An indication of the regard in which Jayaben Desai was held was the fact that on a miserable December weekday morning over one hundred people turned out for her funeral. A good proportion were there to show their respect for the inspirational woman who came to represent the Grunwick strikers of 1976-1978.
Many photographs of the strike show a diminutive Mrs Desai towered over by large policemen, but she was never intimidated by anyone.
When she walked out of the photoprocessing plant she said to the manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.” She proved herself to be a lion throughout the course of the two year long strike which followed for union recognition.
The dispute brought out both the best and the worst of the movement. While thousands turned out to picket, risking injury and the mass arrests by the police, the strikers had an additional constant battle with their own union, APEX (now part of the GMB) and the TUC, who wanted the mass pickets called off.
While local postal workers took solidarity action, refusing to deliver Grunwick’s mail in November 1976 and again in the summer of 1977, their leaders were fined by their national union (the UPW) and threatened with expulsion from the union.
Other unions called on to cut off services to Grunwick’s (water and electricity) either refused point blank or demanded levels of support they knew wouldn’t be agreed.
In the end the desperation of Mrs Desai and the strike committee, with the lack of backing from the unions, led her and three others go on hunger strike outside the TUC in November 1977. Their union then announced that any strikers participating in the hunger strike or involved in the organisation of any further mass picketing would be suspended from office in the union and lose strike pay for four weeks. It took 30 years for the GMB to get round to apologising to Mrs Desai for this terrible act of treachery.
The regard with which she was still held was shown by the standing ovation she got when she spoke at the 30-year commemoration event which Brent Trades Council organised.