Tribute to Jayaben Desai

Lalkar is saddened to announce the death, on 23 December, at the age of only 77 of Mrs J Desai, following a long illness.  Mrs Desai became famous as the leader of the Grunwick strike that took place in 1976-78.  The 137 workers at Grunwick, in the London Borough of Brent, an establishment engaged in the processing of photographs, went on strike when one of the workers was unfairly dismissed.  Approaching Brent Trades Council for support, they were advised to join APEX, which they did, making the struggle one for union recognition as well as reinstatement.

It was a strike by mainly Asian women, at a time when the trade-union movement was still dominated by white males.  Yet it was a strike which attracted the support of trade unionists as a whole, including in particular the local postal workers who blocked deliveries of post (on which the Grunwick business relied) in order to support their fellow workers.  Workers from all around the country came to picket. 

If in the end the strike was lost it was despite the courage and determination of the strikers and their supporters.  The ruling class, determined to smash the power of union organisation, devoted endless resources to defeat the strike.  And, as ever, the Labour Party, with its stranglehold on the official union movement, intervened on behalf of the ruling class to undermine working-class support for the strike.

Jayaben Desai remains nevertheless a powerful symbol of the power of the working class, of what can be achieved with courage, determination and organisation, and solidarity between all workers regardless of sex, race, nationality or religious belief. The strike with which she is so much identified lasted for almost two years, and its significance was so great that her name and the name of a small workplace in Brent, in north-west London, reached international attention.  She will be remembered by all who knew her with strong affection and respect, and hers will be forever a shining example and a source of great pride for the British working class.

Lalkar pays tribute to her courage, tenacity and leadership qualities, and even more to the role she played in such an important event in the history of the working-class movement in Britain. In tribute to Mrs Desai we print below an article which was published in the July/August 2006 issue of Lalkar to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike. Some of the references are dated, but the message it conveys is pertinent for the tasks of the working class today.


‘Old’ Labour’s betrayal of Grunwick

On the 23 August, 1976, heavy-handed management bullying and racial abuse led to two separate walkouts of six people at a photo-processing plant in Brent called Grunwick, leading to a strike that has since gone into working class folk history as one of the longest, bitterest strikes in Britain.  The six who walked out that day, Devshi Bhudia, Chandrakant Patel, Bharat Patel, Suresh Ruparelia, Sunil Desai and his mother (who came to personify the strike for many) Jayaben Desai, were not trade union members and had not even tried to organise the workforce prior to their own walkouts, but their anger at the injustices that they had met inside that plant decided them on a course of action that would thrust them into the spotlight of the world’s press.  Knowing little of trade unionism, they approached Brent Trades Council for assistance and were advised to join the white collar union APEX, which they did.  There followed an epic battle for trade union recognition and reinstatement of the strikers (many more joined the strike as the six set about persuading other workers to join them in struggle both from that plant and another nearby Grunwick plant that was run on the same lines).

The strike disproved some ‘popular’ myths, although it didn’t eradicate them, in the British labour movement.  As the workforce was mainly Asian (many were first generation immigrants), mainly women and with no history of trade union organisation, just the type of workforce that both management and the unions at that time (and, unfortunately, in many cases still) would write off as having no chance of putting up a ‘serious’ fight.  The Grunwick strikers did capture the hearts and imagination of many advanced workers, who responded magnificently to calls for mass pickets from the strikers, often in opposition to the wishes of the APEX leadership.  And such was the respect that the strikers earned, coupled with the level of class consciousness of some postal workers, that the staff at the Cricklewood sorting office twice put their own jobs on the line (much to the distress of their union leadership) in order to black the mail to Grunwick which depended for most of its work on the post.

The strike lasted from August 1976 until 14 July 1978, when the Strike Committee ended it succumbing finally to the united onslaught and betrayal of forces that pretended to be opposites but were shown up here (as in so many instances before and since) as fellow supporters of imperialism.  These ‘forces’ included on the one hand, the employer, the Conservative Party and National Association For Freedom (NAFF); while on the other hand we saw the Labour Government, all the forces of state power, the Labour Party (in spite of noises of support for the strikers from individual members) and the majority of trade union leaderships involved (the NUM being the outstanding exception) and, of course, the TUC itself.

