Faryal Velmi reports on the Grunwick commemoration event held by Brent Trades Council on 17 September.
About 200 people heard Grunwick strike leader Jayaben Desai relive some of the proudest and the most disappointing moments of that battle. Desai now well into her seventies, spoke of what she saw as a sense of duty. “It was what I had to do, and I hope that you would do the same.”
Jack Dromey, now TGWU deputy general secretary but then secretary of Brent TUC, described the overwhelming solidarity built between the Grunwick workers and trade unionists from many other industries, as local government workers from Edinburgh joined Yorkshire miners and labourers from Southall to picket outside the factory and stop scab buses. He also spoke about how the struggle cut through racism and prejudice, challenging the backward ideas of many white workers.
Through their magnificent solidarity action, local postal workers played a key role in ratcheting up pressure on the Grunwick management. Derek Walsh, who was a key figure in the Union of Postal Workers, spoke about the brave struggle he and his fellow posties waged including against their own union leaders to refuse to handle Grunwick’s mail.
Arthur Scargill also spoke — both about the role played by the NUM in solidarity with Grunwick, and his disgust at the TUC’s drive to demobilise the struggle by leading thousands of activists off the Grunwick picket lines for a “march” and a strategy of putting faith in the courts.
Scargill himself was arrested by police on a Grunwick picket line. The brutal way the police dealt with picketers and demonstrators was vividly depicted by one of the films shown on 17 September, Looking back at Grunwick, an excellent film which should be replayed at trade union meetings and discussions up and down the country.
Hearing some of the main activists involved in the dispute was inspiring, but knowing that it all ended in defeat was equally sobering. Thirty years on, the memory of Grunwick still burns bright, but the lessons have not been learnt. After nearly ten years of a “Labour” government, Thatcher’s anti-union laws — laws which had they existed in 1976-8 would have made every solidarity action in support of the Grunwick workers illegal — are still in place. Moreover, the behaviour of the T&G leadership during the Gate Gourmet struggle suggests that the labour movement leaders have not changed their spots.
Jack Dromey was challenged on precisely this point in the last session, by two Gate Gourmet workers who are still locked out and fighting for their rights. Although his response, whitewashing the Gate Gourmet sell out and his links with the Brownite section of the Labour hierarchy, was predictably depressing, it was good to hear some debate - reminding us that learning about the struggles of the past must act as a guide to action today.
The crucial lesson of Grunwick is the one which Jayaben Desai stressed repeatedly on 17 September — that workers can rely only on their own strength and solidarity. As the Brent TUC pamphlet on Grunwick puts it:
“One of the crucial lessons of the Grunwick strike is that we cannot rely on either the courts and arbitration or union officials to win our disputes. We have to rely on our own strength, and organise within the unions to take the action necessary, with or without the backing of the official machine...
“We need to campaign in our unions to apply real pressure for the repeal of the anti-union laws. Further, we must continue to build a strong, broad based, multi-racial and multi-cultural trade union movement that can unite and protect the interests of all workers, including the growing ethnic minority and migrant workers membership. We can then truly stand together and shout, as the pickets at Grunwick did: “The workers united will never be defeated”.
For more information on pamphlets and films on the Grunwick strike email me at firstname.lastname@example.org