THE GRUNWICK STRIKE

Jayaben on the picket line Courtesy TUC Library Collections. London Metropolitan University
Jayaben on the picket line Courtesy TUC Library Collections. London Metropolitan University

Jayaben on the picket line Courtesy TUC Library Collections. London Metropolitan University
Jayaben on the picket line Courtesy TUC Library Collections. London Metropolitan University

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"We are the Lions, Mr. Manager"–         

The Grunwick Strike and Gujarati Women                                             

1976 was the hottest summer in years. At the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Willesden the workers went on strike.  A large number of them were women of South Asian origin. The strike was led by Jayaben Desai, a migrant of Gujarati origin from East Africa. The strike lasted two years and was eventually called off as the official trade unions stopped supporting the workers.

 

Amrit Wilson, who knew Jayaben personally, describes the reasons for the strike:

 'The factory had glass cabins on both sides, through which the management could keep a close eye on the workers, pushing them to work faster and faster, while threatening them with dismissal if they failed to keep up. Sick leave was unheard of, and the women had to ask permission even to go to the toilet.'

She describes Jayaben and her dispute with the managers:

'On the day when the workers walked out, the line manager had compared Jayaben and her colleagues to ‘chattering monkeys’. She famously replied: "What you are running here 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 the lions, Mr. Manager."'

Quoted from: “We are the lions, Mr. Manager” - Revisiting the Great Grunwick Strike | Ceasefire Magazine

 

Though the strike was not successful the management had to make concessions regarding pensions, salaries and working conditions. The real victory was that it challenged the stereotype of the ‘passive’ Asian woman and confronted inequality and racism in the workplace. Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010, is widely regarded as a remarkable woman, who fought for workers’ rights in Brent.