In September this year, two murals were unveiled in Willesden, north west London to mark the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick strike. They are the first pieces of public art marking a collective struggle involving South Asian women* in the UK.
How, it should be asked, can this be so, when there has been a significant South Asian presence in Britain since the 17th century? Other than a small bust of Noor Inayat Khan who worked for Britain as a secret agent during World War Two, there is no marker of our presence or contribution.
In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign brought attention to how our streets and public spaces, as well as our institutions of learning, are filled with historical monuments, statues and artworks celebrating imperialist exploitation and subjugation. Colonial criminals such as Clive of India, Lord Mountbatten and Sir Henry Havelock are venerated in the public realm while the movements that challenged and defeated them are invisible. In raising the demand for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford, Rhodes Must Fall initiated a valuable debate about the decolonisation of public spaces. The outraged establishment reaction to the suggestion these statues be removed revealed how this nation continues to celebrate what never should be celebrated but more, that the presence of these monuments also erases alternative histories of resistance.
The Grunwick murals are an attempt to promote a learning that is counter to those who celebrate violent and oppressive history. Instead, they are a celebration of the unprecedented unity and solidarity shown for a struggle for dignity at work led by South Asian women. Why was the Grunwick strike so important? After all, Grunwick was just a small-to-medium-sized firm in a London residential backstreet, not a large conglomerate with multiple sites.
The majority of the women at the Grunwick factory were “citizens of empire” – Asians from East Africa – which meant they were “twice migrants” when they arrived in the UK. Many had led relatively comfortable lifestyles back in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and on coming to England suddenly found themselves in a world where they were at the bottom of the pile both socially and economically. Grunwick’s management were explicit about how they saw these women as ripe for exploitation; factory owner George Ward is alleged to have told one worker “I can buy a Patel for £15”, and as Jayaben Desai, who became the de facto strike leader, explained: “Imagine how humiliating it was for us, particularly older women, to be working and to hear the employer saying to a young English girl ‘You don’t want to come and work here, love, we won’t be able to pay the sort of wages which will keep you here’.”
That judgment by the factory owners, laden with the assumption of South Asian women’s inherent passivity and submissiveness, couldn’t have been more wrong. When the workers were described as “chattering monkeys” by a factory manager (presumably a reference to their speaking in Gujarati) Jayaben responded: “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.”
Pushed to breaking point by compulsory overtime and a host of other petty humiliations, Jayaben and five others walked out demanding the right to join a trade union and were subsequently sacked. They kickstarted a two-year dispute that challenged not just the stereotypes of Asian women within wider British society but also within an overwhelmingly white, male trade union movement.
The Grunwick management were keenly aware of how to exploit this situation. Owner George Ward, an Anglo-Indian himself, said (falsely) about one striker “She’s only gone on strike because her boyfriend’s on the picket line”, knowing full well that spreading a rumour about her having a boyfriend could lead to community disgrace.
But of course, this wasn’t the first time that South Asian women had been part of the struggle against workplace exploitation – they had been at the forefront of earlier industrial disputes of Asian workers, most of which were at best largely ignored and at worst actively obstructed by trade unions. Most notably at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974, just two years before Grunwick, when Asians went on strike at being paid lower wages than white workers. Their trade union didn’t just fail to back the strikers but actively opposed them so becoming complicit in maintaining a racist wage differential. The ideas of the National Front, who had been organising within workplaces and agitating on the issue of immigrants and wages, ran deep.
Perhaps it was because the dispute at Grunwick was primarily about trade union recognition, rather than one that was explicitly raising concerns of racism or sexism, that the Grunwick strikers were able to bring the ranks of the British trade union movement to Willesden. A series of mass pickets intended as a show of strength and with the aim of stopping strike-breakers from entering the factory attracted 20,000 from across the country, steel-workers and miners among them. Local postal workers, key to Grunwick’s operation as a mail-order business, refused to handle Grunwick’s post. Even dockers who just a few years earlier had marched in support of Enoch Powell were now giving support to a group of Asian women. Grunwick was the first time foreign-born workers were, however fleetingly, seen as part of the British working-class.
The strike still failed. The postal workers’ union (the UPW) capitulated at the threat of a legal challenge to the postal boycott, effectively halting any form of secondary action and the strikers’ union (Apex), disconcerted at the militancy of the pickets and keen not to embarrass the Labour government, also eventually withdrew support. And so, at the hands of the trade union leaderships, one the biggest mobilisations of the labour movement which built feminist and anti-racist solidarity became one of the biggest betrayals in working class history.
Yet although the ultimate aim of the strike – union recognition and reinstatement for those who were sacked – wasn’t achieved, the unity and solidarity showed us that there is still much to celebrate as well as to discuss and learn – whether that was the local residents (many not South Asian) who brought tea and snacks to the picket line on cold mornings or the growing awareness of the extent of political policing after witnessing the actions of the Special Patrol Group during the strike.
In considering what type of memorial would be appropriate to the strikers and their supporters, we rejected the narratives of individual achievement which pepper so many of the current campaigns to replace historical monuments with those of women and ‘people of colour’. Instead of a statue of a single leader we felt that a bold, colorful mural would not just be more impactful, but could also portray many more participants in what was, ultimately, a collective struggle. As a result, miners, postal workers and many others are featured in the mural and their contributions celebrated, yet the South Asian women who led the strike are always at the forefront.
Just as the strike was a collective event we wanted this to be a collective artwork, one that would truly belong to the people on whose streets it would be placed. Grunwick 40 engaged a talented artist, Anna Ferrie, who had considerable experience of producing community artworks. We ran a series of workshops which were attended by more than 60 people, including local residents, schoolchildren, people who had been on the picket lines and the friends and families of some of the original strikers. Using highly contrasted copies of black and white archival photographs from the strike, participants made stencils that were then screenprinted and photographed. The photographs were then digitally composited into pieces of artwork and printed onto boards. This simple participatory method meant people of all artistic abilities could make a contribution and see their work incorporated into the final piece.
Now, at a time where it has once more become acceptable for trade unionists to speak of migrant-labour forcing down wages, it feels more important than ever to remember what took place on the streets of Willesden 40 years ago and, as the living participants in the strike number fewer and fewer, we hope that claiming a piece of public space is a way to ensure that this crucial piece of history is not forgotten. Just like the strikers themselves changed conventional perceptions of both industrial struggle and South Asian women, we hope the murals will go some way to change ideas about what is deemed worthy of public art and commemoration.
Sujata Aurora is the chair of Grunwick 40. The Grunwick 40 project was funded through crowdfunding and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Follow Grunwick 40 on Facebook and Twitter. Visit the Grunwick 40 murals in Willesden on Chapter Road and Dudden Hill Lane.
* The vast majority of the strikers were South Asian women but there were also a number of African-Caribbean and Irish women, as well as some South Asian men.