For one hot summer 40 years ago, West London was turned upside down: mass demonstrations filled the streets, the hardscrabble city was on fire with radical fervor, and police and protesters clashed with a ferocity never before seen in postwar Britain. But this wasn’t your grandmother’s working-class uprising. Well, actually, it was. Because the chief agitators behind this affair were whom everyone least expected.
The leaders of what came to be known as the Grunwick strike were South Asian migrant women from former British colonies, who were the newest addition at that time to Britain’s lumpen proletariat. They worked at a film processing factory in rough jobs that involved keeping their heads down, not asking questions, and taking whatever they could get. One day they decided they weren’t going to take it any more, walked off the job, then did something revolutionary by simply being who they were.
It started with Jayaben Desai and a small group of coworkers. They were tired of exhausting conditions and miserable wages, as well as demeaning treatment and racial discrimination, which reflected a society that still did not accept them as equal citizens.
Desai later recalled the first days of the uprising, when she walked off the job, and heard the boss dismiss the workers with an epithet comparing them to”chattering monkeys”:
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 fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off.
“We are the lions, Mr. Manager.”
They may not have been aware at the time that they were waging a battle against institutionalized racism and gender injustice; they were just seeking dignity and fairness at work. Many of the women had been born in India and Pakistan but lived much of their lives in Africa in comfortable middle class lifestyles. Political upheaval and the decolonization movements in Africa led them to flee to Britain, where they found only grueling low-wage factory work was available to them. As one worker, Labaten, recalled in an oral history: “There was no question of whether you wanted to or not — you had to work, so you did. And wherever you found work, you had to take it.”
The protests spiraled into long-term work stoppages, and workers got a boost when they formally joined union APEX. The boss’s refusal to recognize the union rights triggered a huge wave of solidarity across the British labor movement. And it was one of the first truly cross-cutting mass industrial actions, engaging a wide range of industrial workers with the Trade Union Congress, along with a brawny army of mine workers with the National Miners Union who added imposing muscle to the women’s picket lines, which held firm for week after week, leading to the sacking of over 130 workers and up to 20,000 workers flooding the streets in solidarity.
The strike arrived at a moment when conservative politicians were seeking to crush the labor movement through police aggression and political suppression, so the women of Grunwick managed to capture the zeitgeist by striking that summer, and to amplify it as a platform to strike against racism as well.
But after the standoff had dragged on through 1977, the unions eventually backed down. Some of the women, including Desai, continued to protest, even went on hunger strike to press their demands. But they were never reinstated and in the end, the strike was deemed a failure. The capitulation of the unions marked a rift in the labor movement. As Desai later noted:”Trade union support is like honey on the elbow—you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”
The uproar was soon met with massive government backlash. Shortly afterward, the authorities outlawed solidarity strikes and established a surveillance program for labor activists, But more importantly, Grunwick put migrant women on the map of British politics, and it raised the consciousness of women who had long been viewed both from within their community and by the wider public as marginal and apolitical. In many ways the Grunwick strike foreshadowed the efforts by Asian migrant women around the world to join the labor movement, including a global movement for the labor rights of domestic workers, stretching from New York to Hong Kong.
The BBC quotes writer and activist Amrit Wilson:
The strike was a unique and transformative moment… It did not put an end to stereotypes of Asian women, but it certainly challenged them.
This passionate assertion of strength, and the claiming of a newfound collective identity, bringing with it a sense of hope and new possibilities, arose not only from taking a stand as exploited workers but from collectively confronting racism at work.
It was also, often, about winning a struggle against the patriarchy of the women’s families and communities in order to go on strike in the first place.
Forty years later, we’re again in an era of sharp inequality, society fractured along lines of race and class. So it’s important to remember these movement elders who, though still obscured in the wider history of British labor, left a long, indelible legacy as activists working at the intersection of racial, gender and economic justice—their protests, literally, brought those cross-cutting movements into the narrow streets of London in 1976. Hence the authorities reacted so viciously, knowing that a unified multiracial workforce was a lethal threat to the political establishment. And today, while many of their images are quietly tucked away in the photo albums of aging Indian and Pakistani grandmothers, the memories of the picket lines and marchers still inspire a new generation of activists fighting those want to close borders, build walls and divide workers against each other.
They didn’t win the strike, but the women of Grunwick did realize the power they possessed. And even if future generations forget the campaign that convulsed London’s streets in 1976 and 1977, though the factory where they processed photos is now long gone, the workers created a picture of London that is forever impressed, albeit softly, upon our collective memory—a woman, mother, and migrant worker standing with a sign declaring that the workers united would never be defeated. A heritage of resistance — and some sound advice to her grandchildren.