The mobilisation of the Trade Union movement in the 1970s in support of Asian women made history. It defied stereotypes about South Asian women as docile and uninterested in politics. The Grunwick dispute was one of the factors that contributed to the outlawing of secondary picketing by Thatcher’s Conservative Government in the 1980s.
The Trade Union movement continues to celebrate the Grunwick dispute as a victory and a turning point in anti-racist, labour and pro-feminist politics. Jayaben Desai has been celebrated as a heroine of the British labour movement. But there has been no such celebration or official inquiry for the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. Their union gave them limited support during the early days of the dispute. The Gate Gourmet dispute attracted only short-lived press interest. The Gate Gourmet women have not become heroes of a struggle – and their precarious position in the labour market has become grounds for dismissal rather than celebration.
But both the Grunwick and the Gate Gourmet women workers have a story to tell about the disputes and the effects on their lives; about their appreciation of the solidarity derived from their own collective actions; about the support they received from members of the public and other organisations; and about their feelings of betrayal regarding their working lives as union members and activists. Their experience indicates that though the trade unions have come a long way in recognising claims made by their women and non-white members, they still have some way to go.
Through their workplace activism, migrant South Asian women in the UK have contributed to the pursuit of dignity and equality for all women and all workers. This should be celebrated as part of larger struggles for gender and workplace justice.