur colour photography, too much for local chemists to handle or invest in expensive equipment, business was growing. Grunwick's trading profit at the time was reported as being a steady 30% and above per annum.
The average pay at Grunwick was £28 a week, compared to the national average wage of £72 a week, and average full-time wage for women manual workers in London of £44 a week. Overtime was compulsory, and when there was a rush on workers would be asked to work overtime with no prior notice. Most of the workforce, about 80 per cent, were Asian women, and another 10 per cent were Afro-Caribbean women.
Grunwick boss George Ward, himself of Anglo-Asian origin, would argue that far from exploiting the women, he was helping them by providing work. Grunwick strikers saw it differently: "Imagine how humiliating it was for us, particularly for older women, to be working and to overhear the employer saying to a younger, English girl 'you don't want to come and work here, love, we won't be able to pay the sort of wages that'll keep you here' – while we had to work there because we were trapped."
Jayaben Desai said: "The strike is not so much about pay, it is a strike about human dignity."
There had been a previous attempt to organise Grunwicks by the Transport and General Workers Union, but without success.
The Summer of 1976 was memorably hot in London, and on Friday August 20 the workers at Grunwick's Chapter Road factory were toiling to keep up with orders. There was no air conditioning. A worker called Devshi Bhudia was dismissed for working too slowly.Three others, Chandrakant Patel, Bharat Patel and Suresh Ruparelia, walked out in support of him. At 6.55pm Jayaben Desai put on her coat to leave and was called into the office where she was dismissed for doing so. Her son Sunil walked out in support of her.
As Jayaben told the boss:
"What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."
The following Monday, the six began picketing their workplace, and also approached the Citizens Advice Bureau, who advised them to join a union. For some reason this was to be one of the weakest and most 'moderate' in the land, the clerical union APEX, which brought the unusual sight of a cabinet minister - Shirley Williams, who was an APEX sponsored MP - being arrested on the picket line. As trade unionists from around the country rallied to support the Grunwick strikers, miners' leader Arthur Scargill was also arrested. Prime Minister James Callaghan gave orders that no more cabinet ministers must go to Grunwick, and asked MI5 to keep him posted on Scargill's movements, saying "he may have to be warned off if necessary".
In some previous disputes involving immigrant workers fighting for their rights, the white workers had been indifferent or even hostile, but things were changing, and the Grunwick workers seemed to catch the imagination and the mood. Thousands of trade unionists came to join mass pickets, seeing it as a matter of honour, while on the other side, still remembering the miners' success in closing Saltley coke depot with other workers support, there was a determination - running from the Tory party through the right-wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF) and the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group - that the unions would not succeed.
The strike lasted two years. Thousands of pickets and police were involved in clashes, hundreds of people were injured, and there were 550 arrests. It was said that magistrates took a pride in extra harsh treatment of anyone arrested at Grunwick. Not that the law in this country is class biased or political, of course.
When an important group of workers - the post office workers at Cricklewood office particularly - decided to help the Grunwick strikers by refusing to handle the company's mail, an old law was dug out making it a criminal offence to hold up anyone's mail. When this did not suffice to intimidate the post workers, unfortunately their own union got fright and disciplined those who were not willing to back down. On the other hand when the NAFF organised scabbing and arranged for some of its middle class volunteers to pick up Grunwick mail, the laws governing postal services were ignore, and the authorities looked the other way.
The Labour government commissioned an inquiry, chaired by Baron Scarman, which came down in favour of union recognition, and the re-instatement of sacked Grunwick workers. The employer, supported by the Tories and the NAFF, rejected its recommendations.
What was left? Calls were made for other workers besides the post workers to cut Grunwicks services off. Trade unionists picketed some chemists shops to persuade them to stop dealing with Grunwick. Legal action to stop this failed. But the firm kept going. One of its chief customers now was said to be the Metropolitan Police. And rather than cut off Grunwick, the TUC cut off the strikers by withdrawing its support. Jayaben and others held a hunger strike outside Congress House, for which they were expelled by APEX.
At a ceremony presenting Jayaben Desai with an award on the anniversary of the strike, an official of the GMB union (which now incorporates APEX) apologised publicly for the way the union had let the Grunwick strikers down.
Earlier, at a benefit for the Gate Gourmet workers defending jobs and union rights at London Airport, there had been a message of support and generous donation from Jayaben Desai on behalf of her fellow workers, and her apologies that due to ill-health she could not attend.
Fortunately Jayaben and some of her family and friends did manage to attend our Brent Trades Union Council event commemorating the Grunwick strike, and she was one of the liveliest speakers. Perhaps the most moving tribute paid to her there came from a young woman who spoke from the floor, a trade unionist of Asian family background, who said that she had not been born yet at the time of the Grunwick strike, only hearing about it from her parents and books. But she had obtained a picture of Mrs.Desai which she kept. Whenever she needed to summon up courage, she looked at the photo, she said, it inspired her with confidence that she could speak 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.
Note from Pete Firmin:
Very sadly Jayaben Desai, who became the public face of the Grunwick strike of 1976/77, died on 23rd December. She had been ill for several months. The funeral will be on 31st December, 11.00 am at Golders Green crematorium. Mr Desai is quite rightly very proud of his wife and would like people to come if they are able, so can you spread the word around? A sad loss for us all.
President Brent TUC