The Limits of 'Intersectionality': AngryWorkers book review of 'Striking Women'

The Limits of 'Intersectionality': AngryWorkers book review of 'Striking Women'

AngryWorkers book review of 'Striking Women' - Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet', by Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson

We need books like this: in depth accounts of working class struggles, based on expansive interviews with workers involved. We read the book with special interest, given that the two disputes at Grunwick in 1976 and at Gate Gourmet airline caterer in 2005 took place in our vicinity in west London and were led by migrant women workers, who also form the majority of our colleagues in local warehouses and factories today. We therefore appreciate the work of the authors and are looking forward to reading another recently published book about a similar local strike, ‘A Victory to Remember - The 1976 Equal Pay Strike at Trico Folberth, Brentford’, written by one of the strikers, Sally Groves, and a supporter, Vernon Merritt. We will review the book in the near future.

Apart from presenting the content of the book itself, we want to do two additional things. Firstly, we want to look at the approach of the authors which they themselves describe as ‘intersectional’ and ‘from below’. Given the background of the striking workers - being migrants from South Asian origin and women - it is obvious that racial and gender hierarchies impacted directly on their experiences as workers and on their struggle. It has become mainstream to describe the dynamic between race, gender and class as ‘intersectional’ - we want to question this approach critically, based on how the authors describe the backgrounds of the workers, the questions they ask the workers and the resulting description and analysis of their struggles. Secondly, we want to look in greater detail at the Gate Gourmet struggle and discuss want can be learnt from it today, referring to our own experiences in factories in west London.

*** The book

The book is the product of one decade of research from 2006 to 2016, based on five interviews with former Grunwick workers and 27 interviews with Gate Gourmet workers.

In the first two chapters the authors illustrate the general background of the two disputes and present their approach. They point out that Grunwick and Gate Gourmet were not the only struggles led by South Asian workers and mention strikes such as at Chix in Slough or Futters in west London and they provide an overview of the strikes at Mansfield Hosiery and Imperial Typewriters in the 1970s. They set their own approach or perspective critically apart from the ‘official’ trade union version of the disputes, in particular of the Grunwick strike. They see the official version as dominated by a white male and nostalgic view that puts union recognition as being the central motivation of the strikers. In contrast, the authors claim that when using an ‘intersectional lens’ we can see that the strikes had more to do with the fact that the workers felt mistreated as workers, women and migrants. While Grunwick was celebrated by the wider left as an expression of class unity, the authors criticise the general role trade unions played in the post-war era.

“Gilroy and Sivananandan argue that racism was an inherent feature of British trade unionism in the post-war era, whereby practices such as the ‘colour bar’, which excluded non-white workers from specified occupations, preserved the economic interests of the white working class through the exploitation of migrant labour.”

Unfortunately the authors don’t describe in detail how this ‘colour bar’ was erected - and what role migrant status played in the process of being excluded from certain jobs. The book is more precise when criticising narratives which put all workers from a South Asian background into the same community box. They describe the quite different backgrounds of the Grunwick strikers, who were mainly from middle-class, urban, East African, Gujarati backgrounds and who had worked in non-manual professions before migrating to the UK, and the Gate Gourmet women workers. They were largely from a middle-peasantry, Punjabi, rural background without job experiences back home. A parallel in the experience between Grunwick and Gate Gourmet is that the workers ended up feeling being let down by their respective trade unions, which the authors link to the ethnic and migrant background of the workers. The authors also point out that while the public discourse treats male migrant workers largely as pioneers, female migrants are seen as ‘domestic appendices’, who become targets of the state’s integration policies (“learn English, so your children have a better chance” etc.), rather than being treated as independent workers with their own rights.

In the third and fourth chapter we find an outline of the historical context of the struggles: the migration from South Asia and East Africa to the UK since World War II and the condition of women workers in a “gendered and racialised labour market”. Their chronology of UK migration is comprehensive, from early lascar migration in the pre-war era to the British Nationality Act of 1948, which allowed labour migration from the subcontinent and Caribbean. They describe the impact of the independence of Kenya in 1963 and the Uganda crisis in 1972, which resulted in an increase of South Asians from East Africa in the UK from 45,000 in 1971 to about 180,000 in 1981. The chronology fails, however, to relate the changes in the state’s effort to control migration to the general tendencies on the labour market and the economic cycles, which leaves the facts and numbers hanging in the air a bit. The following chapter on the situation of migrant women in the labour market then focuses mainly on coping mechanisms. There are some interesting general figures, e.g. that in 1979 25 percent of all white British born women worked in manufacturing and 58 percent of all migrant women from an Indian background did; and interesting descriptions of how women workers organise wage work and domestic work in a new situation, where they cannot fall back on an extended family or domestic workers, which they used to employ before migrating.

