The East African migrants settling in London in the early 1970s were educated in English, and held British rather than Indian citizenship, but they faced a struggle to establish their families in London’s unwelcoming society. In spite of their middle-class background, many women, determined to contribute to their families’ well-being and their children’s futures, accepted low-paid factory and manual work. Whilst these women were willing to accept low status employment, they were unwilling to accept the degrading treatment typically meted out to “unskilled” “Black” immigrants in London’s workplaces. When a group of workers, led by the now renowned Jayaben Desai, walked out of a photo processing laboratory in the hot summer of 1976 in protest against arbitrary and humiliating management, their aim was to defend their dignity and their rights.
Having joined the white collar union APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) their demands came to be centred on the right to union recognition and collective bargaining. The cause of the Grunwick strikers was taken up by the wider Trade Union movement of the day, with mass solidarity picketing from even the most masculine and militant of unions, including the miners.
When the Union of Postal Workers voted to boycott mailings from Grunwick – on which the firm depended to reach its client base – victory seemed within their grasp. Following failed attempts at mediation by ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry recommended both union recognition and re-instatement of the workers. Grunwick, backed by the right- wing National Association For Freedom (NAFF), rejected these recommendations. The TUC (Trade Union Congress) and APEX retreated from mass picketing and effectively withdrew their support. Jayaben Desai and supporters mounted a hunger strike outside the TUC HQ in November 1977 but ultimately the strike committee announced the end of the dispute in June 1978, without having obtained their goals, leaving the women feeling abandoned and disillusioned with the trade union movement.