20 August 2021 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. Below we republish an overview of the strike and its significance written by Jean Lane in 1998, with a short introduction from 2012. The kind of lessons Jean highlighted in 1998, from the strike's magnificence but also its galling defeat, were still relevant in 2012 and are relevant today.
To honour this history, we are encouraging donations to the strike fund of outsourced cleaning and facilities workers at the Royal Parks, members of the UCW and PCS unions, who are fighting for an end to discrimination and equal sick pay, maternity pay, annual leave and pension entitlements with directly employed workers. Donate here.
George Ward, the former boss of Grunwick Processing Plant died last month [April 2012]. In 1976-78 Grunwick photo processing plant in north-west London was the site of an historic, ultimately defeated, but uniquely inspiring battle for trade union recognition. The only pity here is that Ward managed to outlive by a year or so Jayben Desai, the woman who was the organising centre of that fight.
Two years of industrial action started in August 1976 when Ward refused to recognise the union which workers had joined to help them fight for better pay and conditions — pay rates were low, conditions were bad, and Ward relied on recruiting a mainly Asian female workforce, which he thought he could better exploit.
When workers went on strike for recognition they were all sacked. That was the kind of man George Ward was, an entrepreneur who believed walking all over workers so that capitalists like him could make their money was just how the world should be. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher hailed him as “a champion of freedom”.
Ward won this battle – in the end a House of Lords ruling upheld Ward’s right not to recognise the union. But he did not give fighting for his right to be always “in the right”, to squash other people and shut them up. He was extremely litigious – threatening libel action against the BBC, the Guardian and others whenever a critical article or programme appeared – on points of detail which he felt he could legally challenge. He exploited the UK libel laws. Big organisations like the BBC with budgets for legal action chose to pay up before disputes came to court.
In 2010 he threatened to sue Workers' Liberty over small passages in the following article by Jean Lane. Through helpful lawyers who worked for us pro bono, we told Ward we had no money to give him so he had better “do his worst”. He did not carry through his threat but not before we felt forced to remove Jean's article from our website.
We took a gamble, but a visit to Company’s House website and a look at the state of Ward’s companies had told us Ward’s businesses were failing. Here was a man who was hitting up anyone he could, including the BBC for public money over flimsy libel. He was able to do that by basing himself on “facts” established by a class-ridden House of Lords. Not for Ward a life being led within his means. He was a big boss who loved to spend his time at the races. Such is the hypocrisy and delusions of the self-made capitalist.
We are proud to reprint Jean’s article. One or two factual changes have been made, but otherwise it is the same text we first printed in October 1998. We stand by it as an historical account, which can now, if our readers wish, be challenged politically and in its interpretation in the usual, civilised way – by debate.
The lessons of Grunwick
On 7 November 1977 a pitched battle took place on the streets of North London between the police and thousands of workers. It was one event in a two year struggle for trade union recognition. The strike was called Grunwick and many of the lessons from it were similar to those that were to come out of the great miners strike of 1984-5 seven years later, and, very recently, out of the Liverpool Dockers’ strike. Questions of solidarity, the law, the role of the state, the need for rank-and-file organisation across the trade unions – all were raised then as they have been by working-class struggle since.
The Grunwick strike, however, was different from other big battles of the working class before it or since in one significant way. It was, in many ways, a strike that was not meant to happen. It did not involve workers in a large, powerful union with a militant history like, the miners who had brought the Tory government down only a few years before in 1974, or the dockers or engineers who had helped the miners close the Saltley Gates in 1972. The workers of Grunwick were not unionised at all and had no experience of being in a union. They were mostly women, in large part young women, who had to fight their families for the right to join the picket line; they were overwhelmingly Asian, many of whom spoke little English, and who were being employed by Grunwick because they could be used as cheap labour. Yet their struggle would reverberate throughout the labour movement.
