Grunwick strike, 1976-1978
"I want my freedom. I am going, I have had enough."
Mrs Desai, as she walked out of Grunwick, 20 August 1976.
The Grunwick Strike of 1976-1978 was one of the most important and significant strikes of the 1970s. At its height it involved thousands of trade unionists and police in confrontations outside a small film processing factory in North London, with over 500 arrests on the picket line and frequent police violence. It was also one of the first strikes to involve a group of Asian women, among them Jayaben Desai, who became a national figure. The worldwide publicity attracted by the dispute made it a thorny political issue for the Labour government. The failure of the strike was a key turning point in the industrial relations of the decade; a decade often later portrayed as an era of unlimited union power. The reality was otherwise.
Grunwick was a mail order film processing company, founded in 1965 by George Ward. The summer of 1976 was one of the hottest on record. On Friday 20 August manager Malcolm Alden sacked a young man Devshi Budi and three other young men then walked out in protest. That same afternoon Jayaben Desai and her son Sunil walked out after a row with the same manager. The following Monday morning they began picketing the gates and were joined by 50 other workers. The strikers made contact with the trade union APEX and Jack Dromey, Secretary of Brent Trades Council. By 31 August the original strikers had joined the union APEX (which made the strike official and began paying strike pay) and had also been joined by other workers.
On 2 September the Grunwick directors sacked all the strikers and repeatedly rejected all approaches from APEX to discuss re-instatement. On the picket line the strikers suffered increasing harassment from local police, whilst the bitter winter cold wore down the morale of strikers, despite the best efforts of local supporters.
ACAS recommended that the company recognise APEX, but George Ward (the company owner), with local Tory MP John Gorst at his elbow, and with legal backing from the National Association for Freedom, had no intention of doing so. With no prospect of the company entering into negotiations the Strike Committee issued a call for a mass picket.
Monday 13 June 1977 was earmarked as women's day; the police kicked and punched the women who gathered, dragging some women by the hair as they were arrested. By the end of the day the police had arrested more than 80 women pickets. Angry postal workers now took unofficial action and refused to move company mail, hitting the firm financially.
On 11 July thousands of miners and other trade unionists joined the picket lines in a huge show of solidarity. Heavily outnumbered, for once, the police were well behaved. Victory in the dispute now seemed very close.
The Labour government set up a Court of Inquiry under Lord Scarman. In return APEX wound down the picketing, whilst the postal union pressured its members to call off the embargo. Scarman report was issued on 25 August, condemning the mass picketing and unofficial postal blockade, but coming down in favour of Grunwick recognising a trade union. The report was cautiously welcomed by the strikers, but rejected by George Ward, who was now enjoying the backing of the Tory party and much of the Fleet Street press.
The momentum now moved away from the strikers. There were two further days of action in the autumn with thousands again turning up, only to face high levels of police violence and many arrests. Attempts to cut off supplies to the firm proved impossible and union support waned as Christmas approached. In desperation four strikers, including Mrs Desai, sat outside the TUC for three days on hunger strike. It was to no avail. By the first week of 1978 the strike to all intents and purposes had been lost, although it was not officially called off until 14 July 1978.
Sources about Grunwick in our collection
Grunwick: the workers' story by Jack Dromey and Graham Taylor (1978)
Grunwick Bravery and Betrayal by Tom Durkin (on behalf of the Executive Committee of Brent Trades Council) (1978)
Black British rebels: figures from working class history by Hassan Mahamdallie (2012) Includes Jayaben Desai
Grunwick by Joe Rogaly (1977)
Fort Grunwick by George Ward (1977)
"The Grunwick Strike" in A Different Hunger by A Sivanandan (1982)
The strike is covered in many contemporary publications held at the library eg Morning Star, Socialist Worker, The Leveller and Spare Rib.
The library has archive material relating to the strike, Please ask the library staff for more details.
Poster calling for support for mass picket on 7 November 1977
10 minutes of amateur footage
Our timeline entry has other information and a picture of one of our posters.