30 years since the Grunwick strike

Why is it that workers in struggle continue to be defeated, even when they have massive popular backing and solidarity action is carried out?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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On 17 September, a packed Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London hosted a day-long event to commemorate 30 years since the beginning of the Grunwick strike.

The event was organised by Brent Trades Union Council, and the theatre was decked out colourfully with local trade union branch banners. Sessions running throughout the day included ‘The significance of Grunwick’, ‘Trade union rights, the struggle continues’ and ‘Migrant workers, equal rights’. In the cinema, two films of the strike were shown: Stand Together and Look Back at Grunwick (both produced in 1977 by Newsreel Collective). Upstairs there was an exhibition and another film The Year of the Beaver (also 1977). In the afternoon, entertainment was provided by singer/songwriter Leon Rosselson (composer of the Grunwick song) and Banner Theatre.

Many who had participated in the strike or joined the picket line were present, including members of the CPGB-ML. The speakers in the morning included main activists from the strike, picket and solidarity actions/or their deputies (as the 1977 Chair of the Brent Trades Council and Convenor of the Cricklewood Branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) had since died). Most importantly, Jayaben Desai, the leader of the original strikers, and Derek Walsh, one of the leaders of the Cricklewood postal workers’ strike, were present and spoke most movingly.

The other speakers in the morning were Jack Dromey, then secretary of the Brent Trade Council, and Arthur Scargill, then President of the Yorkshire Branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The organisation of the event was impeccable and impressive. Less inspiring, however, were some of the lessons drawn by two of the morning speakers, Jack Dromey and Arthur Scargill, of which more below.

Jayaben Desai: inspirational example

The most impressive person was Jayaben Desai herself. Elderly, frail and hard of hearing (and diminutive), her speech was short and simple. She said that she valued but did not merit “so much respect” shown to her for her role in the strike; she was just doing what any one in her position would have done, namely stand up for justice; it was time to take a stand and she just happened to be in that place at that time.

She had more than earned the standing ovation and the bouquet of flowers she received at the end of the session, but the most fitting tribute to her role in the Grunwick strike came from a young British woman of Asian origin during the question and answer session, who explained that she had not been born at the time of the strike but that she had been inspired by Jayaben’s example and had carried in her wallet for years a photo of Jayaben on the picket line with fist upraised and had it with her when attending her first job interview.

Jayaben gave an example to black and Asian first generation immigrant women to stand up for their rights and not be frightened either of the critics in their own community (who saw standing on the picket lines in the street as ‘rough’ behaviour unfitting for a woman) or the media, or the employers, or the government (who backed up the employer notwithstanding the fact that it was ‘old’ Labour that was in government at the time). She also gave the lie to the macho trade union culture of the time, which insisted that women, especially black and Asian women, couldn’t be unionised, and struck a powerful blow for working-class solidarity across the gender and racial divides.

Importance of solidarity

Next in order of importance was Derek Walsh, who spoke movingly of the struggle of the Cricklewood postal workers to show effective solidarity with the Grunwick strikers by blocking the mail to and from the Grunwick factory (a mail order photo processing plant). The postmen faced persecution not just from their employers in the Post Office (then government owned), who locked them out for refusing to handle Grunwick’s post, but also from their own union, the CWU, who fined them when they resumed their action later after ‘legal’ channels failed to bring about union recognition by Grunwick’s boss (although better conditions were awarded to those who carried on working while the strike continued).

These speakers showed the truth of Jayaben’s oft-repeated statements at the time (shown on the films) that it was through the solidarity of the other workers that the Grunwick strike could succeed and not by actions through Acas or the Scarman Enquiry (set up by the Apex Union and the government respectively to diffuse the workers’ action but then disregarded and/or challenged in the courts by Grunwick when both found in favour of the strikers for union recognition and the strikers’ reinstatement).

A leaflet written immediately after the strike by Tom Durkin, Chair of Brent Trades Council (as it was then called), entitled ‘Grunwick: bravery and betrayal’ pointed to the lessons that workers should not be divided nor prevented from providing solidarity through mass pickets or secondary action, whether by referrals to Acas, commissions of enquiry or the law courts, but should continue their industrial action. Only strong action by workers can secure success on the ground, he explained, including favourable outcomes at Acas or in the courts, since these bodies would soon find against any workers whose resolve weakened and once the threat of significant disruption/economic harm to the bosses was withdrawn, as happened to the Grunwick strikers.