Grunwick was a small film processing plant situated on two sites: Chapter Road and Cobbold Road, in Willesden, North London. Conditions inside the factory were appalling. The workers had no representation.
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 at a moment’s notice. Conditions inside the centre of the dispute, the mail order department at Chapter Road, were particularly draconian.
Grunwick made itself competitive by paying low wages – about £28 for a 40 hour week: the national average for wages at that time was £72 and a full time woman manual worker in London got £44 and by providing a fast service to people sending photographs in by post [this was long before digital photography].
The pressure inside the mail order department was very high and the manager, a Mr Alden, ruled it like a despot. If women asked for time off to look after sick children they were told, “This is not a holiday camp”. Compulsory overtime could be imposed when a woman was going to pick her child up from nursery. She would have to either work on worrying about the fate of her child or argue with her supervisor and get the sack. Sackings were high. The annual staff turnover was 100%! There was an atmosphere of subservience and fear.
The summer of 1976 was a record-breaking hot one. Everyone over the age of thirty can remember what they were doing in that incredible summer that seemed to go on and on. Everyone who had worked in Grunwick will have no problem remembering what they were doing then, and thousands more could tell what they did in the year that followed.
Inside the mail order department there were no windows and no air conditioning. It was a very profitable time for Grunwick. People were taking photos as if they were on permanent holiday. The pressure of work was incredible. Four young men, who had earlier discussed the need for a trade union, decided to work slowly one Friday afternoon right under Alden’s nose. One was sacked and the other three walked out, leaving a huge crate of work unfinished. That might have been the end of it as the four had no idea what to do next and just hung around the gates outside. Inside, an argument developed between Alden and one of the women workers, Mrs Jayaben Desai, who was to become one of the leaders of the strike and its most eloquent participant. She had just been told that she could not go home as more work had come in. She demanded her cards and then instead of just leaving made a speech to the other workers standing in two sweltering lines along their work bench. When Alden compared the workers to “chattering monkeys”, Desai 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 other four still hanging around the gate.
The following Monday the six turned up with placards and petitions. Every member of the mail order department and other workers besides signed, on their way in to work, to say they wanted a trade union. Sunil rode to the nearest Citizens Advice Bureau on his bicycle to find out what to do next. They gave him the phone numbers of APEX, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs, the TUC and Brent Trades Council. At 3pm that day fifty other workers in the mail order department walked out. The strike had begun.
The strikers marched to Cobbold Road where Grunwick’s processing department was situated. The managers at Cobbold Road locked the doors, imprisoning the workers inside and turned up the radios so that no contact could be made between the strikers and the workers inside. One young woman had her face slapped when she tried to open a window. Another was threatened with a broken bottle by a driver guarding the entrance. Only seven workers joined the strike from Cobbold Road that day. A mass meeting was called of all workers in a local car park, at which the decision to join a union was agreed. The management said they would rather the plant closed than see a union in it. The strikers said they would not return as individuals, only as a union. Sixty workers joined APEX. More workers over the next week walked out of Cobbold Road until there were 137 strikers out of a workforce of 480. Thus began what might have been a small, localised, unwritten story of a strike for trade union recognition, but which became a long battle, nationally and internationally known, and which involved thousands of other workers from up and down the country.
The striking workers were sacked and the fight quickly became one for reinstatement as well as recognition. APEX wanted a speedy resolution to the dispute through negotiation. But George Ward, the owner of Grunwick, refused. They then tried to get independent arbitration through ACAS, but Ward, full of his own important right to rule his own workers as he pleased (“I can buy a Patel for £15”) wouldn't recognise their right to tell him what to do. His cause was taken up by the right wing and anti-union National Association For Freedom (NAFF) who funded and handled all Ward’s legal business for the duration of the strike. They threatened, for example, legal action against the postal workers union, the UPW, for blacking Grunwick’s mail. Tom Jackson, leader of the UPW immediately called the blacking off.
