Cropped image from illustrated poster in support of the Grunwick Dispute 1977. It shows a line of women holding placards demanding union access

Remembering the Grunwick dispute

The Grunwick dispute marked a critical moment in labour history in the UK, especially for women and migrant workers. Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson look at the events leading up to the dispute and the key figure of Jayaben Desai, and examine its significance today.

South Asian women in the UK have played an important role in our history through their struggles for workers’ rights. One such famous struggle began on a hot summer day in 1976, when Jayaben Desai protested against her treatment at her job in the Grunwick photo processing laboratory in north London. She was fed up of being humiliated by the management, and the stage was set for a long and historic battle.

On the evening of 20 August, when Jayaben Desai began preparing to go home, her manager confronted her with a last-minute demand that she carry on working overtime till late that night. At this unreasonable demand, Jayaben walked out with the following words:

What you run here is not a factory, it is a zoo. There are monkeys here who dance to your tune, but there are also lions here who can bite your head off. And we are the lions, Mr Manager! I want my freedom!

This was the beginning of one of the most bitter strikes in the history of the British labour movement.

Who were the Grunwick strikers?

The Grunwick strikers were migrants of South Asian origin whose families had settled in countries in East Africa during the period of British colonial rule. They had been educated in English and occupied the middle class between the British rulers and native Africans. Following independence and the Africanisation policies of the new governments in the 1960s, many people of South Asian origin chose to leave. And when the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asian people from Uganda on 4 August 1972, most of those remaining were forced to flee. Most held British rather than Indian citizenship, but faced a struggle to establish their families in London’s unwelcoming society. In spite of their middle-class background, many women accepted low-paid factory and manual work, determined to contribute to their families’ well-being and their children’s futures.

Photographs from the Grunwick Dispute

Protesters from The Grunwick Strike. Group of people hold signs with 'down with the bosses freedom to oppress'.

This photograph was taken at the picket line of the Grunwick dispute in 1977.

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What were the conditions at Grunwick like?

Jayaben recalled the culture of control and fear at Grunwick:

The managers were in a glass cabin. They could see us, and if they called us in to their office [for a reprimand], the rest of the workers could see them, but could not hear what was going on. Such was their game plan. We used to work out of fear.

The pay at Grunwick was lower than in other similar factories. But key issues were the disrespect shown by managers, the arbitrary demands for overtime and restrictions about using the toilets, as Jayaben Desai remembered:

They had made ‘rules and regulations’ that you had to get permission to go to the toilets. This woman said to me that she felt ashamed to ask to go to the toilet, so she held back and was in extreme discomfort and feel a burning sensation. I told her, ‘Why do you feel ashamed, when he has no shame making you ask loudly, why should you feel ashamed. Learn how to say it in English – “I want to go to the ladies” and then just say so without any hesitation’.

The Grunwick owner, George Ward, did not allow the workers to join a trade union (organisations where workers come together to bargain collectively for their rights, such as better conditions and wages).

The way in which these workers were treated was similar to how many women workers were treated in factories all over the world in the 1970s. For the Grunwick strikers, racism also played a part in their mistreatment, because the factory owner and managers were aware that these migrants had come to the UK following persecution and had few other options. So they expected these workers to put up with conditions that other workers would not be expected to tolerate. But although these women from middle-class Asian families were willing to accept low status and poorly paid work, they were unwilling to accept the degrading treatment typically meted out to ‘unskilled’ immigrants in London’s workplaces.

After Jayaben Desai walked out, she was joined by 137 workers – out of about 500 workers at Grunwick – who joined a trade union called APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) and demanded their rights by going on strike.

What was so special about Grunwick?

Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, women workers continued to receive lower rates of pay and/or bonuses than male workers, a situation that was also common for black and minority ethnic workers. Before the Grunwick dispute, trade unions were not always willing to fight for equal rights for all workers. But something special happened at Grunwick.

The strikers, led by Jayaben, travelled across the country and addressed workers in other factories and workplaces about their fight, and this managed to persuade trade unionists from far and wide to come to their aid. Workers from all over the country joined mass pickets outside the Grunwick premises, which grew in size from a few hundred to several thousands. By June 1977 there were also marches in support of the Grunwick strikers, and on some days more than 20,000 people packed into the narrow lanes near Dollis Hill tube station where the main Grunwick operations were located. The strike continued for two long years until 1978.

Grunwick dispute poster, 1977

Illustrated poster from the 1977 Grunwick Dispute. It shows a line of women holding placards, united between lines of barbed wire and police officers

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As the size of the pickets grew, the then Labour government put pressure on the trade union leadership to rein back the strike. Meanwhile, the owner of Grunwick was supported by right-wing organisations and he refused to accept mediation or the recommendations of a government inquiry which found in favour of the workers. Bowing to these pressures the trade union leadership withdrew its support for the Grunwick strikers. But Jayaben Desai and the strikers were undeterred. They mounted a hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress headquarters on a cold day in November 1977. But even this action could not change the unions' mind, and so the strike was called off.

Amrit Wilson talks about her experiences of meeting the Grunwick women’s strikers and interviewing strike leader, Jayaben Desai.

What was the impact of the Grunwick dispute?

Although the Grunwick dispute did not end in success for the strikers, Jayaben Desai remained optimistic about the long-term impact of the activism. She pointed out:

…because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up because it was difficult for them to get to the new place. Can you imagine that? And they get a pension today! And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle.

Today, Grunwick is remembered for the way in which thousands of workers, black and white, men and women, united to defend the rights of migrant women workers. Grunwick also challenged the stereotype of South Asian women as passive and obedient. In recognition of her contribution to the struggle for workers’ rights, Jayaben Desai was awarded a gold medal by the GMB trade union in 2007. She died in December 2010, aged 77.

The issues raised by Grunwick are very relevant today. Workers face new forms of exploitation and insecure work in the gig economy and through the widespread use of zero-hours contracts. In a context where migrant workers are often – wrongly – perceived as a threat to the rights of British workers, Grunwick also reminds us of how migrant workers have fought to improve the rights of all workers in the UK.

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Article text © Sundari Anitha & Ruth Pearson

  • Sundari Anitha
  • Dr Sundari Anitha is Reader at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, where her research focuses on the labour market experiences of South Asian women in the UK and on gender-based violence in the UK and India. She is active in campaigns and policy-making to combat violence against women and girls, and has been involved in Women’s Aid and Asha Projects, a specialist refuge for South Asian survivors of domestic violence.

  • Ruth Pearson
  • Dr Ruth Pearson is Emeritus Professor of International Development at the University of Leeds. Her area of expertise is gender and work in the global economy, particularly in areas of Latin America, Thailand on South Asian diaspora in the UK. She is former Chair in Women and Development at the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague and former MA Director in Development Studies at the University of East Anglia.