November 11, 2008 — Review
Written by Jenny Bourne
A superb DVD on Grunwick’s recalls not just the details of that long dispute but also the flavour of workers’ solidarity.
There was another powerful political lady with a handbag other than Thatcher in the 1970s. A tiny woman, usually swathed in a bulky cardigan, almost always seen with a megaphone. An Asian lady in a sari, a bindi always on her forehead, with a gentle voice and large, reproachful eyes. This was Jayaben Desai, leader of the strikers at the Grunwick film-processing factory in North London.
Thirty years after the strike was slowly asphyxiated, the tale of The Great Grunwick Strike 1976-1978: a history has been produced as a DVD by Brent Trades Union Council. Told through footage and stills from the time plus contemporary interviews with forty-odd participants, looking back, it is a very honest and direct account of how a small band of workers in a small back-street factory managed to bring out thousands and thousands of workers in solidarity for the simple right to form a trade union. It takes us through the Grunwick ‘stations of the cross’: the involvement of the rightwing, libertarian National Association for Freedom on the side of the owner, the involvement of the court in breaking the ‘blacking’ support from the Cricklewood postal workers, the failure of ACAS’ intervention, the mass pickets and the Special Patrol Group’s brutality, the ignoring of the Scarman investigation, the withdrawal of support by the trade union leadership, and, finally, the hunger strike of desperation outside the TUC headquarters.
Unlike other accounts of the strike, this one does not deify Mrs Desai at the expense of other players. There are many interviews with fellow Asian members of the strike committee and White campaigning professionals like Jack Dromey (of Brent Trades council), Chris Ball (Apex area organiser) and Jamie Ritchie (of Brent Law Centre) who played key supporting roles at the time. And, perhaps the most powerful and moving part of the film involves the interviews with ‘ordinary’ trade unionists – particularly from amongst the Union of Post Office Workers and the National Union of Miners who had come to man those pickets from the length and breadth of the country to Neasden – because they held solidarity to be sacred. Hearing that commitment, that feeling of fellowship, that need to defend a right against all the odds, that instinctive hatred of injustice echoing through the words and deeds of huge, gruff, macho men in 2008 is a reminder of a politics that once was. In one sense very reassuring, in another, so upsetting. Only thirty years ago but its feels like a century.
Interestingly, though some of the ex-Grunwick workers attest to the politicisation they went through by mixing with hardcore unionists in those two years, with Mrs Desai, we are given the clear impression that her impetus was less conventionally political and more a simple fight for human dignity, linked to her background. As a Gujarati, she had been influenced by Gandhi’s vision and tactics. When she carried the struggle to the door of the TUC with a hunger strike and embarrassed Secretary General Len Murray, holding a meeting of leaders there to discuss what to do about Labour’s Social Contract, he demanded to know who had told her ‘to do that’. She answered, ‘my tradition’.
On the cover of the DVD below the title is a banner with the words ‘Dignity Solidarity Diversity Betrayal’. All are aptly shown in the film bar ‘diversity’. There is absolutely no discussion of racism in the film, the word is not ever mentioned. And yet this was a strike of mainly Asian women workers. The fact that there were Black workers coming to this country with their own traditions of struggle was mentioned just once – and by a woman. And while there were interviews with women who had joined the pickets (and they did do so in large numbers and got badly beaten by the SPG) there are no interviews with any Black people who showed solidarity. Given that in the early days of the strike, in particular, it was small Black left groups that carried the strikers’ call and were probably responsible for galvanising the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party into mass support, this omission is grave. By implication the film-makers situate this strike not in the context of the many strikes in the 1970s by Asian workers such as that at Perivale Gutermann, Mansfield Hosiery, Harwood cash and Imperial Typewriters, but as a precursor to the miners’ battle with the Tory government to come.
But overall, this is a marvellous film for giving us the flavour of the time, for paying the strike its political due, for emphasising the essence of solidarity and for giving voice to the protagonists of the strike.
The Great Grunwick Strike 1976-1978: a history, director: Chris Thomas, duration: 1hr 4mins. Available from Brent Trades Union Council, 375 High Street, Willesden, London NW10 2JR. Send cheque for £10 made out to Brent TUC.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.