On August 20, 1976, the Grunwick Strike began. This strike showed the potential of the British trade union movement to embrace immigrant workers for the first time, but its defeat was a critical moment in the rise of the vociferously anti-union Margaret Thatcher and began the decline of the British labor movement that would suffer so much in the 1980s.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Great Britain saw a major influx of immigration from people of South Asian origin. However, they were often not moving directly from Pakistan and India, but rather, were the descendants of previous migrants to Africa, where they were no longer welcome after Britain’s African colonies gained independence. Idi Amin in Uganda was perhaps the most notorious instigator of violence against south Asians, but there was a good reason that they left throughout the ex-British colonies. Many came to Great Britain, providing employers a cheap, exploitable labor force. One of those employers was Grunwick film processing factory in Dollis Hill, northwest London. It targeted these Asian migrants, in this case largely Gujarati Indians, because it could work them hard, pay them little, and intimidate them in a way they could not with highly unionized native-born English workers. The pay averaged 28 pounds a week, when the average wage for the nation’s workers was 72 pounds and for female manual laborers in London, 44 pounds. Grunwick would turn away white applicants, telling them they couldn’t pay them enough. Moreover, it would do this in front of the Indian workers, which they considered an enormous insult to their dignity. It was also a very hot summer in Britain and the lack of air conditioning made the work miserable. Jayaben Desai remembered the atmosphere of intimidation:
They had made the rule that you had to get permission from the managers to go to the toilet. This woman said to me that she felt ashamed to ask. I said, When he has no shame making you ask loudly, why should you feel ashamed?
Desai became a leader against these embarrassments and the total control over their lives by Grunwick. On August 20, 1976, she led her fellow workers off the job and into the streets. This began when a male worker was fired for laboring too slowly. His fellow workers protested and when the sacked worker was not reinstated, things escalated quickly. They were not particularly well organized and unconnected to a union. But that quickly changed when they joined the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX). This was somewhat ironic because APEX had a reputation as perhaps the lamest, most conservative, and most anti-communist union in the nation. The strike started with just 6 workers, including Desai. After they got APEX support, 50 more workers walked out and the strike was on for real. The demand became union recognition. Meanwhile, Grunwick fired all of strikers, giving them nothing left to lose.
This small action soon gained support across Britain. The cause of these workers inspired other workers and other unions. This was important for both the Grunwick workers and the larger labor movement. The British unions, much like their American cousins, were considered hotbeds of anti-immigrant sentiment and unfriendly to the new immigrants. Previous immigrant led strikes in the early 70s had not created solidarity from the British trade movement. The Grunwick actions helped break down those barriers. By June 1977, up to 20,000 people a day were marching to support the Grunwick workers. Three Cabinet ministers joined the picket line as well. The Union of Postal Workers refused to deliver mail to Grunwick. This was enormously important because it crippled the business operations of Grunwick, in which people sent their photos by mail to the factory for development. This nearly destroyed the business entirely and it significantly raised the politicization of the strike, as the local Tory member of Parliament wanted to charge the postal union with violating the Post Office Act of 1953, which made it a misdemeanor to refuse to deliver the mail. The Mineworkers under powerful labor leader Arthur Scargill bused in supporters. Fights broke out between the strike’s supporters (not so much the strikers themselves as they were mostly Indian women) and the police, who were dressed in riot gear. Over 500 people were arrested in these actions.
The strike also galvanized the Tories and in particular helped lead to Margaret Thatcher’s rise. Thatcher urged Grunwick owner George Ward personally to resist the strike. He needed little help, having previously busted an attempt to unionize his shop in 1973. She hated Scargill and with the British economy tottering in the mid 70s (as was happening in the U.S.) and the overall sense of weakness from the Callaghan-led Labour government (also indicative of the Carter government about to begin across the pond), Thatcher used what was initially a small strike of oppressed immigrant workers to raise her standing nationally. Callaghan’s government created the Scarman Inquiry to suggest a solution to this strike. It urged union recognition and the reinstatement of the fired workers. But with significant support from the Tories and from the right-wing National Association for Freedom, the employer refused.
All of this made the strike much more than about a few Indian immigrant workers and a relatively small factory. The strike became about the makeup of the British working class in the late 20th century, the ability of unions to expand the welfare state they had helped create after World War II, employers’ right to hire and fire who they chose, and the sheer nature of power in that nation. This was a battle for control of the nation.
In the face of this resistance, the strike eventually failed. For Thatcher, it helped make her argument that she could bust British unions. After 23 months, the workers could fight no more. Its most successful legacy was in bridging the anti-immigrant divide that by the mid-70s had led to the murder of Sikhs and the rise of xenophobic political parties. But it also helped pave the way for Thatcher’s decimation of the British labor movement after they won the 1979 general election.
This is the 234th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.