LEGACY

The mobilisation of the Trade Union movement in the 1970s in support of South Asian women made history, not least because the militancy of the strikers belied assumptions about South Asian women’s docility. The experience of the streets of north London being overrun by militant workers — even with the “diminutive” Jayaben Desai at their helm — was one of the factors that contributed to the outlawing of secondary picketing by Thatcher’s Conservative Government in the 1980s. Although there are a number of books, documentaries and journalistic accounts of the Grunwick dispute there is no direct account in the public domain from the women involved.

How did they perceive their militancy in terms of their previous lives in East Africa, their experience as migrant workers as well as wives and mothers in 1970s London? What motivated their response to the TUC’s ultimate betrayal of their cause and their decision to stage a hunger strike In retrospect, what do they feel that they and other women have gained from their actions?

The Trade Union movement continues to celebrate the Grunwick dispute as a victory and a turning point in anti–racist labour and pro–feminist politics, witnessed by the 30th anniversary commemorative event in 2006 attended by Arthur Scargill and Jack Dromey as well as an increasingly infirm Jayaben Desai.

But there has been no such celebration or official inquiry for the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. Their union gave initial, though limited support, which fell short of strike pay. After the ill–fated action involving the airport baggage handlers, their only recourse was the Employment Tribunal procedure, set up in the 1980s. The dispute attracted only short–lived press interest and no widespread support from other unions. The Gate Gourmet women have not become heroes of a struggle – and their precarious position in the labour market has become grounds for dismissal rather than celebration. They have been largely abandoned and forgotten by the very groups which continue to celebrate their own history of the Grunwick strike.

But the Gate Gourmet women also have a story to tell about the dispute and the effects on their lives; about their appreciation of the solidarity derived from their own collective actions as well as from the few organisations that still support them; about their feelings of betrayal after their working lives as union members and activists.

How does their experience mark the trade union and the women’s movement, which both claim in the 21st century to reflect the priorities of black and women workers?