Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.
The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.
Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.
In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.
The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen. One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.
In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers.
The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.
However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.
In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.
Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”
Reference: Todd, Selina (2015) The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class London: John Murray