Faced with sweatshop-like conditions 19 mostly south Asian women downed tools at Burnsall, a metal finishing company in Smethwick, West Midlands. They were forced to work 56-hour weeks, compulsory overtime, struggled to get medical assistance and faced regular racist and sexist abuse all for just £115 a week.
Thirty years ago this week they walked out demanding union recognition, equal pay and basic health and safety measures. Little did they know, the Burnsall strike would last over a year. The bosses hit back by sacking all 19 of them.
One striker said the boss “used to treat us like animals. Not only did we work so hard, he didn’t understand we were human beings”. A young worker wasn’t allowed to visit an antenatal clinic or take on lighter work.
She was made to continue heavy lifting tasks and suffered a miscarriage which her doctor believed could have been caused by workload. A striker said, “If someone was having a baby, the boss didn’t care. One woman miscarried but he still cared more about his pipes.”
Britain’s manufacturing industry, which once dominated the Midlands, was in rapid decline and a recession pushed many workers into poverty. Workplaces were fragmented, with large car manufacturers outsourcing work to small factories such as Burnsall.
But the Burnsall strike showed other private sector workers it was possible to fight back in a time of hardship and industrial decline.
Strikers turned to their union the GMB for help. But they, like other black strikers in the Midlands, realised that they’d have to overcome society’s racist ideas.
Trade unions would often say it was too much trouble to organise them. Language barriers and the lack of unity in the workplace—due to isolating line work—were obstacles unions were afraid to tackle.
Many workers believed immigrant workers were the cause of low wages and poor conditions. Some union bureaucrats feared, if they supported immigrant strikers too much they’d fragment workers elsewhere. The union refused to produce a leaflet and offered no strategy for how to win.
In the whole of the West Midlands there wasn’t a single black woman trade union official. Yet the Burnsall strike also took place in the context of a broader battle for change inside the trade union movement.
The early 1990s saw a rash of disputes by black and Asian workers that challenged ideas about who could be organised. These included domestic and catering workers at Hillingdon Hospital in west London, outsourced airline catering workers at Gate Gourmet, Heathrow, and at food factories such as JJ Fast Foods.
The women in the Burnsall strike weren’t afraid to tackle racism. They criticised the police for allowing other strikes to have an outdoor fire in the winter but not theirs. When the strikers clashed with the police over an outdoor heater their union official told them to stop making a fuss.
The Burnsall Strikers Support Group was founded and they offered leaflets and translations in Punjabi. They called for other strikers to link up with them, organised for the strikers to speak at meetings across Britain and raised funds. These solidarity groups spread across the country. School students, activists and socialists joined the picket lines with mini-buses being provided every Friday.
The Burnsall strike hit a chord with many. Not only were the workers fighting for better conditions at work but also against racism, police intimidation and recession.
On 30 June 1993 the GMB leadership betrayed the Burnsall strike the day before a huge rally was organised. They declared the strike unwinnable and refused to give workers a vote or say in the decision.
But although the Burnsall strike ended in defeat it sent a message that resonates. Migrant workers don’t drive down wages—the Burnsall 19 wanted more for all.
The Burnsall strike also showed how the strikers realised that their strength was broader than just their workplace. Solidarity strikes and working class actions became essential, something we need more of today.