Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The 20th Turbulent Londoner is Jayaben Desai, the fierce and inspirational leader of the 1976-8 Grunwick Strike.
Throughout it’s history, London has relied on immigration to function. Jayaben Desai was one such immigrant, who refused to accept the long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions that have also been a feature of London for most of it’s history. She was one of the most prominent leaders of the Grunwick Strike, which
Born on 2nd April 1933 in the north-western state of Gujarat in India, Jayaben was defiant and headstrong from an early age. At school, she rejected passive obedience in favour of supporting the Indian independence movement. In 1955 she married Suryakant Desai, a tyre-factory manager from Tanganyika. The couple settled there in 1965, by which point the country had united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. East African Asians were members of the mercantile and administrative classes, and Jayaben had a comfortable lifestyle. It did not last however, the Desais were expelled along with tens of thousands of others as part of “africanisation” policies. They fled to Britain and settled in the north London borough of Brent. The couples’ socio-economic status dropped considerably; Suryakant got a job as an unskilled labourer and Jayaben worked part time as a sewing machinist whilst bringing up their two children, Shivkumar and Rajiv. In 1974 Desai started work at the Grunwick factory which processed mail order photographic film.
Two years later, on 23rd August 1976, Jayaben walked out of the Grunwick factory. The final straw was being ordered to work overtime; she persuaded 100 of her colleagues to go with her. Jayaben was known for having a way with words; she apparently told her manager: “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”
Jayaben is known as being a trade unionist, but I don’t think that really does justice to what her and her colleagues achieved. They were not members of a union when they first walked out, the Trades Union Council advised them to join Apex, a white collar union that is now part of the GMB. The strikers were also mainly Asian and women, two groups who did not have a strong tradition of striking in the past.
Another factor which set the Grunwick strike apart was the solidarity that the strikers received from employees in other workplaces and industries. Newly arrived migrants accepted (and still do) long hours and low pay because they had no choice. This has frequently caused resentment amongst British workers. The Grunwick strikers, however, received significant moral and practical support from other workers. For example, postal workers in the local sorting office in Cricklewood refused to handle Grunwick’s post. As the factory processed mail-order photographs, this move almost won the strike for Jayaben and her colleagues. In November a High Court ruling forced the postmen to start handling Grunwick post again, a big blow to the strikers. The strike committee visited more than 1000 workplaces around the country garnering support- many workers came to join the picket lines outside the factory. On 11th July 1977 the TUC organised a 20000 strong march to the factory. The workers at Cricklewood again refused to handle Grunwick’s mail. They were suspended for 3 weeks for their defiant act of solidarity.
The Labour Prime Minister, James Callahan, persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of inquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. It was highly unusual for employers to defy the conclusions of inquiry, but Jayaben was convinced that Grunwick’s managing director, George Ward, would. She was right; Scarman recommended that the strikers be given their jobs back and that their union be recognised. Ward refused. With few options left and almost two years of hardship behind them, the strikers conceded defeat on 14th July 1978.
After the strike, Jayaben’s health declined. She got another sewing job, which led to teaching for the Brent Indian Association, and she developed an Asian dressmaking course at Harrow College. She passed her driving test aged 60, and when her husband retired the couple traveled extensively. She passed away on 23rd December 2010.
At just 4ft 10in, Jayaben Desai shocked many with her strength and resolve. She was inspirational, and known for her charm, tact, and diplomacy, even in the face of aggression and threatening behaviour from police and the Grunwick bosses. Although the Grunwick strike failed, it had a big impact on industrial relations for women and ethnic minorities, forcing the union establishment to taken them seriously for the first time. Whilst Jayaben did not do this alone, her bravery and determination should be remembered, celebrated, and learnt from.
2016 was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike. The Grunwick40 group was set up to commemorate this event. They organised events, a museum exhibition, and a mural. More information can be found about their work here.
Sources and Further Reading
Dromey, Jack. “Jayaben Desai Obituary.” The Guardian. Last updated 23 February 2012, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/dec/28/jayaben-desai-obituary
Pattinson, Terry.”Jayaben Desai: Trade Unionist Who Shot to National Prominence during the Bitter Grunwick Dispute of 1976-77.” The Independent. Last updated 21 February, 2011, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jayaben-desai-trade-unionist-who-shot-to-national-prominence-during-the-bitter-grunwick-dispute-of-2220589.html
Wikipedia, “Jayaben Desai.” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 20 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayaben_Desai