Jayaben Desai

In this moving obituary of an extraordinary woman, Jayaben Desai, this passage stood out:

Desperate for work, the newly arrived accepted long hours and low wages, though the need to do so, Desai said, “nagged away like a sore on their necks”. When she decided she had had enough, the 4ft10in employee told her 6ft manager, Malcom Alden, “What you are running 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 those lions, Mr Manager.” As a result of her passion and magical turn of phrase, 100 of her fellow workers joined her on strike. Yet they were not even in a trade union. The local Citizens Advice Bureau gave her son Sunil two phone numbers – that of the Trades Union Congress and mine, as secretary of the Brent Trades Council. The TUC advised them to join the white-collar union Apex, now part of the GMB. Then, on Monday 13 June 1977, the police arrested 84 pickets out of 100 who had come to demonstrate their solidarity on what was called Women’s Support Day. The campaigners were angry that the involvement of Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, had not enabled them to obtain union recognition. Jayaben’s nationwide tour encouraged workers from all over Britain, outraged that the strikers had been sacked, to join the picket line outside the factory. There were 1,300 by the following Friday, and 12,000 by 11 July, the day that 20,000 went on a TUC-organised march to the factory. Once again, the Cricklewood postmen took action, blacking the mail to Grunwick. Colin Maloney, their chairman, observed: “You don’t say ‘no’ to Mrs Desai.” The postmen – all white apart from one West Indian – were suspended for three weeks and threatened with dismissal. Defiant to the end, Jayaben told the final meeting of the strikers that they could be proud. “We have shown,” she said, “that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” Only 10 years previously, dockers had marched in support of the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, and workforces had polarised along racial lines at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Nottinghamshire and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester.

My first impression was: ah, so no “identity politics” for them white workers then…

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