The start of 1976 didn’t seem promising for anyone hoping to turn the tide against racism.
There was deep bitterness and frustration among workers, as living standards’ plummeted while union leaders seemed determined to sit on their hands.
Racism seemed rampant, with the fascist National Front (NF) marching in towns and cities and winning large votes in local elections.
But an increasingly militant anti-racist movement developed in response. And a strike at a mail order photo processing firm in north west London proved to be a game changer.
This Saturday marks 40 years since the Grunwick strike for union recognition began. Grunwick became one of the greatest shows of black, white and Asian solidarity on the picket line that Britain has ever seen.
The firm employed 440 people, 80 percent of whom were Asian. The strike began after bosses dismissed Devshi Bhudia for working too slowly. Three others walked out in solidarity.
One woman, Jayaben Desai, took the time to issue a warning on her way out. “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals,” she said. “Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”
By the end of the week 170 workers were out the door—the strike would last nearly two years.
Workers faced down thuggish violence meted out on behalf of racist boss George Ward, and the state colluded to undermine solidarity. Right from the beginning of the strike the cops were on the bosses’ side, regularly attacking the picket line and arresting strikers.
On one occasion striker Kanti Patel was on the picket line alone. She was dragged inside the factory and said she was brutally beaten up by four senior Grunwick bosses.
The inability or unwillingness of the trade union leaders to offer real solidarity was astounding. TUC general secretary Len Murray told the strikers, “We’re not just behind you, we’re up there with you all the way.” But his words were never turned into action.
A strike committee told Socialist Worker at the time that the TUC had “conned” them into believing it was “going to take action in support of our strike”.
The TUC’s hopeless belief that the law would be on the Grunwick strikers’ side was exposed at an industrial tribunal. It ruled that the workers had been “fairly” sacked.
How did the TUC respond? By recommending their members stopped using Grunwick products!
Jayaben Desai described official trade union action as “like honey on the elbow”. “You can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it.”
The strike committee called for mass pickets—the first of which was on 13 June 1977. Police punched, kicked and dragged pickets across the road by their hair.
The women responded ferociously to the attacks. The workers’ heroism and the police repression swelled the mass pickets to 1,500 four days later.
The following week miners from Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent led thousands from across Britain to Grunwick. They overwhelmed police by sheer force of numbers and successfully blocked the plant.
London docker Bob Light described “an impressive sight—shop stewards’ banners from the four biggest ports in the country. Hull, London, Merseyside and Southampton lined up right across the road”.
Police made “half-hearted attempts to clear the road but there were too many pickets”. Even five coaches of special riot cops “didn’t fancy the odds”.
Bob explained how “pickets linked arms, about 50 or 60 deep” in the face of mounted police. But “as their horses stood still and the crowd jeered and laughed at them, they just looked embarrassed, like mounted lemons.”
Yet the solidarity shown by workers was not matched by the union leaders, who called a halt to the mass pickets after the government commissioned an inquiry.
On the day of the biggest mass picket the TUC led a demonstration away from the factory, handing the initiative back to Ward.
But the pickets inspired local post workers to refuse to handle Grunwick’s mail. It threatened to drive the company into liquidation. A right wing scabbing operation failed—but union officials were able to force them back to work.
The strikers called another day of action on 7 November. Eight thousand turned up. But their attempt to blockade the plant failed, with 113 pickets arrested and another 243 injured, 12 with broken bones, in a battle with the police.
The strikers fought on bravely, before finally admitting defeat on 14 July 1978. Their action had lasted 670 days.
Despite not winning the Grunwick strikers provided key lessons to the labour movement. Among trade unionists it broke the idea that Asian workers, and Asian women in particular, were the willing accomplices of bosses who wanted to drive down wages.
Everyone involved saw them at the head of a militant struggle against the bosses and the state.
And the feeling among many Asian workers that white workers were irredeemably racist took a major blow.
The sight of the London dockers’ banners rammed home the point that workers in struggle can change their ideas. Less than a decade earlier some of them had marched in support of racist Tory MP Enoch Powell.
