Xenophobic racism, legitimised by the political classes, obscures points of solidarity between working class Britons and migrants
“A person like me, I am never scared of anybody”, Jayaben Desai told her manager before leading a mass walk-out of the Grunwick film processing plant in north-west London in the summer of 1976. Through sheer determination and hardwork Desai began a strike of migrant workers that would quickly gather momentum, attention and hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Simply remembering this strike can feel like an act of defiance in a country that is quickly recovering its appetite for imperial nostalgia (one it never really lost) through an aggressive, stereotype-laden anti-migrant politics. And over four decades since this groundbreaking strike rose and fell, there’s a lot it can teach us about the importance of solidarity in places where it can seem impossible – a vital lesson when employers are trampling on workers’ rights and people on low pay are being pitted against one another.
“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals”, Desai told her manager. “Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions”. With these fierce words, Desai began a two-year-long strike that was of symbolic significance.
At the time (and not dissimilar from now) people of colour were typically paid less then their white colleagues, and thanks to the racism that pervaded these institutions they were often ignored by the trade unions. So it was surprising that by June 1977 there were regular marches in support of the Grunwick strikers; thousands of people from across the trade union movement joined the women who were mostly of Indian descent. Those that joined them included the National Union of Miners, Arthur Scargill’s white trade unionists, whose racial prejudices were directly questioned ,and on one occasion three Labour government ministers. The migrant workers who had laid down their tools went from being non-unionised, due to the plant’s staunch anti-unionisation laws, and exploited on a daily basis to leading a mass movement.
Sadly the strike ended with something of a whimper two years later when the TUC and Apex (the factor worker’s union) disappointingly withdrew their support. Nevertheless, this remains a determining moment for the British labour movement. It drew attention to the overlooked plight of female migrant workers, highlighted that it was possible to form bonds between the white and minority ethnic trade unionists and, crucially, it proved wrong the stereotype – which still exists today – that Asian women are shy and submissive.
That’s why the project Grunwick 40 is so important. To commemorate the events that began in that long hot 70’s summer, this group has set up an exhibition at Brent Museum. Using exclusive archival material, Grunwick 40 pays tribute to this historical strike and the tenacious women who led it.
People of colour are regularly written out of the UK’s national memory. In stark defiance of this reality, Grunwick 40 combats the well entrenched historical amnesia. Quite clearly the ghost of empire clings to the sense of pride embodied in the vote for Brexit; if Britain shakes off the shackles of Europe it can be “great again”. Whitewashed from this supposedly glorious imperial past are the colonialists who globalised racism and the way racial hierarchies lingered on in the UK (as evidenced by wage disparities) when the empire was no longer.
We have much to learn from Grunwick, one of the most impressive trade union strikes in UK history. The solidarity that Desai worked for – the white trade unionists coming out in support of minority ethnic women from across different trades – didn’t materialise out of nowhere, nor has it always stood the test of time. The working classes are largely assumed to be white and xenophobic racism, legitimised by the political classes, obscures points of solidarity between working class Britons and migrants. In the post-Brexit Britain climate, some EU migrants are now even turning their back on the label “migrant” that’s been turned toxic by politicians. This, academic Akwugo Emejulu has pointed out, would just throw other categories of migrants under the bus. With right-wing nationalistic politics growing in strength, the temptation to save yourself might be overwhelming. But it would be misguided. One way to combat this? Recapture the solidarity of the Grunwick strike.
The Gate Gourmet strike in 2005 did just that. People of colour, working for a company that provides food for British Airways under an outsourcing agreement, fought back against changes to their contracts. Breaking the second picket law, which bans other workers from joining the picket, baggage handlers joined them, shutting down the Heathrow airport for two days food.
Migrants and working class Britons have a lot in common. They continue to be exploited; whether a teaching assistant in Durham, the countless numbers of people working in the service sector or the thousands of migrants in low-paid, unsafe and exploitative work across the country, their lives are marked by insecurity and economic anxiety. It is possible to resist and it is far more effective when it’s done together.
Of course much has changed since the 1970s and even since 2005: zero hours contracts are on the rise; the government is perniciously cracking down on trade unions and membership of these vital organisations has declined. And crucially current trade union laws mean different unions can’t take action together. But that doesn’t mean strikes can’t be held at the same time.
The Grunwick strike is edifying; it shows that solidarity need know no racial, national or industry bounds. The government and right-wing press are intent on pitting people at the bottom of the economic chain against one another. They tell us to blame migrants for stealing jobs and houses and to condemn people on benefits – most of whom are in work that simply doesn’t pay enough to live on – for scrounging off the state. To fight back, it’s time people united and found and became the lions that Desai spoke of to her manager 40 years ago.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow