Good Riddance to Mr.Grunwick!
GEORGE WARD (right) with former Hendon MP John Gorst
WE don't often drink before our union meetings, and though as the years go on one gets used to honouring a sister or brother who has died, last night was different. We had heard the news that former Grunwick boss George Ward had died, aged 79, and before Brent Trades Union Council began its monthly meeting we raised paper cups, charged with wine that someone had brought along, to celebrate his passing.
The Grunwick factory next to Dollis Hill station is no more, and its site has been taken by a block of flats. Back in the 1970s it housed possibly the biggest film processing and photographic finishing businesses under one roof, trading under various brand names. Both commercial and amateur colour photography had grown, too much for local chemists to handle or invest in expensive equipment. Customers posted undeveloped films to the lab, either directly or through agents, and received finished photographs back. Business was growing. Grunwick's trading profit at the time was reported as being a steady 30% and above per annum.
The average wage 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.
George Ward, himself of Anglo-Indian 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."
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.
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 tamest in the land, the clerical union APEX, which was how a cabinet minister - Shirley Williams, who was an APEX sponsored MP - came to be 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".
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.
There were 4,000 police to guard Grunwicks, many more than there had been at Saltley coke depot against the miners. Though Grunwick reportedly did work for the Metropolitan Police this hardly seemed enough to explain their show of strength. But evidently a decision had been taken by someone in authority to break this strike, in revenge for the miners' victory, and to inflict defeat on the unions.
While the police forcibly cleared the streets so Grunwick could 'bus in strikebreakers, workers at Cricklewood post office realised they could hit Grunwick at its most vulnerable point by refusing to handle the firm's mail. Again, someone decided that the postal workers could be locked-out for their principled stand, even though this meant the Post Office breaching its obligation to maintain postal services to the public; and that the right-wing National Association for Freedom(NAFF) could send its volunteers to handle Grunwick mail, in breach of the Post Office Monopoly Act.
Taking this further, the post office union was threatened with prosecution under laws designed to deal with highwaymen and mail robbery if it did not discipline the Cricklewood members.
As the strike dragged on there were calls for other unions to act against Grunwick, so as to effect the firm's power and other services. But the unions retreated from solidarity action, letting the dispute go to ACAS, and law. The Grunwick strikers were finally left on hunger strike on the TUC's doorstep. 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.
The Grunwick strike was a turning point, in that large numbers of mainly white trade unionists rallied to the side of a mainly immigrant workforce, but it also became a trial run for the combination of class law and brutal policing we were to see used against the miners, and protecting Rupert Murdoch's investment at Wapping. The Grunwick struggle merits further study and investigation, both to learn about the workers' movement and the establishment that it is up against.
While the workers who came to support the Grunwick strike were victimised in the courts and vilified in the media, George Ward became a hero of the upper class, if not quite one of them. In later years he turned from busing scabs to racing nags. "Races he sponsored included the Bonusprint King George at Kempton on Boxing Day; the Tripleprint Gold Cup at Cheltenham in December; the Bonusprint Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival; the Bonusprint Bula Hurdle; the Bonusprint Old Roan Chase; and Haydock’s Bonusprint Champion Hurdle." (Telegraph obituary).
"Yet while he remained a hero to many Conservatives, Ward’s relations with the party hierarchy were not always happy. In 1998 the then Tory leader William Hague announced the suspension of the Hendon party, of which Ward was chairman – the first such move in 50 years. Ward was accused of bringing in relatives and employees to take control of the association and signing up 50 new members in the run-up to the annual meeting, when he was challenged for the chairmanship. Ward denied the allegations". (ibid).
Ward continued to run his business until shortly before his death. Although the firm adapted to the digital camera revolution, it saw a marked decline in its business. After selling its main Bonusprint business in January last year, Grunwick closed in May 2011.
The Grunwick boss and his friends, or at least his lawyers, also continued over the years to hit out at detractors and opponents. On two occasions — in 1982 and 2007 — he won libel damages from the BBC after it broadcast (and then rebroadcast) claims by Shirley Williams about “Victorian” working practices at the company. He also obtained an apology from Socialist Worker over an article.
Brent Trades Union Council, under the leadership of the late Tom Durkin and a young trade unionist from Kilburn called Jack Dromey, played a stalwart role in mobilising solidarity with the Grunwick strikers. It was on the Grunwick picket line that trades council secretary Jack Dromey, now a Labour MP, met his wife Harriet Harman, who was a legal adviser to the strike committee. In 2006 when the Brent TUC decided to organise an event commemorating the Grunwick strike we found that local libraries which had agreed to take our publicity leaflets withdrew them from display and handed them back. It was not clear who had objected, but we did learn there had been a discussion in the Tory group office on Brent council.
We protested at the town hall one evening before a council meeting. A young woman who took our leaflet about the strike exclaimed "Gosh, I grew up around here, and did not know about any of this!" The commemoration event was a resounding success, attended among others by Arthur Scargill, Jack Dromey and Jayaben Desai, whose diminutive figure on the pickets had come to symbolise the strike for so many people.
A young Asian woman who spoke from the audience said she had been told about the strike by her parents. She kept a photograph of Jayaben Desai in her wallet, and looked at it for inspiration whenever she felt the need for courage. "It was just the times," said Jayaben, denying modestly that she had been anyone special.
In June 2007 Mrs. Desai was awarded a Gold Badge of honour at the conference of the GMB union which had absorbed APEX. In presenting it the union officer apologised to her and her workmates that their union had not given them the support they deserved. Sadly, Jayaben died on December 23, 2010, so did not live to see the death of her enemy George Ward.
For the Grunwick commemoration in 2006 there was a DVD produced, with the two films Stand Together and Look Back at Grunwick, both made in 1977. A more recent film The Great Grunwick strike 1976–1978: A history made for Brent Trades Union Council by Chris Thomas, combines period footage with follow up, and interviews with participants, including Jayaben Desai. It was shown at the tribute to her last year, and is also available on DVD.
Mr.Ward and his lawyers were not happy about this.
So it was good to raise a glass, or even a paper cup, to his removal.