The picket line at Grunwicks, Chapter Road, Willesden
Chatting last night after a Brent Green Party meeting in Willesden, we got round to discussing the Grunwick dispute which took place round the corner at the Cobbold Road and Chapter Road Grunwick photo processing factory owned by George Ward. I described joining picket lines at 6.30 in the morning as a young teacher, before going off to do a day's teaching, often bruised as a result of the pushing contests between police and pickets.
The dispute lasted from 1976-1978 and was significant in many ways. Firstly, it was a dispute involving immigrant workers from East Africa, Indian and the Caribbean, that broke through into the national trade union consciousness. It produced solidarity action from the Cricklewood Postal Workers' Union, who stopped delivering the processing mail orders, and when this was stopped by court action, other unions joined in mass pckets including miners and printers. It was also a dispute that mobilised many women trades unionists and activists: a women only mass picket met with unprecedented police violence. Immigrant workers became visible for the first time and other disputes followed, aided by the workers' experience of mobilising against colonialism.
Secondly it marked the first major intervention by the National Association For Freedom (yes it was NAFF - probably why they renamed themselves the Freedom Association, currently going large on climate change denial) on the side of bosses and against trade unions, and was in many ways a rehearsal for action against the miners during the Thatcher era.
Thirdly, it exposed weaknesses in the Labour government and the labour movement which we still suffer from today. The precarious Callaghan government was split on the dispute. Shirley Williams, a member of Apex, the strikers' union, joined the picket line, while Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, sent in the police and the Special Patrol Group to break up the pickets.
Many Brent schools take part in Black History Month every October. They often study American Civil Rights leaders while UK studies are often about Black role models or celebrities. A study of Grunwick would reveal the strength of self-organisation and solidarity action and relate immediately to local people and the local area. In the revealing video produced by Brent Trades Council Vipin Magdahi, a member of the Strike Committee, says, "You can go to any college or school - but what we learnt in those days nobody could teach us." Jayaben Desai, leader of the dispute, on hunger strike outside the TUC to ask for support, was asked by Len Murray, then leader of the TUC, "Who told you to do this?" (He was obsessed with the idea that the 'ultra-left' was responsible). She replied, "Nobody - it is part of our Indian tradition." The strike failed when the wider movement decided to concentrate on fighting the Labour Government's pay restraint and social contract, but there is much children could learn from this strike which was of national significance.
There is an exhibition about the strike called 'Striking Women: Voices of South Asian Workers from Gruinwick and Gate Gourmet' at the Women's Library, London, E1 7NT until 31st March. Images can be found on the SocietyGuardian website. It would be wonderful if it could be exhibited at the Willesden Green Library in the future and visited by local children.
Copies of the DVD cost £10 and can be ordered through the Brent Trades Council website or by writing to Brent TUC, Willesden Trades and Labour Hall, 375 High Road Willesden NW10 2JR, enclosing a cheque for £10 payable to Brent TUC.