The fifth chapter deals with the Grunwick dispute. While it provides a good summary of the dispute, it does not reveal any major new insights, probably partly due to the difficulty in interviewing workers who have been involved. Still, it is interesting to read how management policies to concentrate a certain section of the workforce (South Asian women) in the labour intensive departments and the introduction of semi-automating technology in other departments created a particular tension. While the management invested in automation technology in the chemical processing department and the accounting department, they decided to rely on a mixture of labour intensity and draconian supervision in the mail order department, which was placed in the middle and thereby subjected to a push and pull from the more automated departments. Management thereby created a bottleneck and that’s where the strike started - and perhaps the reason why the mail order workers remained more or less isolated. In the following account of the strike it is good to see that the authors don’t let the Labour government and the TUC off the hook and that they show how the law and legal processes tend to pacify or channel workers’ discontent.

“Not only did the bureaucratic procedures, such as mediation through Acas and the Scarman Court of Inquiry, have no legal teeth, they also served to curtail the momentum built up by the rather more effective secondary action by the postal workers and the mass picketing.”

The text demonstrates with accuracy how in July 1976 various forces align themselves against the strike in response to the impressive mass picketing of, amongst other, London dock-workers, who had demonstrated for Powell a decade earlier: the employers’ organisation NAFF organised ‘Operation Pony Express’ to get Grunwick post out of London and bypass the postal workers’ boycott; the UPW postal union threatened the postal workers with expulsion if they didn’t end their solidarity action (the UPW acted under pressure from the TUC and Labour government; the Appeal Court overturned the High Court decision that had backed the Acas report to allow unionisation; APEX, the union that the strikers had joined and wanted to see recognised, pressured the women workers to call off further mass pickets; last but not least, Grunwick gave a 25% pay increase to all non-strikers to discourage them from taking part in the industrial action.

The sixth chapter on Gate Gourmet is the strongest part of the book, as it can rely on insightful interviews with the women workers - we therefore look at it in more detail in the second part of this review. At this point we only want to point out an interesting fact regarding the ‘legalisation’ of workers’ disputes. The authors rightly say that the increase of numbers of tribunal cases went hand in hand with the decrease in collective disputes (and the legal curb on collective disputes): there were 40,000 cases in 1978 - compared to 130,000 in 2005. It’s ironic that we are today told to defend the rights to go to labour tribunal as something progressive!

The seventh chapter is titled ‘Minority women and unionisation in a changing economy’ and intends to sketch out the main tendencies of changes in migration policies, labour market and work organisation since the Gate Gourmet dispute and draw some conclusions for today. This is the weakest chapter, as it mainly relies on a mainstream description of the ‘neoliberal and post-Fordist’ turn and the recent years of austerity. The analysis remains within the vague mainstream in the sense that e.g. while the authors were pretty exact when describing the Labour government’s role in the 1970s, they slip back into the usual leftist interpretation that all evil started with Thatcher in 1979.

Overall, the interviews and the wide range of aspects they cover make the book an insightful and interesting read. Unfortunately the authors seem to feel that they have to place their research within the academic marketplace, which sometimes results in unnecessary name dropping and lame and inaccessible language, e.g. “… this recognition of the gendered dimensions of these processes makes clear the agency and centrality of women’s role in maintaining and extending kinship by the smooth operation of complex ties of reciprocity, which strengthen transnational networks…”.

While the quotes from the interviews are interesting and self-explanatory, the authors seem to feel that they have to translate the workers’ words for the wider academic audience, which is annoying:

““These old people, some had no children, some had no visitors, it felt like I was doing something good.”
Studies have shown that care workers often counter negative associations with their work by drawing upon their caring inclinations, their altruistic motivations, relationships with users (as in Kamalpreet’s comments) and by identifying a ‘familial care logic’ to emphasise the emotional rewards rather than the low pay associated with such work (Atkinson and Lucas 2013; Palmer and Eveline 2012).”

*** The approach: Is ‘intersectionality’ a fruitful concept to understand and attack oppression and hierarchies within the working class?

The authors claim that given the various forms of oppression that the subjects of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet struggle encountered - as women, workers and people of colour, an ‘intersectional approach’ is needed to understand how these forms of oppression relate to and impact on each other. They say:

“ In exploring South Asian women’s experiences of industrial militancy at Grunwick and Gate Gourmet, we are seeking to apply a more nuanced, intersectional analysis to the events of the last forty years. We want to understand how social axes of identities of race, ethnicity, diverse class positions, migration histories and family circumstances are mobilised and reproduced in migrant labour markets and shape particular political possibilities in response to exploitation at work.” [p16]

“Our work is a further contribution to the task of deconstructing the category of ‘women of South Asian descent’. Drawing upon life stories of South Asian women workers in the UK, we utilise an intersectional lens to understand their location and agency in the UK labour market, with reference to their diverse histories of migration and settlement, (changing) class positions, different geographical origins, ethno-linguistic identity and caste.” [p26]

“Class position, as well as other aspects of identity, changes as they move across space as well as through an individual’s own life-course, and the changing political landscape that they inhabit. (…) “Life history methods opened up the space for women to talk about their experiences of work in the context of their lives as a whole, enabling analysis of the power relations and the larger structural constraints posed by the intersecting inequalities that shape their mobility, identity formation and incorporation into the labour market in the UK”. [p134]

We welcome any sociological and empirical effort to describe the actual differences in terms of background and experiences of workers and how these form hierarchies within the class. The silence has to be broken, the invisible has to be made visible. It seems too obvious to spell it out, but yes, the working class is not a monolithic block, but a dynamic process of re-composition through industrial changes, capitalist (under-)development, migration, changes in the division of labour between men and women etc..

