The Grunwick strike reflected the circumstances of the 1970s, which was a particular moment in British labour history when trade union membership was very high. This decade saw many strikes and workers taking action in solidarity with other workers including the 1972 miners’ strike and strikes during the 'Winter of Discontent in 1978- 1979’.
In 1979, soon after the end of the Grunwick dispute, a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher was elected. This government was determined to limit the power of trade unions, and it introduced a set of measures that profoundly changed the balance of power between the employers and the workers.
There were five major pieces of trade union legislation between 1979 and 1990:
- The 1980 Employment Act
- The 1982 Employment Act
- The 1984 Trade Union Act
- The 1988 Employment Act
- The 1990 Employment Act.
These legislative changes imposed severe restrictions on the ability of unions to organise lawful industrial action and made them liable to claims for damages in the event of actions which were not sanctioned by membership ballots.
Over the following years, it has become more and more difficult for trade unions to take strike action, and workers are being encouraged to pursue individual cases through the employment tribunals rather than take collective action in defence of their rights. In the wake of these changes, the Gate Gourmet dispute took place in a very different political, economic and regulatory framework for the trade unions. Also during this period, many workers who had been employed by big companies or state enterprises were now employed by small private companies where the conditions of work were inferior and precarious.
During this period, many South Asian women workers in the UK continued to take part in industrial action in defence of their rights, with, and sometimes without, the support of their unions.