In 1976, six workers walked out of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in Willesden, north west London, starting a historic two year strike that ignited debate about poorly paid, poorly treated workers. The strike was particularly significant because it was led by an Asian woman, a recent immigrant called Jayaben Desai.
It was summer when the strike began. Desai was working for 70p an hour, below the average wage. She and the others employed at the factory were routinely expected to work overtime, but this day – in the midst of an exceptionally hot summer – was the final straw. One of her colleagues had been sacked for working too slowly, and three others had resigned in protest. Issued a formal warning for refusing to work overtime, Desai snapped. She and her son Sunil walked out and joined the four workers picketing outside. “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo,” Desai reportedly told her manager. “In a zoo there are many types of animal. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune; others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”
The strike began that day and lasted til 1978, with this initial six expanding to 137 strikers. Their union, APEX, supported them. It was a local strike that quickly gained national prominence, covered nightly on news broadcasts. Within weeks, they had the support of others in the community. Across the country, 154 unions backed the strikers. Cabinet minister Shirley Williams voiced her support; the dispute was debated in parliament. Postal workers briefly cut off the company’s mail, while electricity and water supplies to the factory were threatened. One solidarity picket at the peak of the dispute, in June 1977, saw 20,000 people turn out to Chapter Road, a residential street between Dollis Hill and Willesden Green.
Images of the strike have been collected in a new exhibition marking 40 years since the Grunwick strike, on display in the Willesden Green library. I grew up in this corner of north-west London, and my parents still live off Chapter Road, the epicentre of the strikes. Despite this, I didn’t know about Grunwick til recently, and it is surreal to see these photographs of thousands of people crammed onto these familiar streets, protesting against injustice. The fact that local residents offered support to the strikers feels natural to me. Growing up in Brent – one of Britain’s most diverse boroughs – I always loved the fact that no two faces were the same, and that different communities existed in such close proximity and in such apparent harmony. Yet this was not the norm in 1970s Britain. In May 1976, weeks before the strike began, the National Front won 20 per cent of the vote in Leicester’s local elections. In June of the same year Gurdip Singh Chaggar, an 18 year old Sikh student, was stabbed to death in Southall, west London.
The strike was significant because it was started by immigrant women bravely standing up to injustice – but even more so because it was not limited to those women or those immigrants
Desai, who died in 2010, was a small woman, standing at under 5 foot. In the iconic photographs and footage from the strike, she wears a sari with a buttoned up cardigan, a megaphone in hand. One photo shows her squaring up to a row of enormous policemen. The so-called “strikers in saris”, as they were termed in the media at the time, smashed stereotypes of submissive Asian women. Here was a group of Gujarati Indian women standing up to unfair working conditions, and inspiring people from different races, religions, and genders to stand alongside them. Previous strikes by immigrant workers – such as those at the Mansfield Hosiery in 1972 and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974 – were totally ignored by the trade unions.
This moment of solidarity seems prescient to our present moment. Desai was part of a wave of migrants, south Asians from east Africa displaced after 60,000 were expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin. The 27,000 who arrived in Britain were soon vilified for taking British jobs, just as the first wave of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh had been a decade before, or the Caribbean immigrants before them, or the Irish before them. Today’s eastern European migrants have taken this place as the scapegoat for all manner of economic ills.
The Grunwick strike failed after 23 months. The factory refused to reinstate sacked workers or recognize their right to a union. But regardless of this ultimate defeat, it was a victory in race relations at a time when the broader political picture was bleak. The strike was significant because it was started by immigrant women bravely standing up to injustice – but even more so because it was not limited to those women or those immigrants. It became a wider movement against injustice and unfair working conditions, where people from different communities stood side by side. For 20,000 people to stand alongside a small group of disenfranchised Indian women was a moment of huge symbolism.
In times of economic discontent, it is all too common for people to fall back on divisions and hatred. The Grunwick strike, 40 years ago this year, is a reminder that it does not have to be so.