Strikers did get support. Kodak workers blacked photographic supplies to the factory. Grunwick managers bought it themselves in small quantities and smuggled it through the picket line in the boots of their cars. The postal workers 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 their own plane and flying it to small airfields.
Managers baited strikers on the picket lines from behind the gates, and bullied them on their way in. Mrs Desai had her foot run over by one car and was taken to hospital. A pregnant woman was knocked over. The response of APEX was to call for a court of inquiry.
But they got bogged down in the law, strikers got left at the gate, demoralised, until one morning in March 1977 when only one picket turned up. He was later found badly beaten up. Complaints to the police were met with “He deserved what he got”. The police continued to pick off and harass pickets on the picket line. Mrs Desai was arrested and charged with assault of two of the Grunwick managers. She was 4'11'' tall and on the other side of a high fence at the time. Not surprisingly her case was later dropped and the courts on releasing other pickets rapped the police over the knuckles for trying to impose a six-person picket which was not law. Costs were awarded against them.
By now the strikers had lost any faith in the law or the police to be fair; or indeed, in the official labour movement to help them. Mahmood Ahmad, secretary of the strike committee, said: “The TUC should be coming to ask us how they can help. Instead we have to keep going to them”. And Jayaben Desai expressed their bitterness at being left on the picket line: “Official action from the TUC”, she said, “is like honey on your elbow; you can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it”.
The strikers put out a call for a mass picket. There was to be a week of action and the first picket on Monday 13 June 1977 was to be a women’s picket which was, in the strike committee’s mind, to emphasise the “peaceful intention of the picket” and to have a “restraining effect on the police”. Far from it. The police, on the day, punched, kicked and dragged pickets across the road by their hair. This happened to Mrs Desai and she was kicked repeatedly. Another woman, arrested in the same way, was released by the police who were immediately surrounded by a crowd of angry, sari-clad women, screaming at them to let her go. The ferocity of their response took the police by surprise. Johnny Patel of the strike committee was repeatedly hit by a policeman who was yelling in a rage, “You Paki bastard”.
More workers from Cobbold Road joined the strike. Post Office workers at the Cricklewood office unofficially resumed their blacking of Grunwick’s mail against the instruction of their leader Tom Jackson, and the other offices refused to handle it if it was transferred to their offices. T&G drivers refused to carry police to Chapter Road. Even bank workers attempted to get handling of Grunwick’s account blacked.
By Friday of that week the mass picket was 1,500 strong. For the first time pickets outnumbered police. The week of action was extended and hopes were running high. On 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 the pickets.
And for the first time ever the Special Patrol Group (SPG), an armed, specially organised section of the police force, supposedly to deal with “terrorism”, was used in a trades dispute.
For the following month Grunwick's picket lines were the lead item on everyone’s TVs. The police brutality was unbelievable. One miner described Saltley as a children’s Sunday picnic in comparison. The media’s lies too were extraordinary: getting in good practice for the next miners’ strike to come. (Print workers, on more than one occasion, took industrial action to redress the media balance in favour of the strikers). Just as the arch scab from Nottinghamshire’s coalfields during the 1984 miner's strike was to be lauded as “Silver Birch”, as standing up for decent workers' rights to work, so seven years earlier, George Ward was celebrated for his fine struggle against intimidation from strikers and union “bully boys”.
Shocked by the actions of the SPG, the miners called for a day of action on 11 July. Despite the fact that APEX recognised that it was the police who were creating the violence, they were not for a day of action: “We want to defuse the situation, not exacerbate it.” They preferred, instead, to put their faith in the Court of Inquiry. The strike committee, however, who had a bellyful of legal loopholes, welcomed the call.
The TUC and APEX decided to defuse the 11 July mass picket by calling a march for the same day. They instructed the strike committee to call off the picket and support the march. The strike committee refused, calling on trade unionists to support both. This was a mistake.