Grunwick showed the immense power organised workers possess to fight for change—and why we should never let the bosses or the racists divide us.
A long battle with racist bosses, prejudice in wider society, and an indifferent union machine
After the Second World War hundreds of thousands of people from the Caribbean, Ireland, India and Pakistan migrated to Britain.
The British ruling class needed migrants—and they could be used to do the jobs that white workers were no longer prepared to tolerate.
These were the dirtiest, most difficult and least well paid jobs in sweatshops, factories, on public transport and in the NHS.
Asians were characterised as passive, weak and easily manipulated by the bosses.
It was an idea that held sway in the unions, from the leadership to many on the shopfloor.
But in a period of high levels of workers’ struggle, there were opportunities to overcome the racist divisions inside the working class.
Red scar, 1965
An important strike by Asian workers in 1965 at Courtauld’s Red Scar textile mill in Preston showed that they were not simply cheap labour that could be abused.
Red Scar employed almost 2,500 workers, a quarter of whom were Asian.
Bosses organised workers along ethnic lines, with nearly all the Asian workers put into two of the lowest paid departments.
Trouble flared when the TGWU union agreed a bad bonus deal for those departments and Asian workers led an unofficial three-week walkout.
The strike was unsuccessful. And most histories record the failure of the white workers to back the Asians as its main feature. But the level of support for the strike among Asian workers shocked Courtauld’s bosses.
They started to improve conditions in the mainly Asian sections.
Socialists built solidarity for the strikers.
It was part of taking forward an argument that white workers could be won to fighting alongside migrants.
According to one account, a Courtauld’s shop steward later said the union made a mistake allowing the Asian workers to fight alone.
It said, “The shop steward told of how the white workers were subsequently compelled to accept the conditions originally given only to the coloured workers.”
In 1965 right wing politicians whipped up more racism culminating in Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968. The racist backlash ratchetted up tensions.
Examples of racist shop stewards in cahoots with management were commonplace.
Some black and Asian activists drew the conclusion that the unions were irredeemable, and that the migrant workers’ battle was separate from white workers.
Mansfield hosiery, 1972
This was the context for two crucial disputes in the early 1970s.
Mansfield Hosiery in Loughborough divided workers along racial lines. Asians, and Asian women in particular, did the least skilled and lowest paid work.
Several hundred workers joined a strike in October 1972 after an Asian woman was told that she could no longer wear a sari to work. The issue became a lightning rod for anger.
The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers was known for its hostile attitude towards Asians and was determined to end the walkout.
But the strikers marched through town to the union office and occupied it until the leadership agreed to declare the strike official.
Management held a hard line for 12 weeks but the workers stood firm.
They had massive community support and other factories with large militant workforces threatened action.
The strike was at least a partial victory.
Asian workers would now be trained to be knitters, who had been exclusively white until then.
It had a big impact on the union machine and white workers.
Bennie Bunsee, reporting for Spare Rib magazine, wrote, “The workers now have a shop committee consisting of fifteen representatives, 11 of them Asians.
“The relationship between English and Asian girls is different—problems like pricing of articles are discussed together.
“Some of the Asian women are now trying to learn English and some of the English women know a little Gujarati.
“The strike raised many issues, not least of which was the dignity of the Asians themselves as people. A familiar slogan of the workers was, we will not go back like dogs.”
Mansfield had proved that by fighting, Asian workers could transform their own situation and also start to break the hold of racism on their white colleagues.
Imperial typewriters, 1974
The fight at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974 involved a struggle against a multinational firm and a racist local union.
The NF also organised some workers in the White Workers of Imperial Typewriters.
The strike ended without victory. Imperial Typewriters’ parent firm took the disunity as a sign of weakness and closed both the Leicester and Hull factories.
The strikers didn’t lack resolve or community support. They lost because they lacked workplace solidarity, something the union leaders bore responsibility for.
The treachery of the union leaders was a recurring theme during this period, not only for Asian workers’ struggles but for the working class as a whole.