The Grunwick protests: remembering the 1970s strike for migrant workers’ rights

In 1977, almost 20,000 Britons took to the streets to support a group of south Asian women who had walked out on strike from a London factory. Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson chronicle a remarkable outpouring of solidarity for the rights of female migrant workers

Jayaben Desai salutes fellow pickets at the Grunwick film processing factory in 1977

“What you run here is not a factory, it is a zoo. There are monkeys here who dance to your tune, but there are also lions here who can bite your head off. And we are the lions, Mr Manager! I want my freedom!” With these words – uttered in the middle of the long, hot summer of 1976 – 43-year-old Jayaben Desai stormed out of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London. In doing so, she triggered one of the most significant industrial disputes in modern British history.

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A few days later, Desai was back at the factory, but this time she had no intention of doing any work. Instead she stood on a picket line, where she was joined by 137 staff out of a workforce of 500, each demanding union recognition and an end to arbitrary and humiliating management in the workplace. Over the following two years, Desai’s strike would attract thousands of supporters, spark intense media coverage, throw the spotlight on the treatment of Britain’s migrant workforce, and elicit a fierce reaction from right-wing groups determined to weaken the power of the trade unions. Many of the issues that the Grunwick dispute brought simmering to the surface four decades ago still haunt British industrial relations today.

Powered by frustration

Desai’s tirade against her manager on 20 August 1976 took just a few seconds to deliver, but the frustration that powered her words had been brewing for years.

Desai and her fellow strikers were English-educated migrants of south Asian origin whose families had settled in countries in east Africa during British colonial rule. These largely middle-class families had, for the most part, carved out successful lives in Africa. But the fall of Britain’s colonies transformed the landscape, unleashing a wave of Africanisation policies (the most infamous of which was Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asian people from Uganda in August 1972) that persuaded many that their futures lay elsewhere. Thousands were British passport holders and now chose to swap east Africa for the UK. On arrival in this new, cold, alien land, many of the female migrants sought to supplement their families’ incomes by searching for low-paid, manual work.

Those settling near the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Willesden, north-west London, found an employer more than willing to offer them work. In a period of expansion for the domestic photographic market – as more and more Britons headed off on holiday and took snaps of their families while they were there – the Grunwick photo processing plant found itself increasingly relying on cheap labour supplied by south Asian female migrants, commonly regarded as hardworking and docile.

“Asians had just come from Uganda and they all needed work, so they took whatever was available,” recalled Jayaben Desai, when we interviewed her in 2007. “Grunwick put out papers [leaflets]: ‘come and we will give you a job. We give jobs to everyone.’ When I went, a friend of mine followed. And soon they were full of Asians.”

Yet while this arrangement initially suited both parties, cracks soon began to appear in the relationship between the migrants and their employees. These tensions were sparked by the degrading treatment that Grunwick’s management often meted out to its south Asian workforce. In the early 1970s, such treatment was a fact of life for ‘unskilled’ immigrants across London’s workplaces. Yet at Grunwick, where the pressure for results soared as the company expanded, it was particularly egregious: staff found themselves under constant surveillance and routinely humiliated by being given dressing-downs in full sight of their co-workers.

“The managers were in a glass cabinet,” recalled Desai. “They could see us, and if they called us in to their office, the rest of the workers could see them, but could not hear what was going on. Such was their gameplan. We used to work out of fear.”

Last-minute notice

Pay at Grunwick was low by industry standards, employees struggled to get time off for doctors’ appointments (the management’s attitude towards those wishing to attend ante-natal clinics was a particular source of frustration), and they even had to ask permission to go to the toilet. Yet perhaps the biggest cause of grievance was the issue of overtime. This sometimes extended until 10pm and was often dropped on the employees at the very last minute. The Grunwick workers came from households that had employed servants in east Africa, and were used to the respect that their relatively privileged social status had conferred. To be told – in the brusquest of terms – that they wouldn’t be able to head home to their families that evening was, for many, simply beyond the pale.

And so it proved on the evening of 20 August 1976 when Jayaben Desai’s manager confronted her with a demand for overtime. Mindful of the complicated bus journey home and the ‘second shift’ of cooking and cleaning that awaited her, Desai protested and stormed out. Within a matter of days, the Grunwick dispute had begun.

Having walked out of the Grunwick plant, Desai and her fellow strikers joined the white-collar union APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff). On 6 September 1976, Roy Grantham, the general secretary of the union, told the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that the Grunwick strikers were protesting against “a reactionary employer taking advantage of race, and employing workers on disgraceful terms and conditions”.

