Grunwick strikers return to Willesden as exhibition of historic fight opens

Jack Dromey MP with striker Laxmi Ben Patel and Sunil Desai at the Grunwick Exhibition Pic credit:

Jack Dromey MP with striker Laxmi Ben Patel and Sunil Desai at the Grunwick Exhibition Pic credit: Jonathan Goldberg - Credit: Archant

Key participants of Dollis Hill’s most iconic strike have seen powerful memories return at an opening exhibition to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Dawn Butler MP and Meera Syal

Dawn Butler MP and Meera Syal - Credit: Archant

Sunil Desai, walked out of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in Chapter Road, with his mother Jayaben Desai in August 1976.

It was the start of a two year Grunwick strike where, at its height, more than 20,000 people came out to support the predominantly Asian workers dubbed the ‘strikers in saris’.

He was joined at the exhibition in Willesden Library in the High Road by fellow strikers, Jack Dromey MP, a trade unionist at the time, Dawn Butler MP and celebrities such as comedian Meera Syal.

The 60-year-old said: “It was wonderful to see all those people after so many years. This event and celebration goes to show it was a major happening all those years ago and can still inspire people.

The 20-year-old Mr Desai was a temporary summer worker at the factory where his mother was like the majority of permanent workers - a middle-aged, Asian female.

He said: “The management were not conducive to providing humane treatment. There was compulsory overtime, they monitored people marching up and down behind them, employees had to put their hand up to go to the toilet which pregnant women were chastised for, it was very unfair and inhumane.

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“It reached a flashpoint when my mother was being chastised for something, you could see aggressive posturing from her manager clearly using aggressive language.”

The two of them walked out and he spent the first weekend putting together placards to “start the strike officially.”

Mr Desai returned to university in America after two months while permanent staff continued to wage their war for another two years: “The unions failed, they sold out. They negotiated a settlement with the then Labour government and called off the strike.

“The top bosses went for what they wanted. The strikers staged a hunger strike but ultimately there was no point if there was no longer a union.

“Although it wasn’t a win, it was much more important for the women involved to be seen for what and who they were.

Social activists can look at this movement and what happened, whether abuses they see are racially motivated, against minorities, women’s rights, they can use this as a point of study. I’m hopeful nothing like that happens again.”

Mr Dromey said: “It was a deeply moving experience to return to where I was born and brought up to commemorate the remarkable heroism of the overwhelmingly immigrant workforce treated shamefully by a sweatshop employer.

The stand the Grunwick women took was the biggest mobilisation in Labour movement history. In support of the local dispute, on one day alone, July 11, 1977, 20,000 workers came to Grunwick to show their solidarity.

“There was a lot of hugging on the night, there’s an enduring bond of love between us all. They are wonderful people and the best in our country. It was deeply, deeply moving.”

Sujata Aurora, chairwoman of the Grunwick organising group, said: “It was a fantastic evening and an absolute honour to have some of the original Grunwick strikers there. They were an inspiration forty years ago and they continue to be an inspiration to us today.

“The exhibition was very well received on the night. It will be running until the end of March 2017. There plenty of time for people to come and learn about this incredible event that happened in Willesden and had reverberations all around the country.”

Brent Museum and Archives, Willesden Library, 95 High Road. Open 9am-8pm weekdays, 10am-5pm weekends

Entry is free.