Meera Syal: Grunwick strikers “gave us the courage to fight to be heard”

Jayaben Desai led the industrial action
Jayaben Desai led the industrial action

The legacy of the gutsy Grunwick strikers who defied stereotypes and marched out of a factory to the picket line over poor working conditions, was celebrated at the launch of an exhibition containing memorabilia from the 70s.

The “strikers in saris” as they were referred to in the press, led by Jayaben Desai who arrived in the UK from Tanzania, walked out of the Grunwick film processing plant in Willesden, northwest London in 1976.

To mark the 40th anniversary year of the protest, the project We Are The Lions, featuring an original strike banner inspired by Russian constructivism, tells the story of the demonstrators who sparked a national movement. It attracted up to 20,000 supporters at its peak, and lasted an arduous two years.

Several surviving members of the movement attended the launch at Brent Museum in Willesden Green library, last Tuesday (18).

Actress and author Meera Syal paid tribute to the courageous men and women, some of whom went on hunger strike to fight for their rights. Speaking directly to them, Syal said: “I want you to know that for all of us kids who were growing up in this country feeling we didn’t have a voice, that we were victims, that we weren’t represented, to see you on that picket line gave us so much pride in who we were and gave us the courage to go on and fight to be heard in this country. You truly are a part of our history and I feel incredibly honoured… and very privileged to remember that history and celebrate you, so thank you from the little brown girl in the Midlands.”

Lakshiben Patel was one of the women who downed tools in solidarity with Desai. At the launch last week, she told Eastern Eye that workers in the plant who were paid £28 for working a 35-hour week, had to ask permission to go to the toilet, and were sometimes refused holiday days.

Patel said many strikers eventually went back to the factory because they were offered more money.

However, Desai was determined to secure the best possible deal and better conditions for her co-workers and wanted the right to join a trade union.

She became a member of the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (Apex). Eventually, as word spread, the Grunwick strikers gained support from the entire trade union movement. They showed their solidarity by travelling from as far as Newcastle in coach loads to join Desai at the picket line, often clashing with the police.

Despite her perseverance, however, Desai’s union was unable to secure a deal for the staff. The mother of three resorted to going on hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress, which she accused of betrayal in 1978.

Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown interviewed Jayaben during the strike action in the 70s.

Speaking to Eastern Eye at the event, she revealed how Desai was perceived in the community.

“She was an incredible woman and because I spoke Gujarati as well, we developed a real rapport. These women had never worked before. They had cushy lives in Africa, then they come here and they have to work and then this happens.

Lakshmiben Patel joined the strike in the 70s

“That to me is the interesting thing – this is a completely different world and they must have had such resilience.

“She [Desai] was very funny. I remember she said to me, ‘you girls, you marry for love and the only way to go is down. We have arranged marriages, the only way to go is up.’ She’s so right.

“I think we are much less resilient today. Everybody disappointed her, the Labour party, the unions, other Asians who said the strikers were giving them a bad name. There wasn’t as much support for them in the community as we are now saying. They were upturning community values as much as standing up for community.”

Even though Desai was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving what she had set out to, Alibhai-Brown said she believed that things had changed and the strikers would be remembered.

Sujata Aurora, who was involved in the anniversary project, said the themes of the exhibition were even more relevant today, in a dark time of increasing hostility towards immigrants.

“Empire and immigration, racism and women’s rights, unity and solidarity, leadership and betrayal, these are not ossified histories. They are not abstract ideas. These are values and experiences that we still live to- day,” she said.

We Are The Lions, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is on at Brent Museum in Willesden Green library until March 26 before going on tour.