So what is our problem with the ‘intersectionality approach’ in general?

* Class, race, gender: Intersecting independent structures? Or historical outcome and how capitalism forces us to produce our social relations?

It might sound semantic (looking for the issue in the word itself), but the word as concept already reveals part of the problem: to describe class, race and gender as ‘intersecting’ gives the impression that they exist as separate structures that overlap only partially. The picture that is often conjured up is one of a network of overlayering power structures that impact on individuals according to their ascribed racial or gendered features or identity. Race, gender and class are described as ‘social constructs’, but that does not really explain how the power relation came into being in the first place, nor how it is reproduced. In most cases ‘intersectionality’ ends up describing a kind of feedback-loop between social groups and individuals, e.g. ‘white privilege’ creates the Black racialised subject or ‘gender norms’ and sexism define the gendered individual. To explain 'male or white privilege' by 'patriarchal or white supremacist power' is tautological, the explanation chases its tail. If, instead of seeing class, race and gender as existing structures, we look at how they came into being historically and how they are reproduced through specific social and practical relations, we see that rather than intersecting, they are created in a universal social process. We also see that rather than being ‘equally oppressive structures’, racism, class and gender hierarchies are very different social relations. [1]

* Women’s oppression and racism as internal elements of how the global working class came into existence

Women’s oppression is historically and practically based in how the biological difference - women’s ability to become pregnant - is integrated into a hierarchical sexual division of labour. While in nomadic societies the impact of physical differences and control over women’s fertility were less prominent, this changed with agricultural slave-holding and land-owning feudal societies, which established a patriarchal rule proper. Capitalism as a global industrial relation re-shaped the division between domestic and social production and thereby created a specific hierarchy between men and women. In this process it created a modern working class that is characterised by and contains this specific hierarchy. The class relations are created and reproduced as gendered relations. These change with the transformations of industries, reproductive technologies, access to the labour market etc.

Compared to women’s oppression, race is a much more modern relation, based on the division between wage and slave labour during capitalism’s global expansion. It has its root not in how different biological functions are socialised, but in the racial justification of slave-trade and colonialism initially and later on of (imperialist) uneven development and management of surplus population due to structural unemployment. Again, we can see that the creation of the global working class during industrial expansion happened as a class that was divided into free and unfree labour - with many shades in-between.

To sum up: the working class is created by the industrial system that relegates and isolates certain aspects of reproduction to the domestic sphere (the material basis for gender hierarchies) and depends on the integration of slave plantation labour initially and division of labour between north and south in its further development (the material basis for racism). At the same time, struggle against exploitation and against oppression (also within the class) change the material ways we produce and reproduce ourselves constantly and thereby transform the gendered and racialised character of the class.

* Class as a contradictory universal process - that contains the potential to overcome the material separations that create class and its gendered and racialised character

As an outcome of the struggle against feudal despotism and its personal form of oppression and exploitation, capital is forced to exploit and dominate the working class through expansion and a - whatever abstract - promise of personal freedom. This ‘personal freedom’ is less due to some heritage from the bourgeois revolutions, but emerges as a tension when capital has to concentrate a bigger workforce in a complex industrial system. Workers exploited under these conditions are less likely to accept personal forms of oppression. In this sense class struggle under a capitalist mode of production has a universalist tendency that undermines oppression based on caste, race or sex - once we see a general proletarianisation (dependency on wage labour) and integration into the labour market and wider industry. In this regard the period from 1950 to 1970 was a global revolution. Their recently obtained, though still marginalised position in the global working class allowed women and people of colour to launch a widespread attack on caste, racial and sexist oppression. Although capitalism, due to its own contradiction, will not do away with domestic labour as ‘private’ labour and will create an expanding surplus population and under-development, which is historically racialised, it cannot completely materially segregate these ‘marginalised’ sections in the long run (borders don't stop people forever, prisons become part of strike movements etc.). In this sense, while there won’t be a full and even integration into the global labour market, class as a process has got two characteristics that are qualitatively different from race and gender/sex: it has a universal and inclusive tendency and it can materially transform and abolish itself.

* ‘Intersectionality’: helping to box things up again

While the above might seem like an unnecessary insistence on philosophical differences (structures vs. material social relations etc.), the differences in understanding racism, class and women’s oppression result in different political proposals and activities to overcome them. Although ‘intersectionality theory’ does not necessarily end up in affirming identity politics, they both share the tendency to focus on oppression and individual experience of it, rather than on what creates the condition for it. [2] We are currently witnessing a problematic intersection of state ideology and liberal leftist politics when it comes to race, class and gender - and ‘intersectionality’ will be a useless tool to question this. Capitalism needs divide-and-rule to maintain itself but even if it wanted to it couldn't do away with the material basis of racism and sexism. The state has to manage a severe capitalist crisis, which does not allow them to make concessions, e.g. universal childcare, full employment etc., that would do away with the material basis for (black) working class women’s/peoples' socially disadvantaged position (as prime carers or reserve army of labour). While biological differences between men and women have become less significant, capitalism would not and cannot (afford to) invest in services and technologies that would create an ‘equal playing field’, that would counteract women’s specific needs during pregnancy, after child birth, in certain forms of manual labour etc. So capitalism also cannot integrate the impoverished Black surplus population and is not able to develop the largely Black peripheral economies of the globe. Again, not mainly because racism is a good divide-and-rule tactic, but as a result of the capitalist mode of production and its contradictions. Being confronted with discontent of marginalised groups, the state tries to avert addressing the underlying systemic questions and prefer to talk about ‘changing attitudes’ and ‘transforming norms’. From demands for more women in management positions to more Black cops to more working class people in the BBC.

