Banners, the first objects visitors will see in ‘Disobedient Objects’, are an integral part of many generations’ images of protest. In this post, Dr. Evan Smith explores the Gurnwick strike and discusses the banner featured in our forthcoming exhibition.
Defend The Right To Strike: The Grunwick Strike & Banner
On 23 August, 1976, a group of six South Asian workers went on strike outside the Grunwick Photo Processing Laboratories in North London. An unplanned decision to strike over long-running disagreements with management over work conditions and mandatory overtime in turn led to one of the longest strikes in British history, as well as becoming a turning point in British race relations and the history of the trade union movement.
Soon after the initial group went on strike, others in the factory joined them on strike and after a few days, most of the predominantly South Asian and female workforce was picketing outside the plant. Unrepresented by a trade union at this stage, the striking workers sought help from the local Brent Trades Council and applied to join APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff), the white collar union related to the photo-processing industry.
However the owner of Grunwick’s, George Ward, was a resolute character and refused to accept that the striking workers could be represented by APEX. When the case was referred to the industrial relations body, ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), Ward rejected any of the body’s recommendations. Ward’s refusal led to an inquiry into the strike by Lord Scarman (who later presided over the inquiry into the Brixtion Riots in 1981) – all the time the strike went on.
As Ward’s dismissal of the striking workers’ claims became widely known, the strike became a lightning rod for different aspects of British society, looking to stake a claim in the crisis years of the mid-1970s. On the side of the striking workers, the National Union of Mineworkers (led by the infamous Arthur Scargill) and the Trades Union Congress both lent their support, bringing a massive amount of picketers down to London, joined by several Labour MPs in the early days of the strike, as well as the revolutionary groups of the far left. On the other side was the neo-liberal think-tank National Association for Freedom (NAFF), individual Tories and the fascist far right group, the National Front. In between these two clashing sides was the police, who were often involved in clashes with picketers and other protestors, with the Grunwick site becoming infamous for the deployment of the paramilitary Special Patrol Group. The SPG became well-known for its tactics in putting down acts of public disorder (learnt from Northern Ireland) and Grunwick, along with Southall in 1979, St Paul’s in 1980 and Brixton in 1981, where the SPG aggressively applied these tactics.
The involvement of the major trade unions and other figures of the British labour movement in the strike at Grunwick was a turning point for the trade unions and for British race relations history. Going back to 1965, there had been several strikes by South Asian workers (Red Scar Mill in Preston, Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters in Loughborough) which had been ignored or openly denigrated by the trade unions, but at Grunwick, this was the first time that the British labour movement lent its full weight to a strike by South Asian workers. Some black activists, such as A. Sivanandan in Race & Class, argued that the involvement of the trade unions was not necessarily all positive, with the tendency of the unions to focus on the issue of Ward recognising APEX as the representative union at Grunwick and overlook the racial discrimination faced by the striking workers.
Just as crucially important was that the strike was being led by Jayaben Desai, a South Asian woman who had been forcibly emigrated to the UK from Tanzania in the early 1970s, and the picket was a show of strength of many other South Asian women who had worked under poor conditions at Grunwick. Many employers favoured South Asian women because they were deemed to be meek, submissive and unwilling to complain about poor work conditions and low pay. However the strike at Grunwick demonstrated that this view of South Asian women was false and many women were vocal in their anger on the picket line.
Using a contemporary term, it seems obvious that the strike at Grunwick was intersectional – where issues of class, race and gender were all present and interconnected. Graham Taylor, a member of the Brent Trades Council’s Executive Committee, wrote at the time:
The Grunwick strike is the focus for many different issues and struggles. For trade unionists it is a struggle for trade-union recognition; some fix on police brutality; feminists point to the oppression of female workers; while democrats denounce gross violations of the human rights to work, to speak freely and to associate. To many, Grunwick is part of the struggle against racialism and imperialism… Others regard the racial aspect as minimal and rally behind a simple class struggle by the under-paid. It is the importance of the Grunwick Strike that it embraces all these issues.
While the Grunwick strike was celebrated for bringing diverse elements of the British workforce together, the strike itself was ultimately unsuccessful. Because Ward continually dismissed ACAS’ recommendations and denied the unionization of his workforce, the strike ran out of steam and on 14 July, 1978, the strike was called off under unclear circumstances.
The banner by two South Asian workers at the factory is an interesting representation of the Grunwick strike. The banner mentions APEX (the main union involved), but also mentions the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). The Secretary of the Brent Trades Council, Jack Dromey, was a member of the TGWU and there had been an earlier dispute at the plant in 1973 when Ward has fired workers for joining this union, but they were not the main union involved in the latter dispute. The banner reflects the widespread demand of the strike to ‘defend the right to strike’ (which was seen under threat in the mid-1970s as the political stock of Margaret Thatcher and her supporters began to rise). But as mentioned above, this demand was seen by some to be dismissive of the racial aspects of the dispute. The banner is also quite remarkable in its design. Unlike many trade union banners, this banner seems to have its inspiration in the modernist art of the early 20th century. Whether it was intentional, the banner does have a similar look to the 1919 Russian constructivist piece, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, which was used by the Red Wedge musical collective in the lead-up to Labour’s 1987 election campaign.