Devshri Bhudia was sacked from the Grunwick mail order department in Chapter Road, London on the hot afternoon of 20th August, 1976, for allegedly ‘working too slowly’. Soon afterwards, a handful of people walked out of the factory in protest, which included a woman called Jayaben Desai. This same group of people, 3 days later, picketed Grunwick. A different type of fire raged throughout London on this hot summer day. Thus, began a two-year long series of worker strikes in Britain, led by South Asian women.
Many of these factory workers who were women, were settlers in East Africa from India and Pakistan. East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, upon gaining independence, had adopted discriminatory policies against Asian migrants. These migrants were entitled to settle in the UK as British(colonial) citizens, and many of them decided to do so.
Jayaben Desai was a prominent leader of the strikers in the Grunwick dispute in London in 1976.
However, the post-decolonisation and post-World War II society of London was not very welcoming of them either. Desperate for work, they accepted low-paid factory work and manual labour with long hours and low wages at the Grunwick Film Processing Company.
The protesters described a glass cabinet or glass room to describe the working conditions and their relationship with the manager. The workers could be seen and if someone was called into the office, it was visible to the rest of the workers, but they could not guess what was going on inside.
They were prohibited from becoming members of any trade union. Burdened with low wages and short-noticed compulsory overtime working hours, the workers reached a breaking point once Devshri Bhudia was dismissed. Within a week, hundred people walked out. Grunwick sacked 137 employees who joined a union named APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) that the factory refused to recognise.
A larger trade union took up the cause of Grunwick workers within a few months, and there were marches held in support of the Grunwick strikers. The movement mobilised more than 20, 000 people. From engineering factories in Glasgow to the coal mines of South Wales, the strike committee took their cause to more than a thousand workplaces. The Strike Committee hoped for a unity among workers to arise out of common bad working conditions everywhere and demanded raise in wages, recognition as a Union, and no compulsory working hours.
Gradually, the nature of the strikes became more confrontational, and the police began to clamp down on the picketers. In the month of November 1977 over 100 were arrested. The movement that was now quickly spreading, gained attention from the media and politicians as well.
Labour government ministers Fred Mulley, Shirley Williams, and Dennis Howell along with Arthur Scargill (leader of National Union of Mineworkers) also joined the picket line. 1400 other trade unionists and supporters joined the cause.
Eventually, a Strike Committee was established with Jayaben Desai as the treasurer. However, even though Trades Union Congress(TUC), APEX, and other trade unions extended support to the Grunwick dispute, there was a constant tussle within the movement as well.
Four members of the Strike Committee, Jayaben Desai, Vipin Magdani, Johnny Patel and Yasu Patel, defied the Executive Council of APEX within the same month and staged a hunger strike outside Congress House. The APEX took the decision of suspending them without pay for four weeks. The factory operated through a mail service system, so when the Union of Postal Workers supported the cause of Grunwick workers, and boycotted services to Grunwick, there was a strong hope for victory.
Jayaben Desai and many other women at the forefront, became the face of the Grunwick dispute.
Defying the expectations of the Grunwick management that had hired South Asian women with the assumption that they would be docile, Jayaben Desai led her fellow workers to one of the largest Trade Union Movements of the time with strong will and resolve.
However, the TUC and APEX eventually felt that the dispute could not be won, and withdrew support. Even though the Grunwick management rejected all the proposals, and the strikers did not get their jobs back, something still changed.
“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 protest led to improved working conditions not just in Grunwick but several other workplaces. The strike also left a legacy of shift within race-relations. Black and Asian workers were ignored by the trade unions in the 1970s. But the strike over the years, managed to create a united front spanning across identities and race, and helped to change the dynamic of race-relations within Britain.
The most important victory was the challenge to stereotypes and place of immigrant workers in society. For the women protesters, it was also a battle against patriarchy. Their fathers, husbands, and even neighbours acted as deterrents. The management purposely spread false rumours about women protesting for the sake of their ‘boyfriends’, hoping that it would add to the amount of psychological pressures augmented by the social implications of South Asian culture and result in a deprivation of the agency for these women that would hinder them from acting upon their will.
These South Asian women left a lasting legacy of being able to challenge the patriarchal foundations of their culture and changed the attitudes of people and society at large about South Asian women.
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!’
Vidhi Bubna is a contributor at SheThePeople.TV