Police attempt to hold back pickets, 9 July 1977
Police attempt to hold back pickets, 9 July 1977. The strike saw the largest number of arrests in an industrial dispute since the General Strike of 1926. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

By then, that employer had sacked the workers for participating in strike action. But if it envisaged that this would put a lid on the crisis, it was in for a rude awakening. In fact, the Grunwick strike exploded into a cause celebre for the trade union movement. By the summer of 1977, mass pickets – combined with a postal boycott of the Grunwick mail by the nearby Cricklewood sorting office – created a period of intense mobilisation, and the real possibility of a victory. Growing support from rank and file trade unionists, students, workers, anti-racist and feminist groups – as well as political parties on the British left – swelled the ranks of the pickets week after week. On 11 July 1977 – a ‘National Day of Action Against Grunwick’ – their numbers reached almost 20,000.

But victory was ultimately to remain elusive, and that’s partly because the authorities and hostile elements of the press and the political establishment soon began to formulate a response.

The Grunwick dispute marked the first time that the Special Patrol Group, an elite paramilitary-style squad trained to deal with public disorder and acts of terrorism, was deployed in an industrial dispute, a precursor to its wide deployment in the 1984 miners’ strike. There were more than 550 arrests during the strike, the largest number in any industrial dispute since the General Strike of 1926. After one particularly brutal day in November 1977, 243 pickets were treated for injuries, 12 with broken bones. And when, inevitably, the unrest made the front pages of the national press, it was often the pickets, not the police, who were portrayed as the instigators of the violence.

Prime minister James Callaghan feared that the strike might bring down his labour government

When asked about TV coverage of the dispute, one of the strikers, Nirmalaben Patel, said: “We used to be surprised. Is that what happened yesterday we used to wonder… we did not see any of that happening.”

Documents held in the National Archives suggest that the police may have been encouraged to take a robust approach to the pickets by those in the highest echelons of the British government. According to notes from a meeting at Chequers on 26 June 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan urged the home secretary to pressure the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to adopt a more proactive response, mindful of the “danger of bringing the government down”. Growing ever more concerned at the scale of the dispute, on 30 June 1977 the Labour government appointed Lord Scarman to lead a Court of Inquiry into the strike.

If Callaghan watched the Grunwick dispute unfold with some trepidation, then those to the right of the political spectrum regarded it with outright hostility. On 10 July 1977, the rightwing National Association For Freedom (NAFF) launched ‘Operation Pony Express’, an attempt to get Grunwick mail out of London, thus circumventing the postal boycott. The operation largely succeeded, and when (in the face of threats of expulsion from union leaders) Cricklewood postal workers called off their boycott of Grunwick, the alliance that had so far sustained the industrial action began to splinter. By the time the TUC – under intense pressure from the Labour government and the political right – retreated from mass picketing, the fate of the Grunwick strike was effectively sealed.

Jayaben Desai and her supporters mounted a hunger strike outside the TUC headquarters in November 1977 for a resumption of mass pickets, but to no avail. Industrial action limped on for a few more months before the strike committee announced the end of the dispute in the summer of 1978.

The striking women were left feeling disillusioned with the trade union movement. As Jayaben Desai put it, official support from the TUC was “like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it but you cannot taste it”. Even the Scarman Inquiry’s recommendations that the women receive union recognition and be reinstated in their old jobs left a bitter aftertaste; the recommendations were not legally binding, and so the Grunwick management rejected them.

Protesters (including Jayaben Desai, centre) on hunger strike in November 1977
Protesters (including Jayaben Desai, centre) on hunger strike in November 1977 following the TUC’s decision to call off its mass picket. (Photo by David Ashdown/Keystone/Getty Images)

Listen: We mark International Women’s Day with a panel discussion tackling the central issues of women’s history, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Utterly abandoned

On the face of it, the Grunwick dispute ended in abject defeat. The strike achieved none of its goals, its protagonists felt utterly abandoned, and the full incorporation of migrant and female workers into the trades union movement remained a dream – a decades-long project that continues to this day.

But is that to say that the strike achieved nothing? Absolutely not. In a period characterised by a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment – one in which trade unions’ support for black and minority ethnic workers was conspicuous by its absence – the Grunwick dispute was truly historic. This was, after all, the first time the UK had witnessed such wide-ranging support for migrant female workers.

In 1968, London dockers had marched to the Houses of Parliament in support of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, demanding an end to black immigration. Just a decade later, they packed into the narrow streets of Willesden alongside thousands of fellow protesters, carrying the Royal Docks Shop Stewards’ banner at the head of a mass picket.

London dockers declare their support for Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, 1968
London dockers declare their support for Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, 1968. A decade later, the dockers stood shoulder to shoulder with the striking south Asian women of Grunwick. (Image by Getty Images)

In his book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Satnam Virdee describes a shift in the British working class “from being attached to a narrow understanding of class that nested within dominant conceptions of race and nation towards a more inclusive language that could also encompass a racialised minority and female workers”.

Sundari Anitha is professor of gender, violence and work at the University of Lincoln. Ruth Pearson is emeritus professor of development studies at the University of Leeds. They are the authors of Striking Women (Lawrence & Wishart, 2018)

LISTEN: Grunwick Changed Me, a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Grunwick dispute, available now

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This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine