Jayaben Desai and 'strikers in saris': 40 years later, an exhibition marks iconic Grunwick strike
The 40th anniversary of the Grunwick strike, in which (mostly) East African Asian women picketed for over two years for better pay, work conditions, is the subject of a new exhibition in London
The summer of 1976 was a particularly hot one in London. In the mail order department of the Grunwick film processing unit, Jayaben Desai worked in a room without air-conditioning. The hours were long, the pay low. Just when she was about to leave, her supervisor informed her that she would have to stay back, put in overtime.
That demand by her boss would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jayaben decided that she’d had enough; told her colleagues — mostly immigrant women of colour, just like her — that they had to express their protest, informed her supervisor that she was staging a walkout, and then proceeded to do just that.
The next morning, Jayaben was picketing outside the Grunwick premises. Her son Sunil (who was also employed at Grunwick) had joined her, as had a few other workmates. Soon others joined in. It was the start of a strike that lasted two years and changed the face of the trade unions in Britain.
At first glance, it seems unlikely that this diminutive woman (she stood only 4’10”) who was born in Gujarat in 1933, married and moved to Tanzania in the ‘50s, before finally making her home in the UK, could have spearheaded one of the biggest workers’ strikes of its kind in England. And yet, that’s just what she did.
With the help of the Apex trade union, she took on the establishment — in this case, her employers at Grunwick, the government (that wanted the strike to be quickly disbanded), and even the Trades Union Congress itself.
The images of the ‘strikers in saris’ (as the group of East African Asian immigrant women at the core of the movement) captured the imagination of the public, thanks to the TV coverage and newspaper reportage on the issue, especially when the clashes between the workers and the police grew violent. August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the strike, and is being commemorated in the form of an exhibition at the Brent Museum, called Grunwick 40. The milestone also coincided with Jayaben being named to the BBC Woman’s Hour Power List in December.
Sujata Aurora, the chair of Grunwick 40, spoke to Firstpost about the exhibition and its significance.
“There’s always been a tradition in the local area, where this happened, of marking important anniversaries. This year, we had a very ambitious plan (in the form of the exhibition),” she said.
“After 40 years, a lot of the residents hadn’t heard the story or didn’t understand the relevance. So this was a way of looking back on history to see what we could learn from it today.”
The exhibition draws on not just archival material, but also photos, letters written by the strike committee, minutes of the meetings where strategies for the strike would be discussed, the posters and flyers that were made all over the country by those supporting the picketers. Government files that had been previously kept secret, but journalists had uncovered in recent years, also provided a rich mine of new information.
The challenge was that many of the people involved in the strike were not around anymore, or were elderly and infirm (Jayaben Desai herself passed away in 2010). The Grunwick 40 team managed to track down 10 of the original strikers. Apart from this, several supporters of the strike reached out to the team over the past year, to record their memories. Pointing out that this task would have been well-nigh impossible had the team decided to wait another decade and commemorate say, the 50th anniversary of Grunwick, Sujata Aurora said, “At times we find that history is written in a way that doesn’t ‘centre’ the people at the heart of it. So we wanted to bring out the strikers’ accounts rather than the establishment or trade unions'.”
And at the heart of this account was the figure of Jayaben, who Aurora described as “a very tenacious woman”: “She was quite witty and had a turn of phrase… many of which would go on to become aphorisms for the trade union. Jayaben inspired a personal loyalty among the strikers which no doubt helped keep them going during a tough two years.”
Jayaben's power with words is very evident when you consider one of her most quoted exchanges — what she told her supervisor before walking out of Grunwick and beginning the strike:
"What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."
Grunwick wasn’t the first strike by migrant workers. But it was first so highly visible one. “The image of these Asian women in saris with their trade union armbands, standing on a picket line, broadcast on TV — it changed people’s perceptions of how Asian women could be seen. They were supposed to be ‘passive, meek, submissive’ — and Jayaben challenged that idea,” said Aurora.
There was also the fact that trade unions themselves weren’t immune to the racism that existed in the rest of Britain. Which was one reason why the problems of migrant workers had been ignored in the past. With Jayaben, that changed and white unionists were picketing alongside their immigrant comrades. The strike itself — after two years — may not have met with success, but it achieved something intangible and wide-reaching.
Forty years after Jayaben first exhorted her colleagues to leave that sweltering workroom and join her on a picket fence, the Grunwick strike seems more relevant than ever in modern Britain, feels Sujata Arora. “We find ourselves in the midst of a very poisonous political debate over migrants in this country,” she said. “For those who think, ‘Migrant workers depress our wages,’ Grunwick is a reminder that they have been at the forefront of fighting for better pay, conditions. Migrant labour is not here just to be exploited — it has value not just to the economy but also to the working class.”
Watch a short film on the Grunwik strike and Jayaben Desai here:
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