Socialist Worker is sad to learn of the death of Jayaben Desai on 23 December. She was the Asian woman who was the most prominent leader of the strike at the Grunwick photo-processing lab in 1976.
This landmark struggle showed tremendous defiance and courage. It won solidarity from many trade unionists who were inspired by the workers’ example.
In particular, postal workers cut off mail to the plant and miners, car workers and others came in large numbers to picket the factory.
The strike was on the news night after night throughout 1976 and 1977. Labour cabinet ministers came to the picket line – although the government did not deliver victory to the strikers.
Jayaben Desai was born in Gujarat, India, from where she moved first to Tanzania, East Africa, and then, in 1969, to Britain. In August 1976, together with her son, Sunil, she walked out of the factory.
Her parting words to the manager were, “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.”
A small group of workers joined the APEX union (now part of the GMB) and soon there were around 140 demanding union recognition.
On one side were militant trade unionists who saw this as a key dispute, on the other were Tories and others who saw the strike as a perfect example where harsh anti-union laws were needed to protect “freedom”.
The Labour government set up an inquiry into the dispute which recommended union recognition and reinstatement for the workers. But this was not binding. The TUC subsequently withdrew support. Ultimately the heroic Grunwick strikers were let down by the union leaders.
Towards the end of 1977 Jayaben Desai and three others went on hunger strike outside the headquarters of the TUC to try to get the trade unions to take action in their support. The response from APEX was to suspend the strikers.
Jayaben Desai will be remembered by all who fight for workers’ rights and justice.
Jayaben Desai’s funeral will be on Friday 31 December, 11am, at Golders Green crematorium. Full obituary in the next issue of Socialist Worker, available online from next Tuesday evening.