Grunwick – a tribute to Jayaben Desai

Brent Trades Council are organising at tribute to Jayaben Desai and her role in the Grunwick strike of 1976-78. Jayaben died in December 2010 aged 77. A showing of the film “The Great Grunwick Strike – A History” by Chris Thomas will be followed by a discussion of the strike with participants. The event will take place on Sunday 17 April from 2.30 to 5.00pm at the Tricycle Cinema, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR [nearest tube Kilburn, Jubilee line]. It is organised by Brent Trades Union Council: tickets £5 from or Brent TUC, 375 High Road, NW10 2JR.Jack Dromey, who was Secretary of Brent Trades Council during the Grunwick dispute, said in his Guardian obituary of Jayaben:

Jayaben Desai, who has died aged 77 after a long illness, defied stereotyping all her life. “A person like me, I am never scared of anybody,” she told managers at the Grunwick film processing plant in Chapter Road, Willesden, in the north-west London borough of Brent, shortly before she led a walkout on the baking hot day of Monday 23 August 1976. The events that followed contributed immeasurably to increasing the level of respect shown to newly arrived immigrant workers, many of them women – especially by their colleagues in the existing workforce.

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.”

The Grunwick strikers spent two winters on the picket line. They won widespread support from workers across the country, from the TUC, from politicians — including Shirley Williams, then a Labour minister who was arrested at the factory gates and even Jim Prior, the Tory shadow employment spokesman — and from the Commission of Enquiry chaired by Lord Justice Scarman. In the face of an ideologically-motivated employer, a precursor of the Thatcher era, they lost the strike, but re-shaped the attitude and approach of the Labour movement to black workers and to racism. As Dromey reflected:

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.