Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

I remember the summer of 1976 well, as one of the hottest on record here in Britain, with day after day of scorching temperatures, relentless sunshine and water shortages. It was also when a strike at a factory called Grunwick in north west London made into frontline news. In normal circumstances, it would have been regarded as essentially an old-fashioned dispute between workers and their employers in the classic British tradition, during a decade when the country was often described as `the sick man of Europe` because of a culture of poor industrial relations, but for one notable difference: the strikers were a group of South Asian women, many of them clad in traditional Indian attire.  They were involved in a fight about their working conditions with bosses who refused to recognise their grievances or to permit trade union representation for them. 

Their leader was Jayaben Desai, and over the next two years her diminutive but gently determined figure, wearing a Gujarati style sari, became a familiar sight as portrayed in pictures in newspaper reports and on tv. She exuded moral strength and was fearless in her advocacy for the strikers` cause.  These qualities earned her wide admiration and an iconic status in the history of British trade unionism as one of the stalwarts of the movement. So how did it all begin?

Of Indian origin, Jayaben had first moved to Tanzania, after marrying her husband who was settled there, around 1959.  The family then left Tanzania following independence because of the drive towards Africanisation and, after a spell back in India, went through a second migration to Britain where she arrived circa 1967 (there is some confusion over her biographical details and timeline).  She began working at Grunwick in 1974.

Grunwick, a mail order photo processing business, was established in 1965 by a group of three men, of whom George Ward was chairman – more about him later. By the early `70s it was doing well, albeit with a largely low paid immigrant black and Asian workforce who were subject to a strict regime which, according to an academic study, `included  heavy pressure to maintain a high level of production, managerial control (the women workers had to seek permission to go to the toilets), the threat of sacking and summary dismissals, and compulsory overtime, which was often demanded at short notice` and which caused great distress to the women in particular as it severely interfered with their home lives and responsibilities.  While Jayaben and her fellow workers could accept low pay and status as recently arrived migrants, they found such a working environment increasingly intolerable and lacking in dignity and respect towards them by the management.  According to the researchers, the workers complained that:

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

By August 1976 there was simmering tension among them about their harsh conditions and degrading treatment and it reached a boiling point on Friday the 20th when one worker was sacked for failing to obey a direction and Mrs Desai (herself faced with a last-minute demand for overtime) together with her son Sunil (who also worked there) walked out in protest, and when the line manager compared her and her colleagues to `chattering monkeys` she replied:

`What you are running here 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 the lions, Mr Manager`!

With these memorable words, which are now quoted in almost every piece written about Jayaben, began the Grunwick saga.  On the following Monday, the 23rd, a number of other workers also joined the strike. This was the start of their industrial action proper, which was to mushroom into something much bigger and achieve national prominence. They took immediate steps to join a trade union, Apex, who then declared their strike `official`, though Grunwick refused to recognise the union as representing them, a stance which was to remain a sticking point all through the dispute.

On 2nd September, Grunwick sacked 137 workers.  Later that month, both Jayaben and another woman demonstrator were injured by passing management cars, while one striker was arrested for obstruction. Further arrests were to follow over the whole course of the strike.  After a few months of picketing and protesting, which soon began to be noticed, their cause was taken up by the wider trade union movement.  That was a significant turning point in their struggle.  There then followed a long hard sequence of collective actions and counter measures and a whole range of other happenings, the most extraordinary of which was the active involvement of ordinary white working class men (mostly) and some women, who less than 10 years previously had taken part in Powellite marches and rallies against immigration, claiming that the newcomers were taking their jobs.  

What made them come out in huge numbers from all over the country - to join in mass pickets and demonstrations, taking time off and making the effort to travel down to London, often roughly handled or arrested by the police and ending up in court on criminal charges - to align themselves with Jayaben and her co-strikers?  In large part it was the growing high profile of this charismatic, short, petite and plucky Indian woman – addressing the literally hundreds and thousands of people gathered outside the gates of Grunwick, walking up and down the street with a loudhailer, confronting the intimidating presence of the police, demanding rights and respect, in her broken English! While the media exposure of this compelling phenomenon had caught the public imagination, Jayaben and her team also toured the country to speak at meetings of workers about their cause, which was another contributing factor in their sympathetic response.