Unfortunately larger parts of the left, often with the understandable humanist goal to support ‘oppressed groups’ in times of a general upswing in reactionary politics (Trump etc.), fail to challenge the state’s attempts to camouflage the deeper systemic crisis by focusing on ‘gender norms and performance’, ‘white privilege’, ‘power relations’ etc., instead of attacking the material reasons from a wider working class perspective. With this focus also comes a change in attitude, which prefers behavioural policing to the hope for collective and individual change in struggle - and thereby avoids the challenge of dealing with racist or sexist behaviour within the class as a collective problem that won’t be solved by merely denouncing it. We see this not merely as ‘wrong consciousness’, but as a problem of a generation of activists that has had little experience of larger social movements - and the scope of collective change within. For universal emancipation we have to maintain and propagate a class position that attacks the various material conditions that creates not (only) class itself, but class with its gendered and racialised hierarchies: the separation from the means of production, the separation of reproductive work and the process of accumulation that at the same time creates under-development and surplus population. We have to support oppressed sections of the class - if necessary against other sections of the class - with the open and propagated trajectory to create not a phoney, but a real class unity. A class that cannot defend itself against daily sexist and racist attacks will not be able to address the fundamental systemic issues - we have to support the daily struggle and at the same time point at the underlying systemic reasons for a divisive world (restricted labour markets, uneven development etc.).

How do we think that the ‘intersectionality lens’ of the authors create a skewed view when looking at the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet struggles in concrete?

The paragraphs above can appear as being just an abstract rant, but we think that we can detect in concrete terms how the ‘intersectional approach’ of the authors has created certain blind spots when it comes to analysing the conditions and experiences of the South Asian women workers. This is mainly due to the fact that they treat class, gender and race as sociological categories, e.g. when talking about class they mainly refer to the economic background of the women workers before they came to the UK and how their class position changed (‘class disposition’). They treat class as some form of identity and form of oppression that affects the individual or a social group, rather than looking at how class is formed as a collective - and contradictory - process. Treating class as a question of individual economic and cultural background has various results when it comes to the wider analysis.

* The limits of subjective narrative

The authors repeatedly emphasise the importance of subjective narratives and life-stories. We agree that first-hand accounts of workers about their conditions should be one of the starting-points of politics. At the same time, individual narratives don’t automatically add up to an accurate and cohesive bigger picture. What is experienced as individual/group discrimination is also likely to be affected by wider structural reasons. While the authors provide background material about the general development of migration and the labour-market, this background does not seem to critically communicate with the individual stories, but rather stand detached from them. This becomes most blatant when it comes to how the authors describe the relationship between the migrant women workers and the wider labour market. Feeling supportive of the women and their indignation of finding themselves at the bottom of the labour market, the authors then treat the labour market as if it would be a potential ‘level playing field’. Instead of denouncing the hierarchical structure of production (e.g. division into manual and intellectual labour) and a structural tendency towards unemployment meaning that any labour market has to be discriminating, the authors maintain the myth of equal access and denounce the lack of it as racist. Their emphasis on the ‘agency’ of the women workers to better themselves has the flip-side of seeing the failure of bettering oneself as an individual defeat, rather than a systemic outcome.

* Neglecting the general condition of the commodity of labour power

It seems that in their analysis they put the relationship between material conditions and individual identity the wrong way round:

“At stake here was not just the question of whether potential workers were entirely excluded on grounds of their race, but whether the ways in which their racialised identity was constructed informed both the process by which they were differentially and subordinately incorporated into the labour market.”

This would mean that the racialised identity comes first and then ‘informs the process in which they were incorporated into the labour market’ - while we would think that it is the position in which you find yourself in the labour market (which under capitalist conditions includes all kinds of labour, including prison and domestic labour as reserve army) that determines your social position and therefore your (racialised, gendered) identity. This contrast between individual experience and general condition becomes clear when we compare how the South Asian Grunwick workers experienced the fact that management would send away white-British women workers ‘because the job and wage would not be appropriate’ as racist and how, decades later, the South Asian Gate Gourmet workers experienced being replaced by cheaper agency workers from Poland equally as racist.

”The place where I used to work, that job is still going, and there is a Polish person doing that job now. What’s the meaning of this? Why did they throw me out, only to replace me with someone else? This means that they removed me because we were Asian.”

