Lindsey German looks at the life of Jayaben Desai who rose to prominence as the leader of a heroic strike by 137 mainly female Asian workers at the Grunwick film processing factory in 1976.

Jayaben Desai

Jayaben Desai, who died aged 77 just before Xmas, was probably as surprised as anyone that she became the leader of the Grunwick strike in the late 1970s. The strike at a small film processing factory in Cricklewood, North West London was triggered following a series of grievances with their boss, who was also Asian. It came to a head when a male worker was sacked for working too slowly. The mainly female Asian workforce walked out in 1976, joined the union APEX, and were on the picket lines for two years.

They were symbolic of so many things: they were women workers, they were Asian immigrants, and they had the misfortune to be fighting an intractable boss just at a time when the fortunes of the labour movement in Britain were declining after its high point of the early 1970s. Their courage, symbolized by the tiny figure of Mrs. Desai at under 5 feet wearing her sari and carrying a handbag, sparked a wave of support and solidarity across the movement. Post office workers refused to cross picket lines and for a time refused to handle all the mail. Right wing politicians used Grunwick as a cause célèbre and were determined to use everything, including legal action and police repression, to break the strike.

‘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 finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr manager.’
Jayaben Desai’s words to her boss as she led walkout

In the summer of 1977 mass pickets were organized every morning outside the factory set among rows of terraced houses. We would travel across London at 5 or 6 on beautifully light summer mornings to join trade unionists, students, and local people to stop the scabs going in. On one particular day there was a national mass picket when the miners led by Arthur Scargill turned up to stop the bus. A mass police operation ensured that it went through.

Looking back, Grunwick was a turning point. Even right wing Labour politicians like Shirley Williams joined the picket line (although not when most of us were there) because they understood that the future of picketing, and therefore of effective industrial action for unions, was at stake. The employers and government understood this and launched a huge policing operation to keep the factory open. The Special Patrol Group was used for the first time in an industrial dispute here. In total there were 550 arrests during the dispute – more than at any time since the general Strike of 1926.

While the traditions of solidarity and secondary action in defence of a small group of strikers such as these was still strong, the working class movement was increasingly defensive and sectional following the economic crisis. The Labour government did a deal with the union leadership to impose wage restraint and cuts at the behest of the IMF. In many ways the policies of that government paved the way for Thatcher in 1979, who then passed laws to make it much harder for another Grunwick to happen. The labour movement became more atomized and divided, and despite very big strikes in the early 1980s, the ruling class was able to decisively weaken the unions, a problem which we are still grappling with today.

The summer of 1977 saw the Queen’s Jubilee, the huge defeat for the fascists at Lewisham, and growing class polarization. Grunwick and Mrs. Desai were an important part of this mix. The fact that Asian women would stand up for their rights and win the solidarity of white male trade unionists was not lost on many and helped to create an anti racist culture inside the British working class.

Her most famous saying was a criticism of the TUC. Official trade union support, she said, is ‘like honey on the elbow’: you can touch it, you can see it but you can’t quite taste it. The strike should have won. But Jayaben Desai’s failure was more heroic than most people’s success. Which is why her name will be in all the future histories of the British working class.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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