The Grunwick strike spanning 2 years by Asian African Immigrant women workers in Britain is a lesson in history on the class unity that can be forged among workers across race and gender and the classic example of reformist trade union politics failing the working class yet again. Forty years since the strike in 1976, the documentary aptly titled ‘The Great Grunkwick Strike‘ captures the spirit of the struggle through reflections by strikers and trade union activists. The documentary, directed by Chris Thomas, explores the conditions of the factory, the height of the struggles, the repression by police, the strength of the rank and file leadership led by Jayaben Desai and the betrayal by the national leadership through photos and videos from the struggle.
In mid 1976, a few workers walked out of Grunwick factory in North West London protesing against low wages and dismal conditions at work. The workers were predominantly East African immigrants and South Asian diaspora from East Africa, who had migrated to Britain after the emerging political condition in East Africa. Grunwick plant, which ran a mail order photo processing facility, was one of the companies eager to recruit these women immigrants, who were considered docile . The conditions of work were dismal with wages lesser than those paid to local workers, compulsory overtime, no proper breaks and disrespectfully abusive . With British Trade Unions mainly organizing the white British workers, the companies usually were able to get away with such dismal conditions, leading to the strike.
The striking workers soon realized that they needed to unionize to press for their demands and joined the local branch of APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computing Staff) with the help of Brent Trades Council. Joining the APEX was useful reflects a striking committee member as APEX arranges for inexperienced picketing members to tour various parts of Britain and meet with unions including mining communities to seek solidarity for their struggle.
As the strike gathered momentum and over 120 workers struck work, the Grunwick management responded predictably by sacking the workers. As the striking workers agitated for right to unionization and reinstatement of dismissed workers, the struggle saw an unprecedented solidarity from white British working class. In particular, was the action taken by postal workers union. As the Grunwick factory was dependent on mail order business, the postal workers boycotted the factory and would not deliver the mails to the factory which affected the bottomline of the factory owners. The strategy was withdrawn after a threat of legal action by National Association for Freedom in collusion with management. The strike was also supported by other workers including miners, postal workers, print workers and journalist associations with some protests drawing upto 20000 workers.
The increasingly militant strike drew national attention and police was used to control the growing demonstrations. Police troops were used in large numbers to guard the factory and were often brutal to the demonstrators. Later, evidence also emerged of undercover infiltration by police to spy on the tactics of the workers in picket lines. Hundreds of workers were also arrested by the police and were harassed by the legal system. The strike found its expression in the parliament and the State was forced to conduct an enquiry on the issues of the workers. The Scarman Commission recommended that the workers’ union be recognized by the factory and the dismissed workers be reinstated. However the factory owners refused to abide by the recommendations and recognize the right of workers to union.
In late 1977, APEX and Trade Union Congress(TUC), a federated alliance of unions withdrew support for the strike. The solidarity of the TUC with its right wing leadership had been called into question from the moment when TUC announced its support for the strikers. While the leaders had announced solidarity strikes by electrical workers union, these struggles did not happen. Rather, TUC and APEX have been accused of diverting the struggles from militant picketing to legal strategies. As the legal strategies failed, the unions withdrew their support, which is beautifully captured when the picketing lines dwindle to a handful of workers near the factory. The most poignant moment of the struggle is the decision of the workers to do a hunger fast in front of the TUC office. The bittersweet funny moment is recalled by Jayaben Desai, the most prominent leader of the strike, who is told by the TUC leader that they cannot strike in front of TUC and its not traditional and she replies that it is their tradition. With the TUC leadership unmoved by the struggling workers, the 2 year long strike ended in defeat for the striking workers, though the factory improved the working conditions and wages later.
The Grunwick strike provides us with two contrasting strategies of the struggle, one showing the potential of the working class and the reformist tendency of the trade union leadership which failed to fulfil the needs of the working class. The Grunwick strike was exemplary for the class alliance and picketing tactics that were militant and revolutionary in content. The struggle showed that the minority ethnic communities and women workers were not docile as believed but can be leaders and partners in workers struggles. The struggle was lost not because of the revolutionary potential of the working class but the bureacratic reformism ad opted by the trade unions. The struggle could have seen a different outcome if the postal workers had continued their strategy and the other public sector workers had struck in solidarity.
This is a lesson to be learnt for the Indian working class which continues to be splintered by caste, gender, labour categories, production arrangements. The legal recourses for working class are being structurally dismantled and violently denied. The way forward is only a relentless struggle against the capitalist structure and building a wider solidarity and support for all workers. Can the working class be lions as exemplified by Jayaben Desai and other workers of the Grunwick struggle?
[The title is taken from a statement by Jayaben Desai to Grunkwick Management “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo! In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions Mr. Manager. I have had enough!” (Source: http://www.striking-women.org/comic/jayaben-desai-1933%E2%80%932010)
The documentary is available here: https://vimeo.com/100301347]