How the heroines and heroes of Grunwick lost

Submitted by AWL on 7 September, 2021 - 5:37 Author: Jean Lane
Jayaben Desai and cops

20 August was the 45th anniversary of the start of one of the most important struggles in British working-class history, the two-year strike by Grunwick film-processing workers in North West London. This is the second of two parts of an abridged version of an article written by Jean Lane in 1998: full version with photos, links and resources here.


From mid-June 1977, the Grunwick strike in north London by workers in a film-processing firm (see part one of the story here) was all over the TV. The media’s lies were extraordinary: getting in good practice for the next miners’ strike.

Grunwick owner George Ward was celebrated for his struggle against intimidation from strikers and union “bully boys”. Print workers more than once took industrial action to redress the media balance in favour of the strikers.

Shocked by the actions of the Special Patrol Group, the Yorkshire miners called for a day of action on 11 July. Despite the fact that the strikers’ union, APEX, recognised that it was the police creating the violence, they were not for a day of action: “We want to defuse the situation, not exacerbate it.” They preferred to put their faith in the Court of Inquiry. The strike committee, however, welcomed the call.

The TUC and APEX decided to defuse the 11 July mass picket by calling a march the same day. They instructed the strike committee to call off the picket and support the march. The strike committee refused, calling on trade unionists to support both.

11 July was a fantastic show of strength. 20,000 supporters turned up, outnumbering police three-to-one and pushing them down the road. The scab bus was kept out. There was no violence and few arrests. But at 11am most pickets went off to join the march on the other side of Willesden. The bus got in and 24 isolated pickets were arrested.

Two days before Grunwick, with the help of the National Association for Freedom (NAFF), 250 right-wing volunteers and 150 vehicles, had got built-up mail out of the plant to a depot outside London where it was stamped by strike-breaking volunteers and driven off around the country. The UPW [postal workers’ union, now part of CWU], who now had a grievance of their own, still refused to make the unofficial blacking official. They wrote to UPW branches telling them to sort the mail.

The strike committee called over the heads of the TUC and APEX for a solid turnout every day and another huge turnout for 8 August.

They still wanted to persuade other Grunwick workers to join the dispute, though they knew that they could never have a solid, all-out strike.

Their best chance of winning was solidarity from other key workforces, blacking essential services to Grunwick, forcing Ward to give in. Their mass pickets were also to bolster and give confidence to the unofficial action taken by the Cricklewood postal workers.

The trade union bureaucrats wanted to use the law rather than direct action. The strikers believed that action was the key to winning and that use of the law could only benefit them while the action continued.

Black Friday

On 29 July, “Black Friday”, APEX leader Roy Grantham met the strike committee to pressurise them into calling 8 August off. At the same time Norman Stagg, UPW Deputy General Secretary, met the Cricklewood postal workers to get them to call off their unofficial blacking.

He threatened them with expulsion from the union, which would affect their pension rights and leave them open to dismissal. It was still a close vote.

The Grunwick strike committee were resisting bravely despite being threatened with strike pay being cut by 60%. Then word came through that the Cricklewood workers had voted very narrowly to resume normal working. Strike leader Jayaben Desai angrily attacked the union leadership. She and the younger Asian women, who had had to fight their own husbands and parents in 1976 to be able to take part in the dispute at all, voted en bloc against calling off the day of action. When a new strike committee was elected soon afterwards, it included five of these militants. 3,000 people turned up to picket on 8 August. The new strike committee began putting pressure on the TUC to sanction the blacking of essential services to Grunwick. The relevant unions had said that without TUC backing their members would not have the confidence to stick their necks out.

At Labour Party conference, the strikers got a standing ovation. A resolution pledging support, however, only called for an amendment to the law forcing employers like Ward to co-operate with ACAS. This was ministers in the Labour government, who were overseeing violent police tactics and the introduction of the SPG into a trades dispute, trying to bully the strikers into submission!

The strikers resumed mass picketing. They decided to go for one final push to put pressure on the labour movement to help bring George Ward to his knees. They called a “day of reckoning” for 7 November.

8,000 turned up. The police were savage, meting out organised violence. One picket had his face smashed through the glass of the police van. Strikers who had become cut off from the main body of protest had to run the gauntlet between two rows of truncheon-wielding police. Heavily protected policemen ran after pickets dressed in shirt sleeves, jeans and trainers, kicked them senseless on the ground and walked away laughing. 243 pickets were treated for injuries. Twelve had broken bones, 113 were arrested.

Excuses

Further requests for the blacking of essential services were met with excuses. Jayaben Desai and three other strikers, in desperation, began a hunger strike outside Congress House. APEX’s leadership tried to persuade them to do it outside Grunwick instead, offering to lay on a doctor! When the strikers pointed out that George Ward would happily see them starve and went ahead with their plan, they were suspended from the union without strike pay for four months.

For months the strikers continued on their own, taunted by the management as they had at the beginning of the dispute almost two years earlier. They finally announced the end of their fight on 14 July 1978. No reinstatements were achieved. No union got into Grunwick.

Ironically wages inside the plant rose quite considerably during the dispute. At a time when the Labour government was imposing its “Social Contract” to restrain pay rises and hold down class struggle, George Ward bought his scab labour with 25% increases. If any other group of workers had demanded this at that time of “tightening of belts to help the country” they would have been slated by the media. Ward was upheld as a noble character.

The media hypocrisy, the savagery of the police, the role of NAFF, the gutlessness of the workers’ leadership — more concerned to bolster a rocky minority Labour government than to fight sweatshop conditions in their own class — all combined to crush the Grunwick strike.

The two occasions when Ward was nearly beaten were when the courageous Cricklewood postal workers blacked Grunwick’s mail.

That kind of rank-and-file confidence and solidarity is the only way workers can ensure they have the backing needed to win that Ward got from NAFF.

If our leaders won’t deliver, the rank and file must organise to force them, or cast them aside. That same lesson was to surface, with redoubled force, during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. The basic lessons of class solidarity and rankand-file organisation were the same, as were those of the hypocrisy of the media and the role of the state.

The Grunwick strikers lost, but the labour movement still gained, in two important ways.

The strike knocked down very forcefully prejudices against black and women workers. It was, at that time, rare for a union to have the kind of anti-racist and anti-sexist policies now considered the norm. The myths that black workers are hard to unionise and undercut white workers’ jobs, that women’s place is in the home and women only go out to work for pin money, were exploded. A dispute led by Asian and women workers drew in and influenced many thousands of others.

In addition, the few years in the run up to Grunwick saw a lull in class struggle in Britain, with low strike figures. The general atmosphere was keep your head down, don’t rock the boat, don’t break the law. That goes with a weakly-led movement tied to the government. Grunwick put class struggle back on the agenda, leading, one year later, to the Winter of Discontent and the downfall of that government.

The Tories learned their lessons well and, step by step, removed unions’ influence on government and shackled the unions with laws to make effective picket lines and solidarity action illegal.

The labour movement must learn its lessons too: not to rely on help from above, but rely on its own strength and solidarity to win.

• Part one of this abridgement here

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