On the hot afternoon of 20th August 1976, Devshi Bhudia was sacked from the Grunwick mail order department in Chapter Road, London, for allegedly ‘working too slowly.’ The sacking followed a handful of people walking out of the factory in protest, including Jayaben Desai. Three days later on 23rd, this group of people picketed Grunwick. This event marked the beginning of two-year widespread workers strikes in Britain, one led by South Asian Women. The hot summer saw a different type of fire raging throughout London.
The Working Conditions at Grunwick
Many of the workers in the factory were women who were settlers in East Africa from India and Pakistan. When the East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania gained independence their newly formed governments adopted policies that discriminated against Asian migrants. As (colonial) British citizens they were entitled to settle in the UK, many of them decided to do so.
The post decolonisation and post World War 2 society of London was not as welcoming of these migrants either. The only work they could get was low-paid factory work and manual labour. Desperate for work, they accepted long hours and low wages at the Grunwick Film Processing Company.
The protesters described a glass cabinet or a glass room to describe the working conditions and their relationship with their manager. They could see the workers, and if they called someone 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.” The workers were also not allowed to be members of any Trade Unions. With low wages and short noticed compulsory overtime working hours, the workers of the factory reached a breaking point post the dismissal of Devshi Bhudia.
The Growth of the Movement
Eventually, hundred people walked out within the next week, Grunwick sacked 137 employees. The employees join a union named APEX (The Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff), which the factory refuses to recognise.
The movement was able to mobilize more than 20,000 people.
The next few months saw a larger trade union movement take up the cause of the Grunwick workers, there were marches in support of the Grunwick strikers. The movement was able to mobilize more than 20,000 people. The strike committee, took their cause to more than a thousand workplaces, from engineering factories in Glasgow to the coal mines of South Wales. Hoping for unity in the common face of bad working conditions. The Strike Committee had simple demands of a raise in wages, a recognition as a Union, and no compulsory working hours.
The nature of the strike became more and more confrontational and the police began clamping down on the picketers. November 1977 saw, 243 pickets injured, 12 with broken bones and 113 arrested.
The quickly spreading movement gained attention from the media as well the politicians, labour government’s ministers Fred Mulley, Shirley Williams, and Dennis Howell joined the picket line along with National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill. 1400 trade unionists and supporters marched in support of the strike. A Strike Committee is established with Jayaben Desai as the treasurer. Although TUC (Trades Union Congress) and APEX and other trade unions extended support to the Grunwick Dispute, there was a constant tussle within this front as well, as in the same month four members of the Strike Committee Jayaben Desai, Vipin Magdani, Johnny Patel and Yasu Patel defied the Executive Council of APEX and stage a hunger strike outside Congress House. The APEX responded by suspending them without pay for 4 weeks.
As the factory operated through a mail service system, when the Union of Postal Workers supported the Grunwick strikers’ cause and boycotted services to Grunwick, there was a strong hope of victory.
Exploring The Faces of The Protest
Jayaben Desai and the other South Asian women at the forefront of the movement became the face of the strike. Desai was a strong-willed woman, unlike the expectations of the Grunwick management who hired the South Asian women expecting them to be docile. On the day that Jayaben, walked out of the factory she told her manager
“What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”
With a strong resolve, Jayaben led her fellow workers to one of the largest Trade Union movements of the time. On 14 December 2016 Desai was named as one of the women chosen by BBC’s Woman’s Hour for their 2016 Power List. The ‘Strikers in Saris’ challenged the notions surrounding South Asian Women in Britain and across the world.
Yet, eventually, TUC and APEX felt that the dispute could not be won and withdrew their support. In May 1978, the Grunwick Management rejected the proposals and denied to rehire the strikers and the House of Lords upheld the decision of the factory to not recognise the Union and the strike came to an end.
Although the strikers did not get their jobs back there is a silver lining, “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,” the protestors said in an interview. The improved conditions were not limited to Grunwick but numerous other workspaces.
A part of the legacy of the strike is the change in race relations. In the 1970s, black and Asian workers were ignored by the trade unions. The nature of the strike over a couple of years managed to create a united front spanning across identities and race, helping change the dynamics of the race relations in Britain.
The most important victory of the strike was the challenge to the stereotypes and about the place of immigrant workers in society. The protestors spoke to Spare Rib Magazine, about how struggling against the patriarchy was also part of the battle. In a piece titled ‘Risking Gossip and Disgrace,’ they talk about their struggles at home with their fathers and husbands or even neighbours acting as deterrents in them going out to protest. With the management purposely spreading false rumours about the women protesting for their ‘boyfriends’ so that their families would take away their agency of going out to psychological pressures added by the social implications of the South Asian culture.
Yet, them having fought this fight for two long years, serves as an inspiration to stand up for one’s rights and also for the constant struggle against the patriarchal foundations. For instance, Urmilaben Patel, a striker said in an interview “My little grandson, he asks about it (Grunwick) all the time. He feels very proud of me that I did such things in my life. ‘You!’ he used to say – ‘I can’t believe you went on strike, grandma!’” There is a lasting legacy in questioning and changing the image of women in and outside the South Asian families.
- Jack Dromey and Graham Taylor (1978) Grunwick: the Workers’ Story Lawrence & Wishart, London
- Roger Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes: 1893 to 1985
Featured Image Source: TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University