On the day, a fantastic show of strength occurred outside Grunwick. 20,000 supporters turned up, outnumbering police 3-1 and pushing them down the road. The scab bus was kept out. There was no violence and few arrests. But at 11am the vast majority of pickets went off to join the march on the other side of Willesden. The bus got in and 24 isolated pickets were arrested.
Two days before, in a desperate attempt to break the blockade, Grunwick, with the help of NAFF, 250 right-wing volunteers and 150 vehicles, got the built-up mail out of the plant to a depot outside London where it was stamped by strike-breaking “volunteers” and driven to district offices all over the country. The UPW, who now had a grievance of their own since non-union, non-Post Office people had handled the mail, still refused to make the unofficial blacking official. They sent telegrams to UPW branches telling them to sort the mail.
Jackson’s spinelessness was matched by that of the leadership of the TUC and APEX in their efforts to wind down the mass pickets and persuade the strike committee to await the outcome of the Court of Inquiry. The strike committee called over their heads for a solid turnout every day and for another huge turnout for 8 August. Their concerns were now threefold. They still wished to persuade other Grunwick workers to join the dispute, though they knew that they could never have a solid, all-out strike.
Their best chance of winning now was solidarity from other key workforces, blacking essential services to Grunwick and forcing George Ward to give in. The mass picket was also therefore to support and give confidence to the unofficial action taken by the Cricklewood postal workers.
The strikers did not totally dismiss the legal steps that their leadership was taking. To have ACAS rule in favour of the strikers, for example, had been a boost and a good media point in their favour. They saw the mass picket, however, as crucial because it put pressure on the courts and the independent arbiters to rule in their favour.
The trade union bureaucrats wished to use the law rather than direct action. The strikers believed that the action was the key to winning and that the use of the law could only benefit them while the action continued.
On 29 July, “Black Friday”, Roy Grantham, the APEX leader, and Ken Smith met the strike committee to pressurise them into calling 8 August off. At exactly the same time Norman Stagg, Deputy General Secretary of the UPW, met the Cricklewood postal workers to get them to call off their unofficial blacking. He threatened them with expulsion from the union which would affect their pension rights and leave them open to dismissal.
The strike committee were resisting bravely even though they were being threatened with their strike pay being cut by 60%, until word came through that the Cricklewood workers had buckled, voting very narrowly to resume normal working. Mrs Desai angrily attacked the union leadership. She and all of the younger Asian women, who had had to fight their own husbands and parents eleven months earlier to be able to take part in the dispute at all, voted en bloc against calling off the day of action. When a new strike committee was elected soon afterwards, it included five of these militants.
A UPW delegate told the next trades council meeting: “our union leadership has done something that George Ward, John Gorst and the NAFF failed to do. They forced us back.”
Three thousand people still turned up to picket on 8 August. The new strike committee began putting pressure on the TUC to sanction the blacking of essential services to Grunwick. This was now the only way to win, but the relevant unions had all told the Grunwick strikers that without the backing of the TUC their members would not have the confidence to stick their necks out.
At Labour Party conference, the strikers received a standing ovation. A resolution pledging support, however, could only go as far as a call for an amendment to the law forcing employers like Ward to co-operate with ACAS. It was ministers from the Labour government who were overseeing the use of violent police tactics and the introduction of the SPG into a trades dispute, bullying the strikers into submission!
The strikers backed up their lobbying of the TUC and the Labour Party with a resumption of mass picketing and – sensing from those trade unionists who had given them support throughout that there was a limit to the number of times they could be called upon to travel up and down the country without a resolution to the battle in sight – decided to go for one final push to put pressure on the labour movement to help them bring George Ward to his knees. They called a “day of reckoning” for 7 November.
8,000 turned up. The police were savage, meting out organised and indiscriminate violence. One picket had his face smashed through the glass of the police van. Strikers who had become cut off from the main body of protest were made to run the gauntlet between two rows of truncheon-wielding policemen. Heavily protected policemen ran after pickets dressed in no more than shirt sleeves, jeans and trainers, kicked them senseless on the ground and then walked away laughing. 243 pickets were treated for injuries. Twelve had broken bones, 113 were arrested.
