Strikers in Saris - The Grunwick Strike

Strikers in Saris - The Grunwick Strike

In 1976 South Asian women workers who had made Britain their home, led a strike against poor working conditions in a British factory. Lakshmi Patel was one of the South Asian women who picketed the Grunwick film-processing factory in north London for two years

Video link https://youtu.be/onWZ1SE-5Ok

In 1976 South Asian women workers who had made Britain their home, led a strike against poor working conditions in a British factory. Lakshmi Patel was one of the South Asian women who picketed the Grunwick film-processing factory in north London for two years, defying the stereotype of submissive South Asian women. They gained the support of tens of thousands of trade unionists along the way. Lakshmi talks to Farhana Haider about how the strike was a defining moment for race relations in the UK in the 1970s.

Transcript

Program Producer Max Pierson:
But we begin with an example of hard-won workers’ rights in Britain. And if
that phrase conjures up images of beefy miners or dockers confronting their bosses
you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Because we’re going back to 1976 when
a group of South Asian women led a strike over poor working conditions. These were
strikers in Saris, they took the lead but eventually more than 20,000 people joined
the protest which lasted for two years. Farhana Haider has been speaking to
Lakshmi Patel who was an employee at the Grunwick film processing factory and
took part in the strike.

[Background chants of “The Workers United, will not be defeated!”]

Farhana Haider:
The Grunwick film processing factory in North London employed mainly women of
South Asian origin. Most of whom were migrants from East Africa, they were
commonly thought of as hardworking and passive, the women of the Grunwick
factory would challenge this stereotype as they walked out over what they
claimed was un fair treatment. They also wanted to join a Union.

Lakshmi Patel:

I said I am going to support our Asian women, I will stay
out on the picket line until conditions improve and we get Union recognition. Conditions
will improve at Grunwick once we’re allowed to join a Union.

Farhana Haider:

Lakshmi started working at the Grunwick factory in 1972 and
had seen many of her colleagues treated poorly.

Lakshmi Patel:

In Grunwick there was a big glass room, the manager used to
sit in that room. He would observe us from that room, he would keep an eye on us.
If we were going to the toilet if we took too long then he would ask `why? What
where you up to?`

If you didn’t want to do overtime you were forced to. There was
a lot of Indian women working at Grunwick, many of them were very scared, they
were afraid of the supervisors and couldn’t do anything about it.

Farhana Haider:

But one woman, Jayaben Desai had had enough. In August 1976
she walked out in support of a sacked colleague, here she is talking to the BBC
about that day.

Jayaben Desai:

I told them look this is not the situation for me to work,
give me my card straight away, and I walk out.

BBC Interviewer:

So, Mrs Desai walked out, and by Monday the 23rd
of August five others including her son had joined her. They picketed the gates
and they tried to persuade other workers to leave the factory and attend a
meeting to draw up a list of grievances.

Lakshmi Patel:

I was on the picket line from the first day, Jayaben Desai
felt strongly we needed to have a Union at the factory so we decided that all
of us would come out at 3 o’clock that day. Jayaben wanted it because of the
poor working conditions, and being forced to do overtime.

Farhana Haider:

Just four ft 10 inches tall not only did Jayaben lead the
walk out, she was determined that they stay out for as long as it took.

Interviewer:

How long will you stay here?

Jayaben Desai:

Until we finish this dispute.

Interviewer:

A year?

Jayaben Desai:

Anytime.

Interviewer:

Five years?

Jayaben Desai:

Ten Years.

Interviewer:

You’d stay?

Jayaben Desai:

We will stay.

Lakshmi Patel:

Jayaben Desai was a strong woman, and she believed that women
have so many rights in this country, then why can’t we have them too? She used
to live just behind my house, we used to make the banners for the protests in
my back garden.

And she was not scared of nobody.

