Working Class Heroines #3: Jayaben Desai

Oh crap. I said I was going to do one of these a week, and we’re eight weeks into 2015 and I’ve done… two of them. I wouldn’t mind, but people have seemed to like these and so I’m really aware I’ve missed out on some potential ego-polishing.

Anyway, on with this. This week I am writing about Jayaben Desai, who led a strike, changed perceptions and was promptly dealt a ton of crap and prejudice for her trouble.

6w1iJ2HH2bOMgLqi6jqEiYnpOReRUSAKovQtraXbkt8What happened?
Jayaben was born in India in 1933, and defied authority from a young age, becoming involved in the independence movement as a young student. When she married, her husband moved to England and she, with two young children in tow, moved after him, arriving in the winter of 1967.

A qualified tailor, she was confident of finding work in the clothing industry, but was held back by a massively and unashamedly racist society. After a few years working part-time in a sweatshop, she got a full-time job in the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in Willesden, a workplace known for taking on Asian women as they could get away with paying them a pittance.

Conditions there were similar to the ones I wrote about Clara Lemlich suffering. Strict rules meant the women had to ask to go to the toilet and were made to feel ashamed of doing so. Forced overtime was common and they were expected to work long hours without breaks, or talking to one another. When on one baking hot day in 1976, one manager told them off for “chattering like monkeys – this isn’t a zoo!” Jayaben exploded.

“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 the lions, Mr. Manager.”

She promptly walked out on strike, and 100 of her fellow workers, inspired by her fiery nature and turn of phrase, followed her. Pointed in the direction of APEX trade union by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, they joined up. For the two bloody years they maintained a steady picket, protesting against the horrible conditions and low pay, as well as the institutionalised racism and sexism of the managers.

Most of the firm’s business came from holiday snaps sent in by post, and the strike was almost won when the local sorting office starting refusing their mail in solidarity. This, however, was called off thanks to an intervention in the high court backed by a lovely woman called Margaret Thatcher.

After that, defeat looked inevitable, but Mrs Desai wasn’t ready to give up. She took the matter to a strike committee, who went out to over 1000 workplaces across the country, from factories to mines. Huge battalions of organised workers, students and feminist groups started arriving at the picket. Their cause was given further voice almost a year after the original walk out, when the police heavy-handedly arrested 87 of 100 protesters who’d turned up.

Jayaben went “on tour” to spread the word about what had happened.

The following Friday, 1300 turned up.

A few weeks later 20,000 marched on the factory.

At this point, the Labour government realised they had to pull their finger out and  do something. They persuaded the union to agree to a court of enquiry to resolve the dispute. The TUC were confident this would work – no employer had ever gone against a government recommendation, which in this case turned out to be reinstatement and union recognition.

The Grunwick bosses did, raising eyebrows at the time of trade unionists who saw stirrings of a new, violently-anti union attitude amongst both the managers and the state.  APEX nevertheless withdrew their support from the pickets, as did the TUC. *Slow hand clap*. Jayaben and members of the strike committee went on hunger strike in protest, but to no avail. After another bitter winter on the picket lines, the strikers conceded defeat in July 1978.

So what was the point of it all?
As Jack Dromey MP, who sat on the strike committee at the time, recalls:

Defiant to the end, Jayaben told the final meeting of the strikers that they could be proud. “We have shown,” she said, “that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” Only 10 years previously, dockers had marched in support of the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, and workforces had polarised along racial lines at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Nottinghamshire and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester.

In the hugely racist and sexist society which had seen Jayaben only able to find work in sweatshops and denied proper housing, she had mobilised thousands of people to march in support of Asian women. The Grunwick strike was one of the first challenges to the idea – still perpetuated today – that immigrant workers could and should work for less than British ones.

Jayaben hadn’t just defied 1970s Britain to do this, she’d defied union bosses. The tours and visits to workplaces she and the rest of the strike committee had made were a result of paid union officers failing to give them the attention and support they needed. Instead of seeking support from union leaders, Jayaben went to those they were leading: “rank-and-file” members, ordinary working people, who defied expectations by mobilising themselves. It had been the biggest action in British labour history, all in support of less than 200 workers.

What can we learn from Jayaben today?
Apart from the general lesson we can learn from all of the women I’ve written about that great things can be achieved against the odds, there are two things.

Firstly, the thing which should be fairly obvious to anyone who’s not a massive dickhead bigot: that immigrant workers and/or workers of colour should never be paid less than their white British counterparts. It’s an obvious lesson but one I’ve put in here because at the moment there are lots of pricks like Nigel Farage who disagree.

Secondly, the thing which is perhaps not so obvious unless you’re a seasoned activist: that the “leaders” of any movement are more than capable of making massive mistakes and being absolute arseholes.

Bosses at APEX and the TUC, if they’d carried on supporting the strike, could have forced Grunwick to abide by the terms of the government recommendations. This could arguably have prevented or at least stemmed the gradual chipping away at union rights which the next two decades were to see. Instead they caved in, leaving not just Jayaben and her 200 comrades disheartened, but the tens of thousands who’d supported them feeling likewise.

If you don’t believe, in your gut, that what you’re being told by those “helping” you with your activism, by those “leading” your movement, by those writing the books which inform your opinions, then just don’t bloody believe it. Don’t follow rich and powerful people without questioning, even if they’re leading movements you believe in to your bones. Follow people like Jayaben Desai. Put your faith in lions, not their keepers.

Some bits about Jayaben:
A comic about the Grunwick dispute
Her obituary, written by her friend Jack Dromey (her health detoriated after the strike, possibly due to the hungerstrike the TUC had forced her into)
Amrit Wilson’s memories of Mrs Desai in Red Pepper.


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