It has been said that the role of NAFF was pivotal in the defeat of the strike; their high profile certainly spared the blushes of the social-democratic gentry of the Labour Party and TUC, who were doing far more to aid the employer than NAFF could ever do.  NAFF was formed in 1975 by a motley band of rightwing mavericks as a tribute to and a continuation of the ‘work’ of Norris McWhirter, who, after offering a £50,000 bounty for information on IRA soldiers responsible for actions in London was visited and executed by the IRA. Naff certainly knew their way around legal procedures and could rustle up people to scab, but they would have been insignificant without the aid of social-democracy.  When the postal workers blacked the mail, the Post Office, at that time still run by the government (‘old’ Labour), suspended workers, locked them out and allowed the employer to go in and collect their mail.   And it did this when the Special Patrol Group (SPG) were driving around in their vans, kidnapping strikers and pickets and giving them a beating, causing all kinds of provocations and leading police brutality against mass pickets, when ‘ordinary’ police were wading into pickets and coming straight out of the Grunwick canteen to launch their attacks.  All this could have been stopped by the Labour Government, all of it was in their control; with just a word the Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, could have stopped the involvement of the SPG, could have stopped the open collusion between the local police and the employer.  The Post Office management could not have taken the action that it did without a ‘nod’ from the ‘old’ Labour Government.  The trade union leaders who tried every trick in the book to lead the strikers down the path of ‘token’ pickets and putting faith in the law, who pulled all kinds of tricks to thwart the strikers even to the extent of cutting/suspending strike pay and threatening to take away the strike’s ‘official’ status if mass pickets were not ended, who put pressure on other workers, such as those postal workers at Cricklewood, not to take any action that would be of genuine benefit to the strikers, showed that they had the interests of the current political system at heart.  They could have taken the government on; it was after all supposed to be their government, remember this was before what is commonly called ‘New’ Labour and what many on the so-called left are striving to get back to.    Social-democracy within the trade unions as with the Labour Party was more scared of a workers’ victory than the employer’s.

There are of course parallels that can be drawn between this dispute and others since.   The Hillingdon Hospital dispute springs to mind when another mainly female, mainly Asian, workforce fought their employer, their union (Unison) and a Labour Government and were certainly betrayed by the latter two.  Also the current Gate Gourmet dispute carries the same hallmarks.  It is interesting to note that Jack Dromey, Assistant General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), who as Secretary of Brent Trades Council during the Grunwick dispute wrote a book Grunwick: The Workers’ Story to oppose the book written by George Ward the owner of Grunwick, now finds himself in the position of helping stab those Gate Gourmet workers in the back – such is the role that following the path of social-democracy leads one to.

The racism that is stirred up in the press on behalf of the Labour Government against immigrants helps to undermine support from other workers, but the whole ideology of social-democracy that permeates the British Labour movement is the real problem for all workers regardless of colour or nationality.  One only has to look at the case of the Liverpool Dockers, mainly male, mainly white and with years of trade union experience behind them, to see that Labour (old, new or any other label they may choose to tag on) as a party in or out of Government, the trade union leaders both within individual unions and the TUC, are there to keep the lid on our resistance and must be challenged.  Social-democracy has its champions on the so-called left in the guise of Trotskyism and revisionism, who will always try to muddy the water, always try to offer a ‘leftwing’ reason for supporting the Labour Party; these supporters of imperialism in revolutionary clothing must also be challenged and shown up for what they are.  There is a mountain to climb in Britain, but if we can expose all the racism (and the need for racism) of social-democracy; if we can break the masses away from the poison of social-democracy by breaking them away from the Labour Party; if we can challenge and destroy those anti-union laws that the Labour Party and the trade union leaderships cling to for dear life; and at the same time fight and show up the Trots and revisionists as revolutionary sounding charlatans; we will have taken a step up that mountain.  To refuse these necessary tasks is to come to the assistance of imperialism; which is quite happy for us to keep going around in circles following the sirens of social-democracy.  It is time to choose.

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