THE BLOG

Looking Back On Grunwick

03/03/2017 12:15 GMT | Updated 03/03/2017 12:15 GMT

The strike for union recognition at Grunwick Film Processing, which started in August 1976, signified both the apotheosis of trade union solidarity and nadir of British pluralist industrial relations in the 1970s.

It began as a little noticed dispute of "strikers in saris" and stayed that way for twelve months, eventually prompting massive media coverage when sympathisers joined a campaign of mass picketing in the summer of 1977.

Eventually, trade unionists from every sector of UK employment rallied to the cause of an exploited group of Asian workers facing an employer rejecting what most people regarded as basic, decent conditions. Having walked out in protest, the workers were sacked and all attempts to gain their reinstatement met with implacable resistance.

By any yardstick, it was an episode of extraordinary industrial conflict. Protagonists included the Labour Government and liberal establishment urging consensus; while a wooden and inflexible management were egged on by right wing elements gathering confidence as the months passed.

In the middle were the strikers, supported locally by Brent Trades Council (comprising voluntary activists and only loosely connected with the official trade union movement). Through some serendipitous route, the strikers became members of the moderate union, APEX, rarely known to strike in anger. It was the most unlikely of scenarios.

At the time I was working as a London Area Organiser of APEX, and while I was inevitably drawn in to help I was never in the driving seat. Indeed, it is a good question to ask, "who was in the driving seat?"

Arguably the union, at least formally, but local presence on the ground often carried more sway and the dispute became a cause celebre' drawing support from many disparate elements.

Some observers, including the former TUC General Secretary Lionel Murray, believe this was a fatal mistake, but they have never explained how a lower profile might have succeeded, when it had failed so conspicuously for twelve months.

In so many ways this dispute was unvisited territory. Strikes were relatively rare in APEX and unofficial disputes virtually unheard of. I recall heated discussions in the office where some of my colleagues suffered crises of doubt. Emotionally they were there but it seemed boarding on anarchic, in contrast to their cautious, constitutional default-instincts.

In a way it was remarkable that the strike happened at all. The strikers were not APEX members at the outset but recruited to the union as they stood outside the factory gate. They were a group of tyro protesters, ill-prepared for any kind of campaign and with no idea of what they had committed themselves to.

Moving from such unpromising beginnings to command media attention for weeks on end and win the support of the whole trade union movement, was no mean achievement.

A key factor was the marginalised position of the strikers and their position in British society.

They represented the tip of an iceberg of unprotected ethnic minority workers. It was to the credit of APEX that it opened its arms to them - after all, they had not previously paid a penny in union dues.

With hindsight though, the union's generous motives were skewered by a misplaced faith in the power of liberal, pluralist institutions facing a rapacious anti-union culture and rejecting consensual notions.

Until then the UK trade union movement had made little impact on Asian workers. Many worked in ghettos of iniquity, where language barriers and weak regulation allowed shameful conditions to prevail.

The unions were largely male and white. London dockers, to their eternal shame, had marched in sympathy with Enoch Powell's inflammatory "rivers of blood" racist speech in 1968. The official movement was not similarly tarred but its anti-racist credentials were lacking at this point.

For many months the strikers sat and stood around, trying ineffectually to stop people and goods going in and out of the factories. Vainly we drew attention to the scandalous impasse of their situation.

At length they had no normal recourse. Their employer rejected overtures from ACAS, the legal establishment (in a court of enquiry) the local council, Members of Parliament and innumerable others.

Through all this, the strikers patiently waited, conspicuous in their saris, playing on the consciences of onlookers, contrasting their own humility with the perfidy of their sweatshop employer.

For me, it was closer to home than others knew. As a former teacher, I had taught physics to pupils in a local school, including (it transpired) the Secretary of the Strike Committee, Mahmood Ahmed.

I remembered him as one of many, arriving with their parents to join the queue outside the headmaster's door, wearing his Ugandan school blazer and seeking a place as a refugee from the African dictator Idi Amin.

Grunwick's owner, George Ward (himself an Anglo-Indian) found in these Asians a compliant and cheap form of labour. Bullying and harsh treatment were their everyday experience; sackings and humiliation the daily regime. Women were not permitted to attend ante-natal appointments. Permission had to be sought to visit the toilet.

After the strike began, with no experience of unions, the strikers turned to the local Trades Council, whose secretary Jack Dromey (now a Birmingham MP) worked close by. They joined APEX, a claim for recognition was submitted and the workers were promptly sacked for their pains.

Over months hundreds of chemists' shops were contacted to discourage the collection of films for Grunwick. Requests were sent to workers in other unions to stem the supply of chemicals and materials used in processing the films. Efforts were made to withdraw essential services to the Grunwick factories but none of this changed the mind of the employer.

By now the company was being advised by an anti-union organisation, the National Association for Freedom and George Ward was if anything, even more implacable in his stance.

Questions were raised in Parliament. Labour MPs including Cabinet members attended the picket line to show solidarity with the sacked workers, but none of this made an impression.

A new legal procedure to deal with union recognition claims through the newly created ACAS was initiated, but the company used every delaying tactic in the book in the knowledge that time was on their side. Employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal were filed, but these failed because a legal loophole allowed wholesale dismissals of strikers en masse. Our collective trade union rights had more holes than a colander, it seemed.

Hence, after more than a year, the dispute was catapulted into the news by weeks of sensational mass picketing, mostly organised by the "unofficial trade union movement," through networks of shop stewards and activists up and down the country.

I was little more than as fly on the wall, but from where I stood, the APEX leadership was a novice surfer on a giant tsunami, never in control and sitting on something that felt more like a revolution than a strike.

A court of enquiry led by Lord Scarman, supported the strikers and urged settlement of their claims but none of this moved the implacable Grunwick management.

Injunctions were sought against public sector workers who were effectively choking off mail deliveries and threatening to cut off the company's water supplies. Hundreds of pickets were arrested, accusations made of police harassment of strikers and in the background the sinister National Association for Freedom lurked, collaborating with the police in ensuring that George Ward, walked away victorious.

At the time, the Grunwick defeat was a blow, not just for the strikers who were left without jobs, but for the British trade union movement and the Labour Government's new law, the Employment Protection Act 1975. Discovery that a small employer like Grunwick could thumb his nose to the legisation was a major embarrassment.

The election of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Government in 1979, used the Grunwick dispute as a pretext for new restrictive rules on picketing and the repeal of the flawed union recognition process, without replacing it in any form. There were no winners - not on the union side anyway.

Whilst the Grunwick strike went down as a "glorious defeat," the unions' attempted defence of vulnerable migrant workers expressed values that had hitherto not been voiced. If it achieved anything, the strike sent a message that unions were not just white, male bastions in the UK and that whoever they were, whatever their ethnicity or colour, "solidarity" meant something.

An exhibition is showing archive material of the Grunwick Strike, is showing at Willesden Green Library until the 2nd April 2017. A video of the Strike can be obtained from the Secretary of Brent Trades Council, pete.firmin@btinternet.com . Grunwick 40 is a programme of events during 2016 and 2017.

Chris Ball

@crystal_balls