The Brent Trades Council undoubtedly worked hard and well in 1976-1978 to secure support for the strikers from other workers, both locally and nationally. But, 30 years later, those lessons learnt were not even mentioned by Tom Durkin’s colleague, the Secretary of the Trades Council in 1977, Jack Dromey.

Labour’s complicity

Instead, Dromey made much of the fact that he had met his wife, Harriet Harman (now a minister in the Labour government), when, as one of the team of volunteer lawyers, she had got bail for him after he was arrested on the picket line. Having stated that the law was impotent to protect workers, Dromey asserted that it was necessary to vote Labour as there was no chance that a Conservative government would ever repeal Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws – as though we had not had a Labour government for 10 years which had done nothing about them!

According to Dromey, the lessons of Grunwick were:

1. that solidarity was important as the strike had nearly succeeded (but he ignored the lessons of why it had failed!);

2. that community was important (there were as many as 3,000 people at local meetings supporting the strike);

3. that the movement was not dead but that it needs to be revitalised; and

4. that immigrant workers should be welcomed and there should be equal treatment for all.

Rather than confront the reasons for the strike’s failure, Jack Dromey hailed it as a success. No message there of the struggle against unjust laws (and the need to breach them in the course of that struggle, as shown by the Tolpuddle Martyrs right up to the present day), nor of the effectiveness of working class solidarity when it is not diverted into ‘legal’ channels and so dissipated, as it was at Grunwick.

The Grunwick strike occurred when secondary strikes and mass picketing were still legal and when an ‘old’ Labour government was in power, but it still failed, because of the betrayals of the trade union and Labour party ‘leadership’ of the working class, taking them deliberately up ‘legal’ blind alleys while allowing the Grunwick boss and his allies in the NAFF (National Association For Freedom) to take Grunwick mail from the local sorting office illegally at night.

Not for nothing is John Dromey now Assistant General Secretary of the TUC! The 1977 films of the strike showed the then familiar faces of Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the CWU, and Len Murray, General Secretary of the TUC (both of which organisations refused to call out workers to stop other essential services to the Grunwick factory).

Both these gentlemen were later ennobled for their services to the ruling class so that they could collect daily payments for turning up at the House of Lords in order to supplement their trade union pensions, paid for out of the hard-earned subs of the workers they so effectively misled. Perhaps John Dromey may also be headed the same way in due course, as youthful militancy need not be a bad career move where ‘sense’ comes with age.

The final speaker at the morning session, Arthur Scargill, received enthusiastic applause for his support for the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, as well as for his call to defy laws that were unjust, since the solidarity action which is now illegal is essential to the success of trade-union struggles. In response to questions from the floor, however, Comrade Scargill rather spoiled the effect by suggesting that the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party should use their vote (50 percent of the total) at the Labour Party congress to effect a change of party policy! When it was suggested by one of our comrades during the Q&A session that trade unions should break the link with Labour, he replied, somewhat inconsistently, that he couldn’t support that, as no-one should seek to interfere with trade unions who, as independent bodies, must reach their own decisions as to policy! He evaded commenting on the suggestion from the floor that a major lesson of Grunwick was that workers should not vote Labour Party members into positions of trade-union leadership, or vote Labour in elections.

It appears that Arthur is back on the path of expecting, or telling the working class to expect (which is worse), that social democracy will deliver socialism through the Labour Party.

All the films were well worth seeing. It was very moving to see the strikers, especially Jayaben and the Cricklewood postal workers, along with the pickets from the NUM and other unions who came from all over the UK.

The Year of the Beaver was particularly interesting as it put the strike into context. It showed that the Labour government of the time was working for industrial ‘harmony’ and urging all workers to work ‘like beavers’ for the ‘common good’ of Britain (a quote from the Labour Minister of Employment of the time) and was setting the stage for the anti-trade union legislation passed by the Thatcher government that is still on the statute books today.

The way forward

The lessons we drew from the retrospective were:

1. that workers united can never be defeated; but

2. that such unity in struggle can never be achieved and sustained until victory without the leadership of a conscious, trained, educated, revolutionary party that will support the working class in their struggles, not undermine them or allow them to be diverted up blind alleys (‘legal’ or otherwise).

Break the link with Labour!

Defy the anti-trade union laws!