Jayaben Desai boldly told managers at the Grunwick Film processing plant in Chapter Road, Willesden “A person like me, I am never scared of anybody”. So began a series of events that would change the way immigrant workers were viewed.
Jayaben was born in the north-western Indian state of Gujarat in 1933. Always ready to speak up, even in her schooldays she backed active support for Indian Independance rather than conforming to passive obedience. She was married in 1955 to tyre factory manager, Suryakant Desai, from Tanganyika. They settled there the following year and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, but dramatic change came in the 1970s when many of the British colonies gained independence. Under the policies of the new governments, there was widespread discrimination against Asian migrants, resulting in a mass exodus of tens of thousands of African-Asians, many of whom were forcably expelled.
Jayaben’s arrival in London marked the commencement of her decline in economic and social status, and the skilled work she was used to doing seemed inaccesable to migrants, especially female migrants; African-Asian migrants had no choice but to take poorly paid jobs. After a time, Jayaben found employment as a sewing-machinist in Harlesdon. She worked part-time whilst raising her two children and joined the Grunwick film processing plant in Willesden in 1974.
The working conditons were oppressive. Managers were housed in a glass office overlooking the working women. Afraid that the women were using toilet breaks for chatting, new rules were enforced, requiring workers ask permission to go to the toilet. The women were ashamed to ask and were often in extreme discomfort. Jayaben was outraged, saying, “Why do you feel ashamed, when he has no shame?” Jayaben noted issues not only with working conditions but with pay inequality and racism within the company. She challenged 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.
On Monday 23 August 1976, Jayaben led a walkout and strike. Her passion encouraged followers and nearly one hundred of her fellow workers joined her. Undeterred and armed with statistics, they were able to contact both the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Brent Trades Council. The trade unions at that time were mainly led by white men; women and non-white workers often had difficulty winning their support. Nevertheless, both Jayaben’s rhetoric and the validity of the dispute, caused the TUC to advise them to join the white-collar union Apex (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff).
Grunswick management offered reinstatement if the strikers dropped the union representation. They refused. The strike was declared official by Apex who refered the dispute to ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). ACAS offered mediation which was refused by the Grunwick management. The picket continued and Jayaben was taken to hospital when a management car ran over her foot. The police refused to act. The strikers were sacked.
The General Secretary of Apex, Roy Grantham, asked Albert Booth, the Secretary of State to set up a court of enquiry into the dispute. Being a film processing company, Grunwick relied heavily on the postal service to receive films and dispatch processed photos. Postmen at the local sorting office in Cricklewood decided to black Grunwick’s mail and this act encouraged wider public support of the strikers.
George Ward, Grunwick’s managing director, launched a challenge in the High Court. He was supported by the National Association for Freedom, a pressure group run by the Conservative MP and publicist John Gorst. Opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher backed George Ward, hailing him as a champion of freedom. There was an emergency debate in Parliament on Grunwick and the postal workers were forced to abandon their support under the threat of legal action. The dismayed strikers faced defeat.
Undeterred, they persevered with their picket as winter approached. Jayaben addressed a packed meeting in the Brent Trades and Labour Hall, telling her130 strong strikers, “We must not give up, would Gandhi give up? Never!”
An attempt was made to extract a promise of cooperation. In spite of the presence of the General Secretary of the TUC in support of the strikers, this came to nothing. By March of 1977, the TUC had published a report in favour of the strikers, which was then challenged by the managers at Grunwick. A march through Willesden in support of the strike was attended by 1400 trade unionists and supporters. By May, three government ministers had joined picket line.
One hundred people gathered on Woman’s Support Day, Monday 13 June 1977, to show their solidarity, angry that the strikers had not been able to obtain union recognition from Grunwick, even after the involvement of ACAS. Of these 100 people, 84 were arrested by the police.
The police were charging them with horses and everything and still they were standing strong.
More than 1000 workplaces – from engineering factories in Glasgow to the coalmines of South Wales – were approached by the strike committee, compelling people to take note of the dire conditions of employment endured by so many workers, day after day. Encouraged by Jayaben’s national tour and outraged by the sacking of the strikers, workers from all over Britain, including the Yorkshire and Scottish miners, had joined the picket line ouside the factory.
The picket line was soon 1300 strong. Media coverage reached a frenzy as protesters became badly injured, policemens’ helmets were dislodged. Arthur Scargill, arriving with support, was arrested almost immediately.
Still, Jayaben’s calm diplomacy remained intact. By the time the TUC organised a National Day of Action which promised 20,000 supporters to the factory later that summer, the picket line had grown to 12,000. The postal workers of Cricklewood decided to rejoin the fight and the blacking of Grunwick’s mail was re-instated. In the words of Colin Maloney, their chairman,”You don’t say ‘no’ to Mrs. Desai.”
The strikers were rewarded with three weeks suspension and a threat of dismissal.
A court of enquiry to resolve the dispute, was announced at the end of June. In July, the High Court rejected the challenge by George Ward. Despite the belief that no employer would ever defy a court of enquiry, Jayaben was convinced that Ward would. She was proved to be right when despite findings that the strikers should be reinstated, Ward refused. The TUC subsequently withdrew their support and with no other way to win justice, further support for the dispute gradually receded. The strikers finally admitted defeat on 14 July 1978 after spending a second cold winter on the picket line.
Jayaben refused to be downhearted and at the final strikers’ meeting declared that they should be proud.
We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.
In spite of defeat, there were major victories. The workers who remained in Grunwick were treated more fairly and pensions were put in place. When the factory moved, making it difficult for the workers to reach the new premises, a van was sent to collect them.
The largest mobilisation in British labour-movement history, in support of fewer than 200 strikers had been inspired by one courageous woman. The coming-together of thousands of workers, black and white, men and women, to defend the rights of migrant women workers was in no small way down to Jayaben Desai.