Background to the Dispute
A majority of the striking workers in the Grunwick dispute were of South Asian origin (from the countries now known as Pakistan and India). Their families had settled in countries in East Africa during the British colonial rule and were accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. When the British colonies of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda gained independence in the 1970s, the new governments adopted policies that discriminated against these Asian migrants. Many people of South Asian origin chose to leave, while others were forced to flee, for example, when the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asian people from Uganda on 4 August 1972. As British citizens, with British passports, these migrants were entitled to settle in the UK, so many decided to migrate to the UK to begin a new life.
But despite being British citizens, these migrants faced a struggle to establish their families in London’s unwelcoming, post war society.
In Africa, most Asian migrants had lived in cities, were educated in the English language, held professional jobs and were well-off. However, having left at short notice, many families arrived in the UK with little money and had to leave most of their assets – houses, factories and investments – behind. They were determined to build a new life for themselves in the UK and contribute to their children’s futures. Because of their middle-class background, the kind of work that women in those families had done earlier was mainly teaching and administrative work (as secretaries, typists etc). But as migrants in the UK, these jobs were not accessible to them, and they found that they had to accept low-paid factory and manual work in the UK.
Conditions at Grunwick
A former Grunwick worker, Lataben, remembered:
There was no question of whether you wanted to or not – you had to work, so you did. And wherever you found work, you had to take it. It wasn’t that you were educated, so you only wanted certain kind of jobs – we had to work in factories and that’s how we brought up our children. …We used to have people working for us, and now we had to work for others. That’s life. …Of course I felt sad.
The factory owners in the UK welcomed this new workforce. Perhaps because the newly arrived workers were considered docile and hard working, they began to be sought out by the employers, including Grunwick. According to their strike leader, Jayaben Desai:
They got more work out of us. Asians had just come from Uganda and they all needed work. So they took whatever was available. Grunwick put out papers (leaflets): “come and we will give you a job. We give jobs to everyone.” Door to door. When I went, a friend of mine followed. And soon they were full of Asians.
The Grunwick film processing factory took on many migrant women workers, mostly Indian women from East Africa. The Grunwick workers recalled an atmosphere of fear and control by the managers at their workplace:
The managers were in a glass cabinet. They could see us, and if they called us into their office, the rest of the workers could see them, but could not hear what was going on. We used to work out of fear.
Jayaben Desai was a few years older than the other workers. She talked about how her fellow workers used to complain to her about how they were being treated:
They had made the rule that you had to get permission from the managers to go to the toilet. This woman said to me that she felt ashamed to ask. I said, When he has no shame making you ask loudly, why should you feel ashamed?
While these women were willing to accept jobs that had low status and low pay, they were unwilling to accept the degrading treatment that in those days was typically handed out to 'unskilled' non-white immigrants in workplaces.
Many people in Britain remember 1976 as the hottest summer on record; others will remember it as the summer of discontent for workers at Grunwick. On Friday 20 August 1976 , a group of workers led by the now famous Jayaben Desai, walked out in protest against their treatment by the managers. They decided that they had enough, and wanted to defend their dignity and their rights. They soon realised that having a trade union at their workplace would help them to fight for better rights. They joined a trade union, APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff). They began to demand that Grunwick should recognise workers’ right to join trade unions in order to take up any issues the workers may have with the factory owners.
In those days, trade unions were all led by white men, and women workers as well as non-white workers often found it very hard to win support from their unions. Many migrant workers felt that the unions were racist and supported the management in keeping the wages of women and non-white workers down. But something special happened at Grunwick.
After Jayaben and her co-workers spent a few months picketing outside the Grunwick factory, the cause of the Grunwick strikers was taken up by the wider trade union movement of the day. By June 1977 there were marches in support of the Grunwick strikers, and on some days more than 20,000 people packed themselves into the narrow lanes near Dollis Hill tube station.
Grunwick operated a mail order service to develop photographs – there were no digital cameras in those days. People sent their film rolls by post and the workers at the Grunwick developed and printed them, then sent the photographs back by post. Because of this working relationship between the postal workers and the workers at Grunwick, the Union of Postal Workers supported the Grunwick strikers' cause and on 1st November 1977 the union voted to boycott postal services to and from Grunwick. With this support victory seemed to be within the grasp of the striking women.
Meanwhile, as this dispute had been going on for some time, the government appointed a committee of enquiry headed by Lord Scarman to hear evidence from the workers and the factory owners at Grunwick. The government thought that, based on the evidence, they would be able to make some recommendations which would help to find a solution to the strikes. The Scarman Inquiry recommended that the owners of Grunwick should recognise the trade union and give the sacked workers their jobs back. Grunwick rejected these government recommendations.
By now the government and the union were getting nervous about the number of people who were coming out to support the strikers. The police began to come to the demonstrations in large numbers and there were reports that the police were violent towards people who were protesting. The press covered these events - but they mostly took the side of the police.
Both the TUC (Trade Union Congress) and APEX (the strikers' union), felt that the dispute could not be won and wanted to pull back. They effectively withdrew their support. But Jayaben Desai and the strikers were not about to be told what to do, even by their own union. They mounted a hunger strike outside the TUC headquarters on a cold day in November 1977. But even this action could not change the unions' mind, and so they had to call off the strike. The strikers felt abandoned and disillusioned with the trade union movement. As Jayaben Desai commented :
Trade Union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.
After two long years of struggle, the Grunwick dispute ended in defeat for the strikers. But according to jayaben Desai, not everything was lost:
…because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up because it was difficult for them to get to the new place. Can you imagine that? And they get a pension today! And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle.
From a very small factory in North London, though it ended in defeat, today Grunwick is remembered for the way in which thousands of workers, black and white, men and women, came together to defend the rights of migrant women workers