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Cowardice of union leaders lost the strike

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
Ken Montague was the secretary of Barnet trades council in 1976 and a member of the Grunwick strike committee
Issue 2013
Giving up the fight: Tom Jackson, leader of the postal workers
Giving up the fight: Tom Jackson, leader of the postal workers

I got involved with the strike on the second day. Someone in the flat downstairs who worked at Grunwick told me, “It’s a little place you’ll never have heard of, but we’re on strike.”

As part of the strike committee I helped organise meetings and workplace collections. From the start, the solidarity between white, male, manual workers and Asian women was remarkable.

For the first few weeks the dispute was run locally. Later the dispute became better known as it got official backing.

We argued for a long time for mass pickets to shut down Grunwick.

We felt this was the most effective way to win the dispute. While lots of support came from around the country and across the trade union movement, large amounts of the effective support was local.

There was lots of talk of support from the top of the unions but it was mostly just talk. I remember in December 1977 Len Murray, then the head of the TUC, said, “We are not behind you but beside you.” It sounded good, but the TUC consistently blocked action that could have closed down Grunwick.

The atmosphere on the mass pickets was electric. As they grew, you felt you were part of something historic.

Racism was a constant factor from the police and bosses. On one mass picket, I was arrested alongside some shop stewards from General Motors.

The police attacked me, but I was charged with assaulting an officer. When I pointed out the police officer in question had been sat in a bus all the time just watching, a cop said to me, “If you go around supporting pakis what do you expect.”

The turning point in the dispute came after a few weeks of mass pickets. The TUC marched us away from the gates. At the time it just seemed like a tactical difference, but in retrospect it was a turning point. From then the emphasis became to wait for the Scarman inquiry.

In the end it was the cowardice of the union leaders that lost the strike.

What in retrospect was perhaps the start of a downturn for the whole industrial struggle didn’t feel like it at the time. There were still a large number of strikes and within a couple of years we had the “winter of discontent”.

Grunwick showed the potential for rank and file action, it showed how workers show solidarity for other workers. It also showed that strikes have to be the property of the rank and file and not the officials—that is the way to win.


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