It’s easy to think of the trade union movement as big, burly, shouty, white, working-class heroes. And indeed, most of them were. But the history books don’t always capture all the players and sometimes figures are hidden – particularly women and people of colour.
I had the privilege of being asked to take part in a BBC Radio Four programme presented by Matthew Paris called Great Lives, which broadcasts next Tuesday, and kind of does what it says on the tin. The “great life” I chose was someone you’ve probably never heard of, but her actions had a profound effect on industrial and race relations in this country and shaped modern politics. Her name was Jayaben Desai and on a boiling hot summer’s day in 1976, she led a walk out of South Asian women in a camera film processing factory in Grunwick, north west London, which changed the course of history. They became known as the “strikers in saris”.
In the 1970s, black and Asian workers often did the lowest-paid work, were paid far less than their white colleagues and were largely ignored by the trade union movement. Many of the women at Grunwick were orginally from India and Pakistan but had moved to East Africa when it was under British colonial rule where they lived comfortable, middle-class lives.
But when countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania gained independence, the new governments took a very harsh stance against these Asian migrants and many moved to Britain as they were allowed to. They arrived as immigrants in London and faced an unwelcoming post-war society which was brutal and racist to newcomers. Ten years before the strike, trade unionists had marched in favour of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and immigrants were blamed for driving down pay for white workers, accused of bringing in disease, taking up housing and generally blamed for every ill in society – sound familiar?
The newly arrived, which included Desai, were desperate for work and accepted low wages and terrible conditions. Indeed factories like Grunwick looked for migrant Asian female workers as they were considered to be hardworking and docile – the bosses thought they could treat them like dirt, wring out as much work from them as possible and these little Asian ladies would never complain.
But they misjudged Jayben Desai. The women were not allowed to go to toilet without getting permission, they worked in sweltering conditions and they were forced to do overtime with no notice which was hard for them, as they had to go home and look after their children and husbands.
One baking hot day in August 1976, Desai snapped and decided enough was enough. This 4ft 10in woman in a sari told her 6ft manager Malcolm Alden: “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 those lions, Mr Manager.”
And, with that passionate and magical turn of phrase, she led a hundred of her fellow workers out on strike. All they wanted was better working conditions and to be able to join a trade union, but they were denied that by the bosses at Grunwick and they were sacked.
The Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Brent Trades Council led by Jack Dromey – now MP for Erdington – took up their cause. They advised Desai and her women to join a union called APEX which gave them strike pay and they helped them organise and mobilise support from the trade union movement all over the country.
Desai spoke passionately at packed meetings of trade union activists, telling them her story which many of them felt was theirs too. “We must not give up. Would Gandhi give up? Never.”
Her cause attracted support from all over the country from engineering factories in Glasgow to the coalmines of South Wales, trade unionists flocked to the picket line in North London to support her including the National Union of Mineworkers. It was an extraordinary moment for trade union politics, given that a decade earlier, many of these postmen, dockers, miners and factory workers had marched for Enoch Powell. But here they were, in solidarity with a wee Asian woman in a sari. And it was dominating the evening news bulletins and headlines.
The demonstration got so large that on 11 July 1977, a crowd of more than 20,000 gathered from all over Britain, including steel workers from Ravenscraig and shipyard workers from the upper Clyde shipyards who travelled down to London on a special train.
But with the numbers, came violence and police brutality. One day in November 1977, 8,000 people marched and 243 people were treated for injuries. The violence was getting out of control. It was a Labour government in charge and the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, set up an enquiry led by Lord Scarman.
Watching with great interest was the then leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, who saw this industrial dispute spiral out of the control of the then Labour administration and indeed the police. It shaped and hardened her views of how to deal with the trade unions and indeed many felt that Grunwick was a rehearsal for what was to come with the miners’ strike in the 1980s, which included police brutality and surveillance of trade union officals.
Despite all the support from people from around the country, the strike came to an end in July 1978 and there was sadly no happy “Made in Dagenham” ending for Desai and her strikers. They never got their jobs back, nor did they win trade union recognition, although working conditions at the factory improved.
After the strikes, Desai’s health deteriorated although at the age of 60, she passed her driving test, declaring herself “a free bird”. She died in 2010 but we can still learn many things from her incredible bravery. It’s easy to scapegoat immigrant and newly arrived workers who are vulnerable and are easily exploited in degrading and low-paid work. This isn’t their fault – blame their unscrupulous bosses. And it’s exactly why we need decent employment laws, rights at work and strong trade unions.
Desai’s story is particularly relevant for the times we live in with the toxic debate on immigration post Brexit and the rise of the gig economy. It’s also a reminder to trade unions and the progressive left that workers’ rights are about all workers – not just white men in manual jobs. Jayaben Desai taught us to fight for human rights and dignity at work. As Dromey, her great friend, said: “People will look back on a person who was truly one of the most remarkable women to have ever fought for workers’ rights.”