Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tribute to Jayaben Desai


THIS time next week together with friends from Brent Trades Union Council and others I'll be getting ready to pay tribute to a remarkable little woman, who deservedly became a big name in the history of British trade unionism and the advancement of Asian people in this country, particularly womenfolk. Indeed, many women from all backgrounds consider her a heroine an d role-model.

It was the hottest Summer on record, in 1976, and that August day the air conditioning at the Grunwick factory in Willesden was not working. The workers were rushing to keep up with the photo processing orders at this busy time, several having been sacked for being "too slow". At about 6.55pm Mrs. Jayaben Desai was ready to go home when she was called into the office, and told she must stay behind and work overtime.

Apparently this was not uncommon at Grunwick, where business was thriving, and the workforce were mainly women earning on average £28 a week - when the average wage for women factory workers in London was about £44 a week.

But like Rosa Parks in Alabama, who defied Jim Crow and sat down on the bus because she had "tired feet", Jayaben Desai had had enough. She was not intimidated by the threat of the sack. The little (4ft 10) woman from Gujarat would lead a walk-out, telling the six foot manager who tried to stop her: "What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But 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 the lions, Mr. Manager."

The Grunwick strike was to last two years, putting paid to the myth of Asian women's subservience, and marking a change in the attitude of white trades unionists, as thousands - engineers, postal workers, dockers and miners - rallied to support the strikers at Grunwick. Cabinet minister Shirley Williams and miners' leader Arthur Scargill were arrested on the picket line.

Altogether there were 550 arrests during the strike, as the police battled their way through trade unionists and students to fetch scab buses in. Mrs Desai (as she was always referred to at the time) recalled her thoughts in an interview for Hannah Phung of Brent Museum Archives: "It was amazing, let me tell you, it was amazing.[…] tears were in my eyes to see these people […] they were hurting themselves and the police were charging them with horses and everything and still they were standing strong."

Postal workers at Cricklewood decided to refuse to handle Grunwicks mail, a vital part of the film lab's operations. The right-wing National Association for Freedom organised scabbing to pick up the mail, probably illegally, while the law was used to break the post workers' stand, with their help of frightened union leaders.

"This is not a strike about wages, it is about human dignity", said Jayaben Desai. The strikers, who had joined the clerical union APEX, well-known for moderation, insisted on union recognition. Grunwick boss George Ward refused to recognise the union even when this was recommended by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), by a government inquiry, and by law lords. Ward enjoyed strong Tory backing. Meanwhile as we now know, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan had asked the security services to spy on Scargill.

The Grunwick strike ended in acrimony, with strikers feeling let down,hunger striking outside the TUC, and being expelled from their union. But APEX became part of the GMB union, and a few years ago Jayaben Desai was invited to its conference in Brighton, where to a standing ovation she received an award and apologies from the GMB's present leaders that the Grunwick strikers had not received more help from the union.

Jayaben Desai died on December 23 last year, aged 77. Her funeral was well-attended, but many more people said they would like to have paid tribute. There will be an opportunity to do that next Sunday, and to see the new film about The Great Grunwick Strike that was made on its anniversary.

The event is being organised by Brent Trade Union Council and will commence at 2.30pm on Sunday, April 17, at the Tricycle Cinema Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Rd, NW6 7JR (nearest tube is Kilburn) Tickets are £5.

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