Instead of pointing out the wider misery of having to compete as newcomers on a restricted labour market as the main reason for discrimination and under-cutting of wages and conditions, the authors largely take the women's experiences at face value. At a time when Asian and Black workers were confronted with racist landlords, racist police controls and racist attacks on the streets, it is not surprising that an individual management’s hiring and firing policy happening against this general background is interpreted as racially motivated. While working class revolutionaries should denounce any racist hiring and firing policies, we should at the same time denounce the general trap of having to compete for jobs in general. Again we find a general expression of this in the wider liberal left, which demands ‘open borders’ as some kind of human right and denounces local working class reaction against this as xenophobic or anti-migrant - the left should check their privileged position of not feeling potentially threatened by an increase of competition on the labour and housing market. The demand for open borders has to be solidly founded on working class politics that take up the enormous challenge of organising local and migrant workers against all odds of limited jobs, language issues between workers and so on.

* Focus on racism maintains the myth about the role of unions

The authors introduce the sixth chapter about the Gate Gourmet strike as follows:

“Despite the extent and significance of the support for the Grunwick strikers, subsequent events challenged any certainty that the Grunwick dispute marked a permanent internalisation of issues of race and gender among trade union leadership as well as the white rank and file members. As the following chapter demonstrates, the efforts of another group of South Asian women workers in defending their jobs at Gate Gourmet some three decades after Grunwick did not evince widespread support either from white union members of from the leadership of the trade union movement.”

We don’t want to question the fact that there was and is significant racism within trade unions - but we would question that it is simply racism that leads to the anti-migrant politics of trade unions (e.g. demonstrations against the employment of Tier 2 visa workers from India by the GMB at Heathrow; German unions setting up hotlines to shop ‘illegal’ migrant workers on construction sites etc.) Similar to the way the authors treat the labour market as something that doesn’t have to be discriminatory, the authors treat trade unions as potentially open organisations that are just there to defend the interests of workers - they simply have an attitude problem. They neglect the fact that trade unions - once operating officially on a sectorial and nation state level - defend the interests of their members last but not least against the competition of other (often female, unskilled, migrant) workers. So because of labour market competition trade unions intrinsically have a tendency towards protectionism that seeks to limit access to ‘their’ labour market. But the fact that the unions didn’t support the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet workers is not only, and perhaps not even mainly, due to the workers being female workers of colour. It might have more to do with the general dynamic of the strike, the interest of the union to protect their apparatus and to remain in the good books of the political class. We know of hundreds of examples where trade unions treat the struggles of white-male workers - or male workers of their own background - with similar hostility and finally stab workers in the back: from South African mining workers unions to white-male American postal workers to Indian male car workers to- at least in its outcome - strikes of Liverpool dockers or London print workers, who also felt sold out by their respective unions. In the case of Grunwick the authors emphasise the role that racial segregation played in the company and how it impacted on the strike:

“There were some black (African Caribbean) workers including the male drivers who later came out in support, but racial segregation within the workplace prevented any real or lasting cross-racial solidarity.”

It is not entirely clear from the account whether the problem was that no lasting ‘cross-racial solidarity’ could be created or whether it was rather a problem of ‘cross-departmental’ solidarity beyond the mail-order department, as e.g. the South Asian (male) workers in the office departments did not join the strike either:

"The Grunwick strikers pointed out the differing attitudes between workers from different departments at Grunwick. As we have seen, the strikers were mostly the lower paid women workers from the mail order department (…). One of the strikers, Nirmalaben recalled trying to persuade a relative to join the strike:
“He was in the accounts department, and I said to him, “We are standing out here, why don’t you join us?’ And he said, “You and I are different. You are in that department, I am in the office, I’m higher up’.”

* Lack of focus on the collective process

Finally, with the focus on the individual experience and an understanding of class as an economic-cultural background it seems the authors fail to ask questions that address the collective process amongst workers at work and during the disputes. While there are many great accounts of how workers experience the factory regime and treatment by management, there is little focus on how the experience of work creates (or doesn’t create) a collective reference point and potential power. There is less material about how workers tried to organise with their colleagues and what difficulties they faced. In the case of Gate Gourmet it would be an important question to find out how relations between workers from Punjab and agency workers from Eastern Europe developed after the dispute, but this is not addressed. Perhaps given the lack of insight into the collective process at work the authors also refrain from exploring the problems and perhaps missed opportunities of the strikes themselves. Why did only 137 out of 500 Grunwick workers walk out - and why did their numbers dwindle quickly? The fact that both strikes ended in long lock-outs and finally defeats begs the question whether workers had other possibilities to exercise their power. While the authors probably had good intentions of not wanting to patronise the workers by assessing their strikes critically, this means that at the end of the strikes, workers are depicted as victims of management, unsupportive unions and the legal system, which limits the conclusions and learnings for future disputes.

Although we think overall the authors' ‘intersectional lens’ failed to provide a wider and clearer vision concerning the disputes, the interviews nevertheless revealed important insights about how sexism and racism directly impacted on the women workers’ struggles, e.g. by looking at their double-burden as workers and main carers, by looking at the problems workers had to find accommodation due to racist landlords and at how management tried to use sexist and racist stereotypes of the docile Asian woman to denounce and weaken the strikers.