When, after this, further requests from the strike committee for the blacking of essential services were met with excuses and empty promises of support, Mrs Desai and three other strikers, in desperation, began a hunger strike outside Congress House. Their union leadership tried to persuade them to do it outside Grunwick instead, offering to lay on the services of a doctor! When the strikers pointed out that George Ward would happily see them starve and went ahead with their plan, they were suspended from the union without strike pay for four months.
For months the strikers continued on their own, taunted by the management on the other side of the gates just as they had at the beginning of the dispute almost two years earlier. They finally announced the end of the dispute on the 14 July 1978. No reinstatements had been achieved. No union got into Grunwick.
Ironically wages inside the plant rose quite considerably during the dispute. At a time when the Labour government was imposing the “Social Contract” on the unions in the form of pay restraint and a holding down of the class struggle, George Ward bought his scab labour with, all told, a 25% across the board wage increase throughout the company. If any other group of workers had demanded this type of pay increase at that time of “tightening of belts to help the country” they would have been slated by the media. George Ward was upheld as a fine and noble character.
That media hypocrisy, the savagery of the police, the support of NAFF for George Ward, and the gutlessness of the workers' leadership (who were more concerned to bolster up a rocky, minority Labour government than to fight for the ending of sweatshop conditions in their own class) all combined to crush the Grunwick strike.
The two occasions during the dispute when Ward was nearly beaten were those when the courageous Cricklewood postal workers blacked Grunwick’s mail. That kind of rank-and-file confidence and solidarity in spite of weak leadership is the only way workers can ensure that they have the backing needed to win that Ward got from NAFF. Their class stick together. Ours should too. If the leaders of our movement won’t deliver, the rank and file must organise to force them, or to cast them aside. That same lesson was to surface again, with redoubled force, during the miners strike of 1984-5. Although it was to take place under different conditions, and over different demands, the basic lessons of class solidarity and rank-and-file organisation were the same, as were those of the hypocrisy of the media and the role of the state.
The Grunwick strikers lost, but the labour movement as a whole gained, in two important ways.
Firstly: the strike helped to knock down very forcefully the prejudices inside the movement against black and women workers. It was, at that time, rare for a union to have the kind of anti-racist and anti-sexist policies that are considered the norm now. The myths that black workers are hard to unionise and undercut white workers’ jobs, and that women’s place is in the home and that women only go out to work for pin money, were exploded by this dispute for union recognition, union wages and conditions. A dispute led by Asian and women workers drew in and influenced thousands of other workers everywhere.
Secondly: the few years in the run up to the Grunwick dispute saw a lull in the class struggle in Britain, with low strike figures. The general atmosphere was that of keep your head down, don't rock the boat, don’t break the law. That goes with a weakly-led movement tied to, and in the pocket of, the government. The Grunwick strike put class struggle back on the agenda, which was to lead, only one year later, to the Winter of Discontent and the downfall of that government.
The Tories learned their lessons well and, piecemeal, removed the unions’ influence on government and shackled the unions with laws that make a legal strike virtually impossible.
The next big class battle will certainly happen under a Labour government, one which has learned its own lessons, embracing the Tory philosophy and taking their anti-union laws as its own. The union leadership has for years held down their members’ desire for action on the promise of a Labour government. They have it now: a Labour government which will not even pay the lip-service to class struggle that the 1974-79 government did.
The labour movement must learn its lessons too: not to rely on help from above, but to rely on its own strength and solidarity to win.
Strike supporters denounce the police's racism and authoritarianism
Arthur Scargill leads Yorkshire miners in support
Hunger strike at the TUC as the strike collapses: the strikers were "drowning in sympathy but starving for action"
Front page from the paper of Workers' Liberty's predecessor organisation, October 1977