How the Grunwick Strike woke up trade unionists to minority workers' rights

Denied the right to a union, Indian women from East Africa took matters into their own hands. 

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This year marks the 40 year anniversary of the Grunwick Strike. I recently visited an exhibition marking the strike and found myself thinking about the enormity of this event in the history of our labour movement and the trade union movement and how it is a great example of what can be achieved when people come together to fight for their rights.  

The Grunwick dispute led to a two-year strike over working conditions and trade union representation in the factories in Brent. These factories, which are just two minutes from my office, employed a large amount of migrant workers, mostly Indian women from East Africa. These workers suffered from low pay, very long hours and terrible working conditions. 

These women took a stand against their poor treatment. While they were denied the right to join a union, they were fearless in standing up for their rights against unscrupulous bosses and they risked their livelihoods in order to strike. Jayaben Desai, whose resignation triggered the strike, described her co-workers as "lions". Over 500 arrests were made, with incidents of police violence towards strikers. 

Appalling too was the fact that the women struggled to gain support from union bosses. The lack of concern for the rights of minority workers from union bosses was a prime example of white privilege, and the failure for one group to acknowledge the struggle of another. This prejudice was only overcome by the strength of the workers such as Desai, and the solidarity of the wider labour movement.

Times have changed, and although the leadership of almost all the trade unions are still white men, these men are enlightened and are the leaders at the forefront of the struggle against inequality and discrimination. They now recognise that the concerns of migrant workers are also their concerns. In 2007, GMB Congress awarded Desai the Gold Badge - a recognition of outstanding achievement - to mark the 30th anniversary of the strike.

This, in my opinion, is the real legacy of Grunwick. I often hear the strikers say that they failed. I have told them as forcefully as I could that they succeeded in so many ways and their legacy lives on in people like me, an African-Caribbean woman who was a full-time trade union official.

Indeed, Grunwick shows the power of ordinary people and our labour movement in fighting for the rights of minorities. We must learn the lessons of the strike when we are discussing modern challenges like zero-hours contracts and we must fight for the rights of working people with the same determination as the lions of Grunwick.   

Never again should we sit back whilst a group of people are fighting for equality and better working conditions. Following the referendum decision to leave the EU and the subsequent uncertainty about workers’ rights, and amid rising levels of racism and abuse towards minorities, this lesson is more important than ever. The thing about fighting inequality is that you should not choose your battles, because you just cannot pick and choose. An injustice to one is an injustice to all. United we stand, divided we fall. 

An exhibition on the Grunwick Strike is being held at Brent Museum and Archives, The Library, Willesden Green. You can find the details here.

For more on the Grunwick Strike, the project Striking Women has shared the following comic strip telling the story of Jayaben Desai with The Staggers.

 

Dawn Butler is Labour MP for Brent Central and shadow minister for diverse communities. She was the first elected Black African Caribbean woman to ever serve in a British government.