Other unions became involved, as did the overarching TUC (Trade Union Council), and in particular the refusal of the Union of Post-Office Workers to handle Grunwick`s mail continued to pose a threat to its business and led to prolonged litigation. There was lobbying of Parliament in October and an emergency debate in the House of Commons in November.

By 1977, the name Grunwick had become a byword for workers pitted against an intransigent and uncompromising management.  It also became a badge of honour for politicians and other leading figures on the left, as well as ordinary sympathisers, to make a visit to the strike venue, almost like a pilgrimage, and join the picketers to show their support.  On 19 May, for example, three ministers (two of them in the cabinet) did so, which made quite an impact. It has to be remembered that all this was happening under a Labour administration (under James Callaghan as Prime Minister) which made the government uneasy.

Further developments were taking place all the time. June was a particularly eventful month and tempers were rising.  There was, among other things, a week-long mass picket, which created problems of crowd control and policing. Another Labour MP, Mrs Audrey Wise, was arrested when she intervened to try to rescue a young woman (who happened to be a daughter of Dom Mintoff, the Prime Minister of Malta), being badly manhandled by a policeman, and was subsequently found guilty of obstruction of police! Later that month, Arthur Scargill, the Yorkshire miners` leader, who had come out strongly in support of the strike, was also arrested.  

A few selected headlines from The Times give a flavour of that month`s happenings: `Attorney General refuses to act over postal ban` (18 June); `Apex leader asks for TUC support` (21 June); `Gunwick leader agrees to meet employment minister conditionally` (22 June); `Owner of Grunwick says he will never give in` (22 June); `TUC urges unions to intensify aid in Grunwick strike` (23 June); `Minister and Grunwick fail to settle picketing dispute` (24 June); `Clashes getting out of control, but no end to factory siege in sight` (24 June); `Minister proposes Grunwick dispute mediator` (25 June); `Postmen widen mail ban as Grunwick talks break down` (29 June); `Grunwick dispute to be debated by MPs` (30 June).  And so it was (debated) on that day, in the course of which a Court of Inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman was announced. 

The Scarman Inquiry acted swiftly and after visiting Grunwick`s premises, taking evidence and deliberating over the matter, issued its report on 25 August, calling for union recognition and reinstatement of the sacked workers, while criticising mass picketing and the refusal of the postal workers to handle Grunwick`s mail.  Grunwick however rejected the report.  The strike and all manner of supporting activities continued.

A mass 5000 strong picket was held on 17 October 1977.  And on 7 November, an even greater number, some 8000, of pickets turned up for another mass rally.  This was to result in violent clashes with the Special Patrol Group, with 113 arrests and injuries to 243 pickets.

That was probably the last such act of mass demonstration, for there was a scaling back of union support due to behind the scenes manoeuvres at high levels of government and other influential leaders.  Later that month, Jayaben Desai, accompanied by three other members  of the Strike Committee staged a hunger strike outside the TUC HQ, which resulted in their own union Apex, suspending them for 4 weeks without strike pay.  The strike however continued well into the new year, but on 13 May, under the heading `Dispute allowed to die, Grunwick strikers say`, The Times reported that the 54 people still on strike after 21 months said that their union, Apex, `was allowing the dispute to die a quiet death`.  Two days later, Grunwick rejected an official intermediary`s plea for union recognition for the remaining workers and thereafter carried on its business until 2011. On July 14 1978, the strike committee announced the end of the strike – mission not accomplished!

Unsuccessful, yes, but Jayaben remained unbowed in spirit well past the strike. She went on to live a useful life until her death in 2010, aged 77, when generous tributes were paid to her. In the final analysis, Grunwick was not about race or nationality but rather it stands out as a case of class conflict – between workers and their capitalist masters.  The strikers undoubtedly had trade union support, but the management for its part was backed by the right wing National Association for Freedom and hailed by the then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, who was a passionate believer in free market economics.  Indeed when she became Prime Minister in less than a year later, she was quick to push through anti-trade union legislation. The era of a labour oriented value system was over.

Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of documented material available online, as well as in print, in terms of video footage of news reports, meetings, interviews and academic papers and other records about Jayaben and the strike.  The same goes for Grunwick`s chairman George Ford who too, as it happens, was also an immigrant from India (born there in 1933, the same as Jayaben), albeit with a different background and trajectory. Post-Grunwick, he personally continued to thrive until his death in 2012, aged 79. Their names will however remain linked for ever through the Grunwick moniker, not only on google but in my memory as well!

Ramnik Shah


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