Remembering Jayaben Desai

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

In a wonderful Guardian obituary today, Jack Dromey celebrates the life of Jayaben Desai who led the walkout and long-running strike at the Grunwick film-processing plant in 1978.  It was a strike that rallied support and respect from trade unionists across the country, strengthening the recognition of women and immigrant workers as fellow trade unionists.  The death of Jayaben Desai was reported just as an exhibition at the Women’s Library in London is due to open; it revisits the Grunwick dispute, and the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005, to highlight the role of south Asian women in trade union history.

Jayaben Desai on the Grunwick picket line: photo courtesy of Homer Sykes

Grunwick is remembered because it marked the first time that south Asian women were seen to challenge the stereo­type of being silent and subservient. Ruth Pearson, professor of development studies at Leeds University explains:

At the time, the general view of these women was that they were downtrodden, second-class people. They were often depicted as nothing more than passive victims. These women are inspirational. They stood up for their rights and their dignity. They took on management, dealt with prejudice and hostility within their own community and outside, and they managed to retain their sense of fairness and justice.

Recently Desai was asked, how does it feel to be part of history? She replied:

I am proud of what I did. They wanted to break us down, but we did not break.

In today’s obituary, Jack Dromey recalls:

Desperate for work, the newly arrived accepted long hours and low wages, though the need to do so, Desai said, “nagged away like a sore on their necks”. When she decided she had had enough, the 4ft10in employee told her 6ft manager, Malcom Alden, “What you are running 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 those lions, Mr Manager.”

As a result of her passion and magical turn of phrase, 100 of her fellow workers joined her on strike. Yet they were not even in a trade union. The local Citizens Advice Bureau gave her son Sunil two phone numbers – that of the Trades Union Congress and mine, as secretary of the Brent Trades Council. The TUC advised them to join the white-collar union Apex, now part of the GMB.

Grunwick was a mail-order film-processing company most of whose trade came from holiday snaps. The decision of postmen at the local sorting office in Cricklewood to black the firm’s mail almost won the dispute for the strikers. But at the start of November 1976, the Grunwick boss George Ward, supported by the National Association for Freedom, a pressure group run by the Conservative MP and publicist John Gorst, launched a legal challenge in the high court. The initiative was backed by the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, who hailed Ward as a champion of freedom. The blacking of the sorting office was called off and defeat stared the dismayed strikers in the face. Nonetheless, they maintained their picket as winter drew on.

“We must not give up,” Jayaben told a packed meeting of the strikers, by then 130 strong, in the Brent Trades and Labour Hall. “Would Gandhi give up? Never!” The strike committee, of which I was proud to be a member, took their cause to more than 1,000 workplaces, from engineering factories in Glasgow to the coalmines of south Wales. They brought home to the big battalions of organised labour an understanding of the grim reality facing too many.

Then, on Monday 13 June 1977, the police arrested 84 pickets out of 100 who had come to demonstrate their solidarity on what was called Women’s Support Day. The campaigners were angry that the involvement of Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, had not enabled them to obtain union recognition. Jayaben’s nationwide tour encouraged workers from all over Britain, outraged that the strikers had been sacked, to join the picket line outside the factory.

There were 1,300 by the following Friday, and 12,000 by 11 July, the day that 20,000 went on a TUC-organised march to the factory. Once again, the Cricklewood postmen took action, blacking the mail to Grunwick. Colin Maloney, their chairman, observed: “You don’t say ‘no’ to Mrs Desai.” The postmen – all white apart from one West Indian – were suspended for three weeks and threatened with dismissal.

The Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, set up a cabinet committee and persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of enquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. “No employer has ever defied a court of enquiry,” said the TUC general secretary, Len Murray. “You don’t understand that we are dealing with a new breed of employer, backed by the emerging Thatcherite right,” I told him. “He will defy the court of enquiry,” Jayaben said.

She was right. Scarman was in favour of recognition and reinstatement. Ward refused to accept. James Prior, the Tory shadow employment spokesman, was supportive of the workers’ case, but to no avail. And, with the movement around the dispute wound down, there were no avenues left to win justice. After a second bitter winter on the picket line, the strikers conceded defeat on 14 July 1978.

Defiant to the end, Jayaben told the final meeting of the strikers that they could be proud. “We have shown,” she said, “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.” Only 10 years previously, dockers had marched in support of the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, and workforces had polarised along racial lines at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Nottinghamshire and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester.

Grunwick had witnessed the biggest mobilisation in British labour-movement history in support of fewer than 200 strikers. Defying all the odds, one courageous woman inspired all who heard her. “Mr Jack,” she would often say to me, “my English is not good.” Yet she captured in poetic language all that is best in the human spirit.


One thought on “Remembering Jayaben Desai

  1. This is the letter I sent the Guardian in response to their obituary:

    In his obituary of Jayaben Desai (29 December), Jack Dromey gives the impression that the defeat of the Grunwick strike of 1976-78 was inevitable. Yet this was far from the case.

    The dispute showed the best and the worst of the labour movement – the willingness of thousands of workers to follow the inspirational lead given by Mrs Desai and her fellow strikers, and the spinelessness of our official `leaders’ when faced with a ruthless employer like George Ward.

    Leaving aside the many things the Labour government of the time could have done to bring victory to the strikers – such as call off the thugs of the police Special Patrol Group and force Grunwick to accept arbitration, the trade unions too fell far short of providing the support needed.

    Thousands from around the country were prepared to turn up to picket the factory, despite the fact that this small dispute led to more arrests than any other since the general Strike of 1926. 84 were lifted on one morning alone, and on another 243 were injured. A magistrate was relieved of dealing with those arrested at Grunwick after he expressed his feelings about the pickets to a sympathetic GP.

    While the postal workers of Cricklewood were willing to be suspended by Royal Mail for refusing to handle Grunwick’s post, the leadership of the UPW fined them and threatened them with expulsion from the union if they did not call off their boycott. Calls for other unions to also boycott essential services to Grunwick were either met with blanket refusal or excuses along the lines of “only if you indemnify us against any fines”.

    Len Murray, TUC General Secretary at the time, promised the strikers at a public meeting in their Willesden headquarters, that “the Trade Union movement is not only behind you but alongside you in your struggle unto victory”.

    In fact, the strikers faced repeated pressure from the TUC and their own union, APEX, to call off the mass picketing, and eventually the strike itself. When, in their desperation, four of them held a hunger strike outside TUC headquarters urging support, they were disgracefully suspended without strike pay from the union.

    In the inimical words of Jayaben herself, “Trade Union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”

    Pete Firmin, President, Brent Trades Union Council

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