The 20th of August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike, a 2-year dispute that was an important turning point in the history of trade unions and solidarity. Workers at the Grunwick photograph processing factory in Willesden, northwest London, walked out after an employee was fired for working too slowly. To celebrate the anniversary, a group called Grunwick 40 organised an exhibition about the strike at Willesden Library in Brent, which ran from the 19th October 2016, to the 26th March 2017. The exhibition was called ‘We are the Lions,’ taken from a quote by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike. I finally managed to visit the exhibition in its last week, and I’m really glad I made the effort.
The exhibition was well balanced; it mentioned that Jayaben Desai was a leader of the strike, but didn’t devote too much attention to her. In fact, it didn’t spend much time on the leaders of the strike at all, which I thought was good; it is very easy to get distracted by charismatic leaders. Instead, the exhibition focuses on trade union politics and solidarity, detailing how the strikers won solidarity from a wide spectrum of workers. The factory owners refused to back down, however, and as the dispute dragged on the strikers were abandoned by union leaders, a sadly familiar story. The strike eventually failed, but it remained significant because it was the first time that migrant workers received widespread solidarity from British workers.
The exhibition draws aesthetic inspiration from a distinctive banner produced for the strikers in 1976. It is owned by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but it took centre stage at this exhibition. It was also part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in late 2014 and early 2015, so it might be familiar to some. There weren’t many objects in the exhibition; images of people, events, and texts were relied on heavily to illustrate the narrative. You do tend to expect objects when you visit a museum, but I realised that protests don’t often leave a lot of things behind, and what there is (banners, placards,clothing, flyers etc.) is ephemeral, and not intended to be kept or preserved. This must present a challenge for museums wanting to represent dissent.
The exhibition was firmly grounded in the local community, past, present, and future. There was a case of items putting the strike into the context of other radical events in Willesden’s history. There was a series of events associated with the exhibition, and its location in the local library made it quite accessible, although there are no guarantees that visitors to the library also went to the exhibition. There are also plans to produce a mural commemorating the strike, which will serve as a lasting legacy, long after the exhibition has been deconstructed.
Unfortunately, this post comes too late for me to encourage you to visit the exhibition. What I can do is congratulate the organisers for putting together such a brilliant exhibition. The Grunwick Strike was a key moment in the history of trade unions and solidarity. It often feels to me that solidarity is not something that we do so well anymore in modern society. We are the Lions was an timely reminder of how powerful it can be.