Farhana Haider:

The workers joined a Trade Union and began to make demands
for better wages, a better working environment and better treatment. The
Grunwick factory management refused to recognise their Union membership. After
months of picketing outside the factory the women did however gain support from
other Trade Unions who began to advise them. Here’s Trade Unionist Jack Dromey.

Jack Dromey:

What we then did was to organise together with the strikers
for delegations of strikers to go to 2,000 workplaces throughout Britain in a 35-week
period. What you saw was the remarkable spectre of in Jayaben Desai’s words  ”little Asian ladies with dots on their head going
into steel mills, car factories, engineering factories aircraft factories.”

Farhana Haider:

The visits from Jayaben and her colleagues worked; and what
started out as a small industrial dispute grew day by day. And by June and July
1977 up to 20,000 people were taking part in protests outside the factory
gates.

Lakshmi Patel:

Unions from across England supported us, Coal miners, post
office workers, mostly all the Unions supported us.

Farhana Haider:

And how did that make you feel?

Lakshmi Patel:

We were so happy and proud that the whole of England was
there to support us.

Farhana Haider:

With tensions mounting there were often clashes between the Trade
Unionists and the police as Grunwick’s management began bussing in workers. The
struggle on the streets on North London started to feature nightly on the TV
news.

TV News reporter One:

Violence began with [loud shouts and screams] the arrival of
the first busload of Grunwick workers. Instead of stopping as usual the bus
drove straight in scattering pickets’ MPs and police.

TV News reporter Two:

Midnight, and Grunwicks looks more like a camp under siege
than a film processing plant.

TV News reporter Three:

Thousands of policemen, one sixth of the Metropolitan force
were brought in, and they had a tough time from the start. [chants of Police
Out!]

Farhana Haider:

But the original Grunwick strikers did not take part in the
skirmishes and violence. On one occasion when a policeman was injured the women
led by Jayaben visited him in hospital with a cake to apologise.

They were determined to continue with their demand for Union
recognition and improved conditions despite the fact they had been on the
picket line for months. Lakshmi was pregnant and had a baby boy during the
dispute. In an effort to defuse the situation and inquiry was set up by the government.

Lakshmi Patel:

I had made up my mind I would stick together with Jayaben. We
were not scared, there were a lot of policemen you could see them all over the
street, and only Jayaben Desai was in the middle.

Jayaben Desai:

There is no doubt, I can say that the victory is nearer.

Farhana Haider:

But the Grunwick management refused to compromise, or take
part in mediation. Two years after the strike began; despite mass support the Trade
Unions felt the dispute could not be won and withdrew their support. In July 1978
the strike was called off, all those women who remained on the picket line were
fired, including Lakshmi Patel. But she doesn’t believe the dispute was a
complete failure.

Lakshmi Patel:

I was very proud of myself, that we fought for our rights
and that the Unions joined the picket line to help us. They could see that we
had got to do something for ourselves and our women, we felt that Asian women
in England fought for two years for their rights. It didn’t work out, but we were
still proud of that fact. All the women felt that we are something because we
put up such a fight for Union recognition, we didn’t give up. I’m so proud that
we fought for our rights.

Farhana Haider:

Jayaben Desai also felt that the protests had not failed and
some concessions had been won, as she explained in an BBC interview.

Jayaben Desai:

The reason for what we were fighting we have achieved. The treatment
with the staff has already changed, the wages was increased, don’t you think it
was a victory? In my opinion victory.  Although
the reinstatement of staff and union recognition was lost, every victory you
can’t get a 100% victory can you?

Farhana Haider:

Jayaben Desai died in 2010, the Grunwick dispute is seen by
many as a pivotal moment for South Asian women workers in Britain. It raised
their profile and challenged stereotypes, Lakshmi Patel found another job soon
after being fired, she is now retired and still lives in London. In 2017 a
mural was unveiled at the site of the dispute, to honour the women who fought
so hard for their rights.

