Grunwick: leader of historic strike dies

Jayaben Desai, the leader of the famous Grunwick strike died just before Christmas aged 77. She inspired many who saw her, especially when she stood up to the bullying brutes of the Grunwick management and the police during the strike.

Bill Mullins, Socialist Party Industrial Organiser

She led 200 mainly Asian workers out on strike in August 1976 when Grunwick refused to recognise her union (Apex, now merged with the GMB).

Grunwick was a photo processing company in Willesden in northwest London, which paid some of the lowest wages in the industry. Some of the workers were on £28 before stoppages for a 40-hour week.

The 1970s saw increasing militant strike action by more and more workers in the fight to improve their wages and conditions. Trade union consciousness was at an all time high. Previously unorganised sections of workers had been encouraged by the example set by the miners, engineers, car workers, dockers and others as they moved into action in defence of their living standards, led often by the politically conscious shop stewards’ movement.

Low-paid workers

Grunwick was one of many strikes of low-paid workers at the time but it became famous because of the role of people like Mrs Desai. From the capitalist point of view, the strike represented a crucial test of what was necessary if the unions were to be curtailed.

Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s guru at the time, declared that unless the unions were defeated Grunwick represented “all our tomorrows”.

Many in the labour movement saw that it was essential to support the Grunwick workers. Thousands came down regularly to join the mass pickets. Even Shirley Williams, who was a Labour minister and an Apex sponsored MP, joined the picket line briefly.

She was regularly reminded of this to her eternal embarrassment by the right wing press. Williams was one of the four right wing Labour MPs who split from the Labour Party soon after and formed the Social Democrats, now part of the Liberal Democrats.

Grunwick depended on the post office to deliver their products and the Cricklewood postal workers refused to handle the mail.

Arthur Scargill of the NUM miners’ union had called for mass pickets and regularly attended along with miners from Yorkshire and elsewhere.

Car workers from the midlands, engineering workers from the north west and workers from all over London joined the mass pickets.

At one time 4,000 cops, including 200 thugs from the Special Patrol Group (SPG) fought with the mass pickets.

The height of the movement came in the spring and early summer of 1977. On 11 July the pickets succeeded in not only stopping the scabs’ bus coming in but also repulsed a cavalry charge of 36 mounted police.

The mass picketing went on into the autumn. 108 pickets were arrested and 243 were hospitalised, 12 with broken limbs.

Both ankles broken in an SPG charge

Bob Ashworth, one of my fellow shop stewards from the Rover plant in Solihull had joined the Militant (now Socialist Party) with me. He had both his ankles broken when the SPG charged and forced the pickets against a wall which then collapsed.

It was clear to many of us that if the TUC had lifted its little finger then the Grunwick bosses could have been squashed like a bug. Instead the TUC leadership manoeuvred behind the scenes for the strike to be brought to an end.

At one stage they called for a mass demo, but not outside Grunwick’s gates. The result was that the scabs’ bus was able to get in with the minimum of resistance.

The Apex general secretary Roy Grantham, an extreme right winger (in labour terms) called for picketing to be reduced and threatened the strike committee with the withdrawal of union support if they did not agree. The postal workers’ leaders meanwhile instructed their members to lift the blockade on the mail.

The combination of these events was to encourage the bosses to dig their heels in. For Thatcher the lessons of Grunwick encouraged her to introduce laws to stop mass picketing. But it could have been so different.

Ordinary workers were prepared to give their all in support of the Grunwick strikers. Postal workers put their jobs on the line to maintain the boycott. But none of this was matched by the union leadership, with a few honourable exceptions like Arthur Scargill.

The dispute was lost when the TUC and Apex withdrew their support. It ended with Mrs Desai going on hunger strike outside the TUC.

Her courage and determination in standing up to the bosses was an inspiration to many and in the future it will be her name that is remembered, not the right wing union leaders.

For more details, see Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe, available at