*** The struggle at Gate Gourmet

We summarise the chapter on the struggle at Gate Gourmet in more detail for various reasons. First of all, because it is the most insightful chapter of the book and the struggle itself is a veritable lesson for current workers’ disputes. Secondly, because some of us were (marginally) involved in Gate Gourmet strike solidarity actions when Gate Gourmet workers went on strike in 2005 in Germany - and worked at Gate Gourmet for a short period of time afterwards. [3] During the dispute in Germany - which happened against the same background of global restructuring of the airline industry - comrades facilitated a bus trip of strikers from Duesseldorf to Southall to meet with workers there, which we still find an inspiring example of direct working class internationalism. As AngryWorkers we continue distributing our local workers’ paper WorkersWildWest in front of Gate Gourmet or SkyChefs plants around Heathrow. Last, but not least, the way the Gate Gourmet workers were undermined through the employment of recently migrated agency workers from Eastern Europe confirms our critical position towards a liberal left that berates working class people who voted for Brexit as being complete wallies misguided by UKIP.

“The nature of ‘cheap labour’ had shifted since the 1970s, and being brown and female was no longer sufficient to guarantee a docile and malleable workforce. Migrant rather than immigrant labour was required, and young and temporary rather than old and permanent were preferred.”

“It is therefore evident that there was simmering resentment before the events of August 2005, particularly at the discussions of the introduction of agency workers and how these were being linked to issues of changing working conditions and the increasing pressure for productivity. The final straw was the introduction of non-unionised agency workers, reportedly from Eastern Europe. By 2005, there was a new wave of ‘cheap’ migrants available to the management in West London, predominantly from Poland and other countries from the recently enlarged EU.”

“Given that they were often older, and given the changing nature of the local labour market where there existed a pool of ‘disposable workers’ in the form of new migrants from the European Accession countries, many of the sacked workers struggled to find another job.”

The last quote fails to recognise that the ‘pool of disposable workers’ is also replenished by recent migrants from South Asia itself - a lot of our colleagues have arrived from Punjab, Gujarat, Goa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Afghanistan in the last decade.

* Background of the strike

The authors interviewed the Gate Gourmet workers in 2008/09. The authors point out once more the different background of the Gate Gourmet workers in comparison to the Grunwick workers: the former come from medium-peasantry background without employment experiences in India, but had worked in the UK for a considerable time and had made experiences of (trade union) struggles in other companies.

“I found a job at terminal four, working with about eight of our women making sandwiches. There was a bonus of £10 a week for doing the work well, and we were to take turns to get it. But our supervisor never gave us the money. Her friend would get the bonus occasionally, but never us. We asked her why, and she replied, ‘Because you do not do the work properly’. I felt so angry when I heard that. (…) One day when the supervisor was on leave the senior manager came by, so my friend and I, we told the manager whatever we could, in our broken English. From then on, we all got the bonus.”

The book mentions the strike at Hillingdon hospital in 1995 and at Lufthansa Sky Chef in 1998, where Gate Gourmet workers had been involved. The Hillingdon Hospital dispute erupted in 1995, a year after the outsourcing of cleaning services to Pall Mall Cleaning, when the workers were offered new contracts, effectively forcing wage cuts of between £25 and £35 a week.

“They gave us ninety days’ notice and asked us to sign the new terms. About six of the cleaners signed it, but about fifty of us did not. On the last day - it was my day off, but I still went to see what was going to happen - everyone was standing outside, assembled together. They said, let’s do ‘demonstration!’ And off we went!”

Unison represented the workers who refused to sign the new contracts and instead went on strike. All workers were sacked. Protests and a legal battle continued for five years years. It took a while to get Unison’s support and to move things forward through the labour tribunal. While the authors claim that workers received compensation and reinstatement, the workers they interview did not mention reinstatement, only that they got redundancy money as an outcome of the legal settlement. In 1998, following a breakdown in negotiations on flexible working practices at Lufthansa Skychef, 270 TGWU members went on an official one-day strike, and were sacked only a few hours into it. This proved to be Britain’s longest official industrial dispute at seventeen months and ended when Lufthansa offered to reinstate the workers or pay compensation to them.

“I was there for two years when a strike started there in 1997. There were mostly Indian people there, mostly women too. They had the same issue of increasing the workload without increasing the money. We were members of the union, and went on strike. But even this was not the first time I had been in a strike. I had been in two strikes at other factories before - one lasting a day and another two weeks. So I had experience of these things. But the Lufthansa strike lasted months - we used to go to the head-quarters of the airlines and demonstrated, we were very active for months. We eventually won and I got £7500 in the settlement.”

The book then describes the restructuring process at Gate Gourmet itself.

“Following the outsourcing of the company from BA to Gate Gourmet in 1997 and particularly after the subsequent loss of the Virgin Atlantic contract in March 2005, the workers experienced an intensification of the work process…”

“The Gate Gourmet management tried to speed up the pace of work by introducing a hierarchical structure, but the workers were unaccustomed to this. (…) In a context where the workers in certain departments were used to tea breaks as well as a lunchbreak in the middle of the day, to help them offset the cold temperatures in which they worked, changes to this system were perceived as particularly oppressive and unreasonable.”