Max Pierson:

That was Farhana Haider reporting, well as Farhana mentioned
that strike in the 1970’s has been seen as something of a turning point in
British Industrial relations. And I’m joined now by Dr Sundari Anitha from the
University of Lincoln who has studied the Grunwick strike in great detail.

So, in sort of general terms of the sweep of British industrial
relations, how would you see the importance of Grunwick?

Dr Sundari Anitha:

What was really important about Grunwick was not that South
Asian women stood up in defence of their rights as workers, because they had
done that several times before. What was important was that this was the first
time that white working class in Britain recognised also the common cause with
migrant women workers.

Prior to Grunwick there were several strikes where women
workers and South Asian women workers protested against unequal pay, but they
found that they had to challenge not just their employers but also their Trade
Unions who wouldn’t stand with them. And so, this was seen as a new era in Trade
Union recognition of minority and migrant women workers’ rights.

Max Pierson:

Its an interesting one though isn’t it because during the
protest it wasn’t as if the South Asian women strikers exactly saw eye to eye
with the Unions then wanted to adopt their case. The tactics did vary.

Dr Sundari Anitha:

Definitely, and that’s why the strike ending in failure
really. What we know now from looking at the documents that were released since
then was that a lot of the pressure to end the support of the strike from Trade
Unions came from the Labour government of the day. It had a wafer-thin majority
and it saw Grunwick as this public order issue, and therefore they put pressure
on the Trade Unions to withdraw their support.

So, there is a contradiction there, in that the common members
of the Trade Unions, ordinary workers turned out in their thousands to support
the Grunwick strikers. But the Union bureaucracy initially supported them but
gradually turned away from them, and that’s why the strike was lost.

Max Pierson:

But it was very high profile, and what did it do more generally
across the country for the standing of the South Asian community and in
particular South Asian women?

Dr Sundari Anitha:

I think it challenged stereotypes of South Asian women, and
in many ways those stereotypes still hold and we have to go back to Grunwick and
looked at what happened in that dispute to continuously challenge this
construction of South Asian women as passive as docile as confined to the
domestic sphere. And we really need to reclaim that account of their lives as
workers, and as workers who challenged exploitation at work. And won rights not
just for themselves but for all of us British workers.

And this erotization, this surprise at their presence on the
picket line, and I must say that the BBC is part of that, of Strikers in Saris.
This surprise that how come women are doing something that we see as unexpected.

Max Pierson:

But, to be fair it was very unusual at the time, the, the,
the tag Strikers in Saris was not unjustified.

Dr Sundari Anitha:

It wasn’t unusual, like I said there were several other
disputes were South Asian women had been on strike before. It’s just that they
didn’t win the support of Trade Unions and fellow workers. So what was unusual
wasn’t that they were striking; what was unusual was that finally they were
being listened to by the broader Trade Union movement.

Max Pierson:

And because the stereotype lingers to this day does that
mean that the South Asian community in Britain is not particularly aware of its
own history when it comes to industrial relations and particularly to the
Grunwick dispute?

Dr Sundari Anitha:

I definitely think that is the case. I remember interviewing
one of the Grunwick strikers and on the morning of the interview she was very
excited, she said my grandson is really excited it’s the day of my interview,
and I told him everything about the Grunwick dispute. And she said her grandson
turned to her and said You Grandma? I can’t believe you went on strike.

And six months later she called me to tell me that her
grandson had done a school project on Grunwick. And that’s when we thought that
this history is not even being celebrated by the very people who are at the
centre of it. And so, we felt there’s really a need to take the story out
further, and academic journal articles, books are not enough. and so, we
created a website with resources for schools and a comic.

Clearly there is a need to celebrate and reclaim these
histories, not just for minority communities but for majority communities as
well because this is part of our workers history. And you can find the
resources at http://striking-women.org/

Posted By

Reddebrek
Feb 10 2019 18:50

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Comments

syndicalist
Feb 16 2019 16:06

Remember this inspiring strike and struggle well. Good to see this stuff on line