Grunwick picket line, 1976

Grunwick picket line, 1976   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the two-year strike for union recognition and reinstatement at Grunwick’s film processing factory in North London – which became a struggle of national importance.

Socialist Party member Bob Labi (a Greater London Labour Party executive member from 1971 to 1985), explains the rich lessons of the strike – particularly on how to react when legal restraints are used to weaken a struggle and the role migrant workers can play in spearheading struggle.

The Grunwick battle became the scene for a serious attempt by the ruling class to turn back the tide of trade union militancy which had come to dominate Britain in the early 1970s. It became a clearly political strike as Tory MPs and the right-wing ‘National Association For Freedom’ campaigned for the owners.

Grunwick became the scene of a concerted attack, using both the courts and police action, on the right to organise, strike and picket. Of course, in such a class struggle ‘justice’ wasn’t neutral, as the company’s clear illegalities, such as not filing company reports within the legal period, were ignored by the ruling class ‘law and order’ brigade.

One of the reasons for Grunwick’s significance was that it was a strike for union recognition by largely migrant African and Asian women. At a time of increased racist and fascist attacks it was the first major strike by a mainly ethnic minority workforce (80% Asian and 10% Afro-Caribbean) and gathered huge support across the working class.

Attractiveness of unions

It showed the attractiveness of trade unions, with union membership growing and peaking at over 13 million in 1979. The Grunwick strike encouraged other workers, for instance in the film industry in Leicester and at Garners Steak House restaurant chain, to take up the struggle for union rights.

However, despite the trade unions’ strength and the enormous backing this strike got from across the labour movement, it was ultimately defeated.

Significantly, notwithstanding taking place under a Labour government, the Grunwick strike saw determined police action to allow strike-breakers to go to work and the company to function. After the police’s failure earlier in the 1970s to prevent mass picketing during the miners’ strikes and the spontaneous picketing and demos when the ‘Pentonville Five’ dockers’ leaders were jailed, a clear decision had been made that the police had to try to re-impose control on strikers.

During this strike around 550 strikers and supporters were arrested, at that time the highest number detained in an industrial dispute since the 1926 general strike. The Grunwick struggle also saw the first deployment of a paramilitary police unit in a strike. Sections of the police developed a close relationship with the management; a former local police chief inspector became Grunwick’s personnel manager.

It was against this background that the strike became a national trial of strength.

In that pre-digital age practically all cameras used film to shoot pictures which were then generally sent to companies, usually via the post or chemist shops, which developed the film and printed the pictures. This is what Grunwick did.

Hence, a key question was stopping Grunwick physically receiving and sending mail. During the strike, calls were also made for the unions to cut off the electricity and water supplies to the Grunwick factories.

However, the Grunwick management secured legal bans on other trade unions taking solidarity action which, at the end of the day and despite rank-and-file support for action, most trade union leaders were not prepared to defy.

It did not help that when the workers initially phoned the TUC to ask about joining a union they were advised to join the clerical union Apex. Apex was then led by some of the most right-wing elements in the trade union movement who increasingly tried to steer the dispute down the road of relying on Acas, the government’s arbitration service, rather than decisive mass action.

Even so the massive national support for the strike meant that the Apex leadership had to proceed cautiously, thus in March 1978 Apex asked the TUC to officially call for the blocking of essential services to Grunwick, confident that the TUC would turn the request down. But even then the Apex leaders remained under pressure to be seen to “do something” and a few weeks later brought three right wing Labour Cabinet ministers – Shirley Williams, Fred Mulley and Dennis Howell – to the picket line, another sign of how nationally important the strike was seen to be.

Grunwick also marked a turning point as many trade union leaders consciously sought to back away from the confrontation, often in the name of defending the then Labour government.

This included trying to rein in the willingness to ignore and defy anti-trade union legal rulings and police instructions which many workers, particularly coalminers and dockworkers, had shown in the epic class battles of the early 1970s.

In this sense the ultimate defeat of the Grunwick strike was a small forerunner of how the mid-1980s struggles of both the miners and Liverpool city council, would also be ultimately isolated and defeated due to refusal of the majority of trade union leaders to organise serious solidarity action.

The Grunwick strike’s background was the then general militancy and strength of the trade union movement, symbolised in the struggles and strikes that ultimately brought down the Heath-led Tory government in early 1974.

Grunwick itself was based on the edge of what was an industrial area in north-west London. At the time that the Grunwick struggle started a few miles away a group of mainly female workers at the Trico windscreen wipers factory were heading towards victory in what became a 21 week-long strike for equal pay.

