The Grunwick strike, 1976-8, was a pivotal event for the labour movement, and this classic account contains key lessons for activists, argues Richard Allday
Jack Dromey and Graham Taylor, Grunwick: the workers’ story, 2nd ed. (Lawrence and Wishart in association with the GMB Union, 2016), vi, 212pp.
Although this book is sub-titled The Workers’ Story, it could equally well be flagged as ‘a socialist and trades unionist primer’. The story of a strike, ending in failure, by a small group of immigrant workers, mainly female, for union recognition and respect at a small photographic processing plant in North London would in the normal run of events, seem to merit little more than a footnote in any trade-union history of twentieth-century Britain.
Yet the strike of Jayaben Desai and her fellow workers galvanized the trade-union movement. It led to debates in Parliament, and government ministers attending the picket line. It raised the mass picket to a live question for a whole generation of workers, bringing unofficial and unlawful solidarity action from post workers, for example. It saw the exposure of the police force’s use of physical violence and of agents provocateurs. Pivotally, it raised the need to confront racism and sexism in our movement in a way that had never before been discussed. Finally, Grunwick exposed the futility of relying on the law to defend workers’ rights – and of relying on the trade-union bureaucracy for the same.
The history of the strike shows the way the ruling class mobilises against working-class resistance. Biased reporting in the media, and deliberate distortion of the facts; ‘impartial’ front organisations created by a toxic mix of right-wing Tory ideologues and employers; collusion between the forces of the state and the employer; legal intimidation; and carefully planned ‘psy-ops’ and ‘black propaganda’ are all used to undermine workers’ solidarity.
It also, in the eventual defeat of the strike, exposed the weakness of the then Labour government to the ideological attack of neo-liberal Thatcherism. It exposed the disgraceful abdication of political responsibility by the then Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees. The role of the state in subverting trades unions and covertly assisting right-wing demagogues was laid bare. Above all, the TUC was revealed as a paper tiger – in the words of Jayaben Desai (the universally acknowledged spokesperson for the strikers): ‘Official trade union support is like honey on the elbow. You can see it, you can smell it, but you never get to taste it’ (p.115).
Although the book lists Jack Dromey and Graham Taylor as co-authors, it was Taylor’s original proposal (the original edition was 1978), and Dromey was brought in as co-author for his ‘invaluable trade union expertise and for his outstanding role in the strike’ (Taylor’s introduction, p.15). It is perhaps revealing of the two different personalities that Taylor’s name is not mentioned in the two-hundred-odd pages, despite his first-hand knowledge of the strike; Dromey’s appears frequently.
The value of this book lies not in its detailed and passionate recounting of a strike at a small factory in North London, but in its clear and partisan analysis of the politics behind the strike. The significance of Grunwick lay in how the strike gained solidarity on a national scale (indeed, international – French and Dutch dockers embargoed Grunwick traffic), for a group of Asian workers at a time when racism was a real and physical threat. It was a mere eight years since London dockers and Smithfield meat porters had marched in support of Enoch Powell. It was just two years since the official trade-union movement had turned its back on Asian members in dispute at Imperial Typewriters and Mansfield Mills, and it was the year that the National Front tried to dominate the streets.
The significance of the Grunwick strikers in posing the basic class interest of unity and dealing a fatal blow to racism in our movement cannot be over-estimated. It marked the start of the fight in our movement to treat racism, and sexism, seriously.
Lastly, it says something about how far our class has retreated over the past forty years, that the analysis in this book - of the state, of the trade-union bureaucracy, of the right-wing of the Labour Party, of the need for independent rank and file organization, of the class nature of the law, and law enforcement – this analysis, which might seem radical now, was so much part of the conversation in our class back then that even Jack Dromey regarded it as unexceptional. Would that he could meet his younger self.
At a time when socialist politics are firmly back on the national agenda, and when leading members of the Labour Party are again prepared to talk unashamedly about class – and to put their money where their mouths are, by attending workers’ picket lines – there is little doubt that our class’s desire for change will manifest itself industrially.
As this happens, it will expose a new generation of workers to the self-same problems experienced by the Grunwick strikers forty years ago. This book can help them avoid some of the bear-traps and pitfalls that our rulers will certainly try to prepare, and help deepen their understanding of the class forces ranged against us.
All in all, a book well worth reading; both by those of us who lived through those events, and those to whom it may appear history – it is not ‘history’ but a prescient teaching tool. As such, it is well worth buying – but why not suggest your union branch buys a copy (or copies) for the education of our workplace reps and activists? It is too valuable a resource to just sit on ‘experienced’ activists’ bookshelves.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.