TUC 150th anniversary: 4ft 10in mum-of-two who launched “strikers for saris” recalls bid for union power

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The TUC marks its 150th anniversary at its annual congress this weekend.

Since its founding in Manchester in 1868, the Trades Union Congress has backed workers and fought attempts to undermine their rights and pay.

Today it represents five million people. This week the Mirror looks back at some critical points in its remarkable history.

When Jayaben Desai put on her coat at the end of the day, she was told by her line manager at the Grunwick factory that she had to do overtime, and would be dismissed if she left.

It was already 6.55pm and 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. I want my freedom.”

And with that roar of defiance in 1976, 4ft 10in mother-of-two Mrs Desai launched a two-year “strikers in saris” campaign for union recognition that would draw 20,000 protesters to the streets and threaten the Government.

Police and pickets clash

At the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Dollis Hill, North London, photographic film was sent in, processed, and prints posted back.

Its workforce was 80% British Asian. Once middle-class business owners, in 1970s Britain their skin colour meant they were denied good jobs and were forced into low-paid, manual work. “It nagged away like
a sore on their necks,” said Mrs Desai.

They were also – wrongly, it turned out – regarded as docile. Mrs Desai, who came here from Tanzania in 1969, said: “Asians all needed work. So they took whatever was available. Grunwick put out leaflets, ‘Come and we will give you a job. We give jobs to everyone’. When I went, a friend followed. And soon they were full of Asians.”

Hunger strikers outside the TUC offices

But conditions were poor. Overtime was compulsory and last-minute. The average pay was £28 a week, while the national average was £72. Male bosses even demanded staff ask permission to go to the toilet, and the mostly-female staff were ashamed to ask.

Bosses were heard telling younger, white English girls, “You don’t want to come and work here, love, we won’t be able to pay the sort of wages that’ll keep you here”. The workers felt humiliated, like they had escaped tyranny in one country only to become trapped in another.

In the hot summer of 1976, Britain recorded its highest-ever temperature of 35.6C. But at Grunwick there was no air conditioning, and on August 20 Devshi Bhudia was fired for working too slowly. Three others walked out in support and when Mrs Desai was sacked too her son Sunil joined them.

Her line manager referred to them as “chattering monkeys” and she told him they were lions. Three days later the six began a picket, having been advised to join the moderate clerical union Apex.

Within days, 75 more staff walked out, complaining of low pay, long hours, bullying, racism and petty restrictions, and demanding trade union recognition. A day later, Grunwick bosses offered to give them all their jobs back if they dropped the call for a union. It was rejected out of hand and 137 staff were fired for staging an illegal strike.

On September 14, a management car drove over Mrs Desai’s foot as she protested. A week later, another woman was hospitalised by a collision and the strike had its first arrest. Unions then were white, male and working class. Despite the fact the strikers were Asian, female and middle class, the TUC urged other unions to “give all possible assistance”.

It was a groundbreaking moment in race relations and, for the first time, the national labour movement threw its weight behind ethnic minority workers.

Police and demonstrators pictured during the picketing of the Grunwick film processing factory in Willesden, North London, in 1977

The local postmen refused to deliver Grunwick’s mail, their chairman saying: “You don’t say ‘no’ to Mrs Desai.” Postal deliveries were critical to the business and by November it faced liquidation.

There were debates in Parliament, more arrests, and bosses agreed to talks in return for the reinstatement of deliveries. Postmen who continued to “black” mail were suspended for three weeks.

Grunwick boss George Ward launched legal action, winning praise from Opposition leader Margaret Thatcher.

Acas was brought in to arbitrate but bosses gave “loyal workers” a 15% pay rise and refused to let anyone talk to them. When Acas found in favour of the strikers, Grunwick took it to court.

In the meantime, the strike spread. Mrs Desai toured 1,000 workplaces to rally support, saying: “We must not give up. Would Gandhi give up? Never!”

Pickets were held at chemist shops which sent films to the factory and in March 1977, 1,400 people marched through Willesden, north-west London in support.

In April, Grunwick raised wages by another 10% then, two months later ,the Brent Trades Council organised a week of mass protests involving flying pickets from all over the country.

They included print workers, student unions and miners from as far afield as Yorkshire and Kent. Arthur Scargill was among 300 arrested by the end of the week as they tried to block minibuses driving staff into the Grunwick factory.

Mrs Desai said later: “Tears were in my eyes to see these people… They were hurting themselves, police were charging them with horses and everything and still they were standing strong.” Crowds were held back by aggressive police from the notorious Special Patrol Group.

Grunwick was backed by the ultra-Right National Association For Freedom, whose members circumvented the postal strike by collecting photos at the factory and getting volunteers to post them all over the country in what was known as Operation Pony Express.

A small dispute at a London factory became a battle between Left and Right.

In June, PM James Callaghan warned that “this was indeed a crisis” and told Home Secretary Merlyn Rees: “There could well be fatalities and in circumstances which might be in danger of bringing the Government down.”

After Arthur Scargill called for a “national day of action” in July, 20,000 people jammed the streets around Dollis Hill tube station, marching and blocking the gates to the factory.

But in the end, Grunwick won its legal battle and the Acas report was declared invalid. Even although the Government-ordered Scarman Inquiry found in favour of the workers, the TUC and Apex stepped back from the campaign.

Arthur Scargill arrested in 1977

Mrs Desai and three others picketed the TUC, sitting outside its offices on hunger strike. Their union suspended them without pay for a month and Mrs Desai said: “Trade union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it but you cannot taste it.”

When the strike was declared over on July 14, 1978, Mrs Desai told the final meeting: “We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.”

None of the sacked workers were reinstated. Mrs Desai found sewing work, taught at Brent Indian Association and Harrow College and finally became “free as a bird” when she passed her driving test aged 60. She was given a gold medal by the GMB union in 2007 and died in 2010, at 77.

Pickets outside Grunwick photo-processing Laboratory in Willesden, London, in June 1977

When asked what the strike achieved, she said: “Because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up because it was difficult to get to the new place.

“Can you imagine? And they get a pension. And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle.”

Grunwick closed in 2011 and for many, its legacy was that thousands of people, black and white, united to defend the rights of fewer than 200 migrants, for the simple reason that women like Mrs Desai wanted their freedom.


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