Grunwick largely employed newly arrived migrant workers on low pay.The average weekly pay of its 440, largely female, workforce was £28, at a time when the UK national average was £72 and the average full-time wage for a female manual worker in London was £44.

While a previous attempt at organising the factory in 1973 was defeated, the dismissal of some workers in August 1976 was the spark that set off this determined struggle.

Initially, the strike set off with great energy and confidence. In the first days of the dispute the sacked workers rejected Grunwick’s offer of reinstatement if they dropped their demand for union recognition and, a few days later, all the 137 strikers were fired.

Now that the strike had become a clear challenge to the entire trade union movement, the question was posed of whether it could defend workers in small and medium sized companies.

The strike’s significance was underlined by the support that the company had from Tory MPs. One of Thatcher’s mentors and her future industry minister, Sir Keith Joseph, while speaking of “red fascism”, highlighted Grunwick’s national importance saying: “Grunwick could be all our tomorrows…it is a litmus test” and “a make-or-break point for British democracy”.

The then postal workers union, the UPW, refused to cross picket lines and in November 1976 refused to allow the company to collect its mail from the sorting office. While attempting legal action the company made a limited retreat, saying it would talk to Acas and the UPW allowed it to once again collect its mail. Postal workers, particularly in the local sorting office and London generally, showed again and again that they were prepared to support the Grunwick strikers despite legal threats but this determination was not to be seen in the national UPW leadership.

As the strike continued the company took further legal action against picketing, which it lost, and to invalidate an Acas report recommending union recognition, which it ultimately won. At the same time Grunwick had moved to consolidate its hold over the remaining workers by giving some concessions including a 10% wage rise.

Mass picket

Against this background the spring of 1977 saw an increase in the number of workers’ delegations joining the strikers’ picket lines. Soon every morning there were trade unionists and others, including many members of the Labour Party Young Socialists led by supporters of Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist) on the picket lines.

In an attempt to get the strike over by its first anniversary, it was decided to try to repeat the success of the ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’, the turning point in the victorious 1972 miners’ strikes when striking mineworkers were joined by thousands of Birmingham workers in a mass picket which shut down a key coke works. The idea was that a mass picket that totally closed the factory for at least one day would be a sufficient demonstration of strength to win the strike.

The strike committee called for a mass picket on 22 June and this became a national demonstration of solidarity with the strikers. On the day, thousands turned up, particularly prominent were the large delegations of miners from the Kent, South Wales and especially Yorkshire coalfields. There were clashes with the police, and nearly 200 arrests, as attempts were made to stop strike-breakers and deliveries getting into the factory.

Such was the level of police violence that afterwards drivers at the private coach company used to bus police to the picket line said they would no longer transport police.

But after some hours, pressure from some union leaders led to the mass pickets being marched away and thereby the goal of being able to close the factory, even for one day, was lost.

This was followed by another national day of action in early July which attracted around 20,000 in support of the strike. Further mass pickets were organised, one in November attracting 8,000 when 113 protesters were arrested and 243 were injured by the 4,000 police present. But the strike was becoming a stalemate which could only be broken if serious solidarity, secondary action was organised.

Increasingly however, the trade union leaders striving to limit solidarity action, whether by boycotts or mass picketing, hoped that somehow the then Labour government would give them a way out.

At the end of June the government set up a commission of inquiry under Lord Scarman and in return the pickets were called off in mid-July 1977. Two months later the Scarman Inquiry recommended reinstatement of the strikers but Grunwick refused to do this and the Apex leadership stepped up their futile hopes that Acas would provide a solution.

Wind down

The strikers’ attempted to resist the moves to wind down mass action and in November 1977 four members of the strike committee held a hunger strike outside Congress House, the TUC’s headquarters. In response Apex suspended their strike pay for four weeks.

But when, in 1978, Acas said that it could do nothing more, the Apex leadership prepared to withdraw support from the strike. In this situation, after nearly two years of struggle, the workers’ own strike committee decided in July that it would call off the strike.

At the end of the strike Militant reported that many strikers had drawn the conclusions that simply going through long legal proceedings is not the way to struggle and that if the trade unions’ power had been brought to bear on the company, the strike could have been won.

This lesson is still true today – despite the many legal restrictions that have been imposed on trade unions since the 1980s, determined action and a refusal to allow workers in struggle to be isolated is the key the victory.