20 August was the 45th anniversary of the start of one of the most important struggles in British working-class history, the two-year strike by Grunwick film-processing workers in North West London. This is the first of two parts of an abridged version of an article written by Jean Lane in 1998: full version with photos, links and resources here.
On 7 November 1977, a pitched battle took place on the streets of Brent, North London, between police and thousands of workers. It was part of the Grunwick workers’ long struggle for union recognition (1976-8). Many of the lessons were similar to those of the great miners’ strike of 1984-5: questions of solidarity, the law, the role of the state, the need for rank-and-organisation across unions.
However, Grunwick did not involve workers in a powerful union with a militant history. The Grunwick workers had no experience of being unionised. They were mostly women, in large part young women, some of whom had to fight their families for the right to join the picket lines; they were overwhelmingly Asian; predominantly migrants; and many spoke little English. Grunwick management thought they could be used as cheap labour. Yet their struggle would reverberate throughout the labour movement, drawing in thousands from across the country.
Grunwick was a small plant on two sites in Willesden: Chapter Road and Cobbold Road. Conditions were appalling.
Rates of pay differed from individual to individual and were agreed secretly; white workers were employed on different, higher paid jobs. Overtime was compulsory and could be imposed without notice. Conditions inside the mail order department at Chapter Road, the centre of the dispute, were particularly draconian.
Grunwick made itself competitive by paying low wages – about £28 for a 40 hour week. The national average was £72; for a full-time woman manual worker in London £44.
Pressure inside the mail order department was very high; its manager, Alden, ruled like a despot. Women asking for time off to look after sick children were told: “This is not a holiday camp”. Overtime could be imposed when a woman was going to pick her child up from nursery. She would have to continue work worrying about the fate of her child or argue and get the sack. There was an atmosphere of fear. The annual staff turnover was 100%.
The summer of 1976 was a record-breaking hot one. Chapter Road had no windows and no air conditioning. The pressure of work was incredible. On Friday 20 August four young men, who had earlier discussed the need for a union, decided to work slowly under Alden’s nose. One was sacked and three walked out, leaving a huge crate of work unfinished.
The four were unsure what to do next and just hung around the gates. Inside, a woman worker, Mrs Jayaben Desai, who was to become a key strike leader, was told she could not go home as more work had come in. She demanded her cards but instead of leaving made a speech to the workers. When Alden compared the workers to “chattering monkeys”, she replied: “What you are running here 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 the lions, Mr Manager.” She and her son Sunil joined the four at the gate.
On Monday 23rd the six turned up with placards and petitions. Every member of the mail order department and some other workers signed, on their way in, to say they wanted a union.
The Citizens’ Advice Bureau provided phone numbers for APEX, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs, the TUC and Brent Trades Council.
At 3pm that day fifty other mail order workers walked out. The strikers marched to Grunwick’s processing department at Cobbold Road. Managers locked the doors, imprisoning workers inside, and turned up the radios. One young woman was slapped when she tried to open a window. Another was threatened with a broken bottle by a driver guarding the entrance. Only seven Cobbold Road workers joined the strike that day.
At a mass meeting in a local car park, the workers decided to join a union. Sixty joined APEX. The strikers said they would not return as individuals, only as a union; the management said they would rather see the plant closed than a union in it. Over the next week more walked out of Cobbold Road, until there were 137 strikers out of a workforce of 480.
The strikers were sacked and the fight became one for reinstatement as well as recognition. APEX wanted a speedy resolution through negotiation. But Grunwick’s owner, George Ward, refused. APEX tried to get independent arbitration through ACAS. Ward, full of his own right to rule over his workers (“I can buy a Patel for £15”), wouldn’t accept that.
Ward’s cause was taken up by the right-wing National Association For Freedom (NAFF), who funded and handled all his legal business during the strike. They threatened legal action against the postal workers’ union, the UPW, for boycotting Grunwick’s mail. UPW general secretary Tom Jackson immediately called this off.
However, Kodak workers boycotted photographic supplies to the factory. Grunwick managers bought it themselves in small quantities and smuggled it in in their car boots. Posties refused to cross the picket line, so Grunwick had to go and collect it themselves. Mail order work from Germany, Belgium and Holland could only be got in by moving from port to port and eventually buying a plane and flying it to small airfields.
Managers baited strikers from behind the gates, and bullied them on their way in. Mrs Desai had her foot run over by a car. A pregnant woman was knocked over. APEX’s response was to call for a court of inquiry.
The strikers became demoralised, until one day in March 1977 when only one picket turned up. He was later found badly beaten up. The police said “he deserved what he got”. Police harassed and picked off pickets. Mrs Desai was arrested and charged with assaulting two Grunwick managers. She was 4’11’’, and on the other side of a high fence at the time. Not surprisingly the case was later dropped. The strikers lost any faith in the law, or in the official labour movement to help them. Strike committee secretary Mahmood Ahmad said: “The TUC should be coming to ask us how they can help. Instead we have to keep going to them”. “Official action from the TUC”, Jayaben Desai said, “is like honey on your elbow; you can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it”.
Police vs pickets
The strikers put out a call for mass pickets. The first picket of a week of action, on Monday 13 June, was to be a women’s picket – to emphasise “peaceful intention” and have a “restraining effect on the police”. In fact the police punched, kicked and dragged pickets across the road by their hair. Mrs Desai was kicked repeatedly. When police tried to arrest another woman, they were surrounded by a crowd of angry, sari-clad women, screaming to let her go. Johnny Patel of the strike committee was hit repeatedly by a cop yelling “You Paki bastard”.
More from Cobbold Road joined the strike. Cricklewood postal workers unofficially resumed boycotting of Grunwick’s mail, against their leadership’s instructions, and other offices refused to handle it. Drivers, members of the T&G union (now merged into Unite), refused to carry police to Chapter Road. Even bank workers attempted to get Grunwick’s account boycotted.
By Friday 17th the picket was 1,500-strong. For the first time pickets outnumbered police. The week of action was extended and hopes ran high. Seeing the police put in their place by row upon row of engineers, dockers, seamen and builders, after a whole winter of watching them harassing and intimidating young women, Jayaben Desai said: “When they talked of the power of the trade union movement I listened but I didn’t really believe. Now I see that power.”
That week, Grunwick began bussing their scabs into the plant to prevent any contact with pickets. And for the first time ever the Special Patrol Group (SPG), a specially organised, armed section of the police, supposedly to deal with “terrorism”, was used in a trades dispute. The police brutality on the picket lines was unbelievable. One miner described the “battle of Saltley Gate” in 1972 as a children’s picnic in comparison.
• Part two here