Workers describe some of the changes: there was less time to warm up from the chilled environment; workers were asked to clock in and out for breaks; they had increasing trouble getting toilet breaks; management asked them to take off gloves, shoes, aprons etc. during the break time, which meant a substantial cut in the time to eat and relax; there was less time for workers to train new people or to be trained before full performance levels were expected. While these are pretty common forms of squeezing more work from employees, we feel that the authors could have dug deeper into the actual work organisation, e.g. whether workers felt that having to improvise and cooperate more informally due to less training time might have resulted in not only more stress, but also a potential ground for collective resistance. Instead their conclusion remains a little general:

“The strategy deployed at Gate Gourmet was remarkably similar to that at Grunwick, where managers pressurised the women workers and played upon their sense of insecurity and fear of losing their jobs to extract the maximum productivity from them.”

The authors claim that this process at Gate Gourmet is an example, “…in which managers from the dominant ethnic group apply practices that would not be tolerated by local workers.” While it is true that some of the hardest jobs are done by migrant workers, we find similar practices at automobile assembly lines or call centres (e.g. having to report to go to the toilet etc.), where largely ‘local workers’ are employed.

Management went on to attack not only the breathing space at work, but the contractual conditions themselves, e.g. buy cutting holiday pay or by reducing the sick pay for new starters. Workers expressed their discontent with the union which didn’t organise resistance against these attacks.

“The union balloted two-three times, but we rejected the changes.”

Unfortunately the authors didn’t explain this further by asking the worker exactly what the union was ‘balloting’ for or against. More importantly though, the authors manage to capture the fact that workers started to organise resistance informally at this point.

“It [work to rule] happened three times in six months. First time was when they said they did not want to give us fifteen minutes to change and report for work - they said we would have to do all that in our own time. So our women, they carried on working according to the rules, you know what I mean? But those who had put down their names for overtime withdrew saying they could not do it anymore and it went on like this for three days. The floor manager, he had been on his holiday at that time, he flew back straight on a Sunday and landed on the shop floor! He backtracked and said: “If you need the fifteen minutes to change, That’s OK by me. Please don’t delay the Concorde, if the Concorde gets delayed, I will lose thousands of pounds.’”

Shortly before the actual dispute broke out management provoked workers by sacking a young colleague. Workers react by informing everyone through an informal phone chain and by gathering a large group of workers in the canteen. While the union didn’t want to do anything about the dismissal and the shop steward was ‘pretty shaken up’, management bowed to the workers and re-instated the colleague on the spot.

“Within ten minutes, the entire management turned up and they apologised for the behaviour of that manager and they told us they were reinstating the sacked worker right there. So if there was anything, I’m not saying we left work and marched off every time, but we used to, whenever needed, handle things ourselves. We did not bother much with the shop stewards.”

The authors conclude:

“Such informal mechanisms of collective bargaining are part of the general repertoire of action available to trade union members and are not new.”

We would add that these informal mechanisms are not only available to trade union members.

* Chronology of the dispute

We think it is worth writing down a short chronology of the dispute - given that most other articles about the Gate Gourmet strike mainly deal with the aftermath.

On the 10th of August 2005 workers of the early shift find 50 mainly Polish agency workers at their workplace (lines and wash-up department).
They also find that more security guards are present and that the personnel office is already open at 5am, which is unusual.
The permanent workers ask the temp workers to move, but, backed by management, they stay.
In reaction 200 workers assemble in the canteen.
There is only one shop steward present this morning.
Management calls workers to go back to work, but the shop steward tells them to wait for the union convenor.
The shop steward tells workers not to move until management has talked to the union.
Management announces that workers are engaging in an unofficial strike and that everyone who doesn’t return to work will be dismissed immediately.
They issue verbal warnings through a loudspeaker.
The convenor arrives and asks management to withdraw the warning before workers go back to work.
Management instead warns workers three times and then announces that all workers present are dismissed.
Workers who don’t return their company ID are kettled in the canteen by security guards for up to seven hours.
The subsequent dismissals of workers who were not at work that day but showed solidarity took the number of sacked workers to 813, including workers from other shifts.
In reaction airport baggage handlers undertake solidarity strikes and ground BA flights for two days.
The T&G union asks them to return to work, given that the walk-out is unlawful.
The Gate Gourmet workers gather on a hill close to the plant and receive ‘community support’ (from temples etc.).
The assembling in the canteen is construed as unballoted action. The T&G repudiates workers’ actions in order to protect itself from being fined. As a result workers did not get any strike pay.
On 26th of August the T&G District Officer announces a deal: reengagement of selected workers from those who had been sacked (on new terms and conditions); some voluntary redundancies; compulsory redundancy for 144 workers (‘kitchen ladies’ / trouble makers’ “We will not re-engage employees who instigated the wildcat strike in August or their more militant followers” UK managing director).
There is a meeting on 28th of September to discuss deal. The union officials recommend accepting the deal and ask for show of hands (without opportunity to read full text of agreement/no interpreters).
The press discovers an internal briefing: Gate Gourmet wanted to provoke unofficial action and sack staff.
56 of the workers refuse the redundancy deal.
272 workers of the original 813 who were sacked are reinstated at worse terms. This means that Gate Gourmet managed to cut 541 jobs with only 411 getting a redundancy entitlement.
In the aftermath of the dispute the number of trolleys packed per employee per shift increased by 56 percent, hours lost to sickness reduced by 58 percent, paid overtime reduced by 76 percent.
On 18 September 2006 The Guardian reveals that the T&G paid £600,000 'hush money' to two shop stewards who were involved in the baggage handler wildcat strike. In turn the shop stewards promised not to respond publicly to allegations that they were following union orders.

When reading this section, we thought the description of the aftermath of the dispute was interesting with the increase in domestic tension and violence the women workers had to face due to losing their job. They also describe the difficulty to combine their ‘activist duties’ with domestic chores. In terms of gaps, we would have liked to have read more about the relationship between the permanent and temp workers during and after the dispute.

We think one of the main cruxes of the dispute, and one that is relevant when thinking about any dispute, is the relationship between the self-activity of workers prior to the lock-out (work to rule and spontaneous gatherings) and their behaviour on the day of the 10th of August. On this day, the book portrays the workers as merely following the shop stewards orders, which is surprising given the level of confidence and self-organisation that had been displayed more informally by the workers before then. It would have been interesting if the authors had probed the workers more about ‘what they could have done instead’ - given that they had ample experience both at Gate Gourmet and at other companies. How can workers resist restructuring at a point where management wants to provoke a dispute ‘on their own terms’ that they are prepared for and instigate. Going deeper at that point and asking workers critical questions about their own - our own! - struggles might have helped us to understand further clues and lessons. Instead the conclusion of the authors portrays the workers as victims:

“On the contrary, they were long-standing and disciplined unionised workers, but they fell victim to the lack of transparency and flexibility of the legal system to which they turned for their redress, as well as by the inconsistency of the union’s processes and priorities.”

While it is great that the authors point out that the Gate Gourmet workers had a considerable wealth of experience (Hillingdon strike, SkyChef struggle) and that they document this through their interviews, it seems strange that they fail to address the question of whether there is a certain pattern in these disputes. The 1990s and early 2000s were a decade of major restructuring, initially underpinned by the mass unemployment from the 1980s, then through the opening of the labour market. In all three examples, including Gate Gourmet, we see the pattern that workers are drawn into a dispute ‘not on their own terms’, that they are victimised and rely on trade unions that have a self-interest in settling the dispute with management - the trade unions know that the wider structural trends are poised against them and they are forced into a position of co-managing the restructuring process. The unions can proclaim a ‘partial victory’ and save face, as they have saved at least some jobs or got redundancy packages for some workers - while management’s aim from the start was not to sack everyone, but to reduce the workforce and to enforce worse conditions. The focus of the authors on the question of whether or not the unions failed to support the Gate Gourmet workers because of their ethnic background is understandable, but it might result in not seeing this wider context.

“Thirty years after the Grunwick strike, the Gate Gourmet dispute threw into sharp relief the continuing inadequacies in the trade unions’ representation of minority ethnic women…”
“However, the experience of the women workers at Gate Gourmet indicates that it was their very ethnicity and ‘difference’ that was invoked by their union to justify the way it distanced itself and ultimately abandoned their struggle for dignity and justice at work”.

We think the union’s behaviour was less of a ‘racist betrayal’ than a tactical decision to retain influence with management and New Labour in times of global restructuring. We can also see that this restructuring process - that was imposed on capital by its own crisis, not through mere ‘greed for profits’ - has turned sour for the bosses. The dismantling of industry has re-connected workers in a global supply-chain, the logistics revolution has led to re-concentration of capital (Amazon), the large-scale employment of temp and zero-hour workers has burned all illusions and created a mass of disaffected workers. Since 2010/11 we see an upsurge in militancy amongst workers who have little professional status or sectorial boundaries to defend. This creates the basis to overcome the legal boundaries set by the state/trade union arrangement. The question is, if a (radical) left that is focused on ‘racial and gender norms’ on one side and Labour Party involvement on the other, is able to help unearth this potential.


Angela Davies text on this matter is still worth reading! The first chapters clearly mark out a materialist analysis of how gender relations - which are usually portrayed as affecting ‘men and women’ across the board, are fundamentally different for white middle-class people (family values etc.) and enslaved Black proletarians (masculinity and fatherhood not granted to Black male slaves, importance of manual labour for perception of Black women)

“Intersectionality theory re-focused attention upon systems and structures rather than on the identity of the individual. Individuals might stand at the ‘crossroads’ of various intersecting oppressions, but early proponents of intersectionality clearly stated that this theory was about how oppressions were inextricably intertwined at a structural level.”
While this text is very helpful to debate the critical background of ‘intersectionality’, it does not seem to address the conceptual proximity of both intersectional thinking and identity politics.


Posted By

Sep 13 2018 16:35


  • We can detect in concrete terms how the ‘intersectional approach’ of the authors has created certain blind spots when it comes to analysing the conditions and experiences of the South Asian women workers.

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