The Grunwick Strike
The Grunwick strike, a two year industrial dispute led by Jayaben Desai at a film-processing laboratory in London between 1976 and 1978, is remembered as a significant event in the history of labour rights.
It is commemorated for the solidarity displayed during the strike between British-born and immigrant workers, as well as for the mass demonstrations which saw other unions join the picket lines and support the cause. Grunwick has also been recorded as an event which drew wide attention to the right to unionise.
However, I came across an edition of Race Today on the platform Leftovers, a digital archive of radical, anti-oppressive and working class movements, that challenged those claims. The front cover of the magazine reads in block letters “Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons”. One article reads:
“What we are witnessing is a take-over bid for the independent movement of Asian workers by the left-wing of the labour movement, whose immediate interest is to keep the union kite flying. Scargill, Dromey and co., have paraded the Grunwick struggle as being symbolic of the fundamental right of a worker to belong to a union [...] the emotional appeal to defend unionism has succeeded in drawing thousands of white workers to the Grunwick picket lines. However this does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers. This has yet to happen. They are there on the issue of ‘defending the trades union movement’ [...] our history as black workers and our experience of trades unions in this country has forced us to create our own methods of struggle.” (p.154)
The strikers at Grunwick did not walk out on the issue of trade union membership, but the degrading treatment that they suffered as immigrant workers. The predominantly white trade union was ill-equipped in dealing with the concerns of its members at Grunwick, whose complaints were racism as well as terrible working conditions. Despite being remembered as evidence of solidarity between white and non-white members of the working class, the articles argue that it was solidarity extended to defend workers rights and not racial discrimination.
I was inspired by this publication to produce a zine as part of my event on the Grunwick Strike for Flatpack that will include texts from writers, academics and activists Dr Sundari Anitha, Professor Ruth Pearson and Amrit Wilson. These texts will aim to challenge the way the Grunwick has been remembered in mainstream discourses (as evidence of solidarity and a landmark for non-white representation that would improve labour laws for immigrant workers). Instead, the texts explore how Grunwick, far from being an isolated event, was part of a long history of South Asian activism in the UK. They also detail the hypocrisy of the trade union accounts that celebrate the events at Grunwick, despite having withdrawn their support for the striking workers at the time.
As we are witnessing a resurgence of the labour movement in Britain and a steady rise in trade union membership, I look to these lessons to help recognise the ways in which trade unions still fail the most vulnerable workers. Now with the Uberisation of working, the proliferation of casual and temporary contracts and the use of agencies to outsource labour, I wonder where its efficacy is limited. As long as undocumented, immigrant, and racialised communities experience marginalisation in the labour market, their concerns do not take priority, cannot be handled with nuance, and continue to fall through the gaps at union level as well as in law and policy.