When you're ready. And just how the story began, how the strike began. Let's start at the beginning.
There had been an attempt to organise Grunwick previously by the T and G, and that was the drivers. That was defeated. Grunwick was known locally to be bitterly anti-union. What then happened on August the 23rd, I believe, 1976 was an extraordinary series of events. It was a very hot day, the Asian women were being driven very hard by their managers, and there was an explosion, with Jayaben Desai using the legendary words, "I want my freedom", and leading a walk-out by those that she called "the ladies", overwhelmingly Asian women in saris, some second-generation daughters, and some sons and young men, but overwhelmingly, it was the Asian women who walked out. When they walked out, they were not in a union. What they did was they went to the local Citizens Advice Bureau, and the CAB gave them two contacts: myself as secretary of the trades council - they couldn't get hold of me because I was at work at the time - and the TUC. And they rang the TUC, and it was lunchtime, and they were put through to the organisation department, and there was a very nice secretary there who said, "well, I'm not quite sure what the union is for people who work in film processing. Why don't you join my union, APEX?" And the rest is history. APEX took them into membership, and then, some time later, the T and G took the drivers into membership. And so a dispute started in the most extraordinary of circumstances. And when you then look back 30 years later, to recognise that it was the biggest mobilisation in labour movement history around a local dispute, it had the most extraordinary origins.
So what did Brent Trades Council do for them when they arrived?
When I met with them later that day, I remember saying to Tom Durkin - God rest his soul, a very, very fine man - "my God, Tom, this is gonna be a difficult one, but we've got to go for it and give them every support." And if the strikers and their leadership, particularly Jayaben, were remarkable, what was also very helpful was that it was in the London Borough of Brent, because it was then and is now the most cosmopolitan borough in Britain. It had a long history of strong trade union organisation, very good links with the local immigrant communities, particularly the Irish, the West Indians, and then increasingly, the newly arrived Asians. A progressive community, a strong trades council, able to mobilise effective support for them. So from the start, the trades council and the strike committee were effectively one. I sat on the strike committee throughout, and it was an honour to work with some very remarkable people.
Was it the first time that you had gone into a recognition dispute? I mean, were there previous recognition disputes that you'd been involved in?
Yes, there'd been previous recognition disputes in Brent, and, overwhelmingly, they had been won, particularly by the two dominant unions locally, the T and G in the old engineering union. This was the first dispute of its kind in Brent, and arguably one of the first of its kind in the country as a whole, where you got a bucket shop exploiting newly arrived migrant workers, where there was a battle of this kind for recognition, because one of the things that the dispute did was it showed to the world of work as a whole - the steel mills, the car factories, the aerospace factories - that there was a world of work hidden, hidden in Britain, of terrible treatment of the newly-arrived in our country, in this case, the east African Asians.
Just talk a little bit about the characters of the strikers at the time, who they were and a bit more on their background.
They were a fascinating bunch, and we became very close throughout that epic struggle. What was very interesting about them - and I've seen this in the 30 years since - is that they were people who, in their countries of origin - because of course, originally from the Indian sub-continent, but these were people who'd lived for years, sometimes generations, their families, in east Africa, and they were expelled by Amin and others. And they arrived, therefore, as people who'd had status in their country, and in some senses they were the administrative and mercantile class in their country. And they arrived in cold, wet, depressing, northwest London and Leicester, and ended up working for somebody like George Ward and Grunwick. And they burned with resentment, all the more so because of who they were and where they'd come from. And I've seen that in the 30 years since. The organisation of cleaners here now in London, a lot of them are teachers, we've got cleaners who are doctors. They can't get jobs here in Britain, they get jobs as cleaners, they get treated like dirt, and they too burn with resentment. So from the start, some people might describe them as having been atypical trade unionists because of their origins in east Africa. In fact, they became some of the most solid trade unionists that I ever worked with.
And how did they go about understanding the nature of trade union structure and, you know, electing, you know, the various committees.
They had a very refreshing approach, which was not a hide-bound approach. Sometimes, dare I say it, in this great movement of ours, there's a bureaucracy and rule books and, you know, "in accordance with the authority vested in me" kind of statements by superannuated bureaucrats. And none of this washed with them. They had this refreshing zeal, they burned with resentment about the way they'd been treated, and they wanted to win. For them, it was about, in Jayaben's words, they all wanted their freedom. And for them, therefore, they went about it like men and women possessed. So they had a refreshing zeal, and it was about "how can we mobilise support to win?" And there was then very interesting things that happened as the dispute unfolded. So for example, I remember early on, Jayaben and Kalaben Patel, and a couple of the other leading women coming to talk to me, saying - Kalaben used to say, "Mr. Jack", and I used to say to her, "Kalaben, it's Jack." "Mr. Jack, we have a problem" because some of the "young girls" as they described them, the daughters, they can't come on the picket line, because brothers and husbands wouldn't allow them to do it. So, rather than accept that cultural convention, what they said was, "what we want to do is to organise an event Sunday after next in the Trades and Labour Hall, and we will bring all the husbands and brothers together. We'd like you to be there. We'll ask the boys", as they called them, the young men who were engaged in the strike, "to make the food, and let's talk about why it's important that all those on strike should be able to participate in the strike." Absolutely fascinating. There was only one young girl in the end who had a residual problem. So they they were very focused, and it was fascinating working with them, because, as I said, they hadn't been trade unionists, but they became the best possible trade unionists, determined to overcome any and all barriers to them actually fighting and winning the strike.
But the actual act of standing on a picket line. I mean, it is a bizarre act in a way, and it's a lonely act. How did they go about accepting - I mean, who told them about picketing?
They had extraordinary natural courage, and they had to have courage, because in the early weeks of the dispute, they would be outside the gates in Chapter Road, and they would be constantly attacked by these appalling managers, who would goad them, hurl racist and sexist abuse at them. And then later, of course, when the mass picketing started, you'd have these extraordinary - the sight of Jayaben at 4 foot 11 up against half a dozen policemen at 6 foot plus, but they were never in fear. And whether it was handling those managers hurling abuse at them on the one hand, or whether it was standing up to some very big policemen on the other, they were never in fear. So, of course they spoke to us about how do you mount a picket? And so on a very basic level we used to talk about, "well, people going through, we need to stop them and seek to encourage them not to cross the picket line." But again, they had this sort of refreshing, simple, direct approach. "We are not afraid," as one of them said, "we are not afraid." And they were never afraid. They stood up to the most extraordinary odds; they were never afraid.
Just talk a bit about the role that APEX took when they first organised them, and their tradition as a trade union, and how they came to terms with a completely new concept of trade unionism that they weren't used to.
Yes, I think APEX were a union of the old Labour Right, and it was an unusual home for the strikers. It was accidental that they ended up in APEX. I have to say that, in fairness to APEX, whilst there were disagreements later on as to how the dispute should be brought to a successful conclusion, they really did give them enormous support, and they worked very hard, including the then general secretary, Roy Grantham. He and I had one or two rather spectacular fall-outs during the dispute, but they worked very hard in their support. But I think it was something of a culture shock for APEX, handling a dispute as bitter as that, and workers new to the trade union movement who were loyal to their union, but weren't in any way respectful of union bureaucracy.
Do you think they ever had regrets for taking it on?
I don't think so. I know that it was sometimes said that it became an embarrassment to some in the labour movement. I never sensed that from APEX. I think that there were mistakes made, by the way, much later on after the dispute started, but I never sensed that they regretted that they'd taken the strikers into membership in the first place.
I'd just like to talk a little bit about Tom Durkin and his role in the trades council and his role in the strike.
Yes, Tom was a legendary figure in the trade union movement nationally. He was a humble man, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. There was not one ounce of pomposity in Tom. He was every bit a rank-and-file trade unionist, proud of his Irish background, fiercely committed, inspirational in the way he worked and spoke. I don't think anyone who ever heard him in those wonderful booming Irish tones of his - and I come from an Irish background myself - but those wonderful booming Irish tones of his. He was a much-loved and much-respected figure and he's sorely missed.
Just talk about the first year, because it was a [indistinct] strike effectively then. What was going on in the first year?
We nearly won very quickly, with the first blacking of the post by the the Cricklewood postmen. Then when legal action was taken, we knew that we were going to be in for a long haul. What happened then was that we organised [an] arguably unprecedented tour of the country by the strikers. They visited, up until the 42nd week, they visited 2000 workplaces throughout the country. And I went with them on some of those visits, but most of them they did by themselves. And what you saw was these diminutive Asian women, normally - sometimes one of the young guys - going into steel mills, engineering factories, dockyards, bringing to the traditional big battalions of the trade union movement a recognition that there was a world of work that they knew nothing about. And they were stunned. They were also angry about the fact that the law had got in the way of the Post Office workers winning it in the first six, seven weeks, as as we very nearly did. So what then happened was that, progressively, some of those who'd stayed inside were joining the strike. We knew that there was a substantial number who were wavering. We