Sunday, 17 April 2011

Jayaben Desai: Lessons from the past for the future

The scene outside Grunwick's, Chapter Road, Willesden as painted by Dan Jones
The Tricycle Cinema was crowded this afternoon for a commemoration of Jayaben Desai, leader of the Grunwick Strike Committee, who died in December 2010.  The meeting temporarily brought together councillors and activists who have recently been battling over local council cuts.  As the audience reflected on the events of the 1970s both sides could draw lessons from this historical strike.

As I watched the film and once again saw Jayaben's bravery in the face of police violence, her impish sense of humour that bettered many a journalist, her self-identification as a strong woman against crude stereotypes of Asian female submissiveness and  most of all her steadfastness in standing up for her rights and that of her fellow workers, I could not help but be moved.  As people spoke about Jayaben from different perspectives our appreciation deepened. We heard from Amrit Wilson how Jayaben invited her to her home and talked at length about herself and the strike and the links with race and colonial struggle. It was alleged that George Ward, the Grunwick boss, continued to pursue Jayaben after her death, with threats of legal action against obituarists who mentioned accusations of racism  at Grunwick.

We heard from an Asian Women's group how Jayaben clashed with the group's chair about the suppression of ego and advised the women to stop buying jewellery with their money but instead empower themselves by using the money instead to buy driving lessons. It also emerged that she was an erudite contributor to the Gujerati Literary Society.

Cllr Janice Long asked for support to persuade Brent Council to name a building after Jayaben Desai to commemorate her life and urged to audience to write to the leader of the council, Cllr Ann John, who was  also present. Another speaker, stressing the need for children to be educated about the importance of Jayaben's role, urged that a school be named after here.

Broader issues were also raised. Pete Firmin linked the struggles of immigrant workers, and the support they received from  rank and file white trade unionists, with David Cameron's attacks on multiculturalism and the attempt to divide new arrivals into 'good' and 'bad' migrants.  Jack Dromey, then Secretary of Brent Trades Council and now a Labour MP reminded the meeting that a few years before Grunwick, dockers and Smithfield meat porters had marched in support of Enoch Powell after his 'rivers of blood' speech. Jayaben had said, 'We are lions - I am afraid of no one' . She went on to say that the strike had shown that immigrant workers will fight and white workers will support them. Dromey concluded that Grunwicks had 'demonstrated all that is best in our movement and in our immigrant community'.

There were many critical comments about the TUC's role at Grunwick's and warnings that their lack of will to fully use their potential power remains in 2011 as we face the attacks on public services, benefits and the vulnerable. Geoff Shears, at the time a young  legal representative for the strikers, confessed that he had felt intimidated by Mrs Desai.   He said that anti-trade union laws did not exist in their present form then but instead there was a conspiracy that enabled courts to break the law by restricting the solidarity action of postal workers, the police to break the law by attacking pickets, and George Ward to ignore the recommendations of the Scarman Inquiry that came down 90% in favour of the strikers.  He said that had prepared the ground for Thatcher in the 1980s and warned that it would be used again by the Coalition government.  Mrs Desai had understood the meaning of solidarity as requirement for workers to organise collectively to ensure that the unions served their interests.

Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communication  Workers Union (successor to the Union of Post Office Workers) said that the union's next conference would be considering awarding honorary membership to Jayaben Desai and wiping out the fines imposed by the union on the Cricklewood postmen who refused to deliver Grunwick mail at the time.

As I have remarked on this blog before LINK Jayeben and the story of Grunwick is a far better subject for children to study in Brent Black History Month than rehashed versions of American black history that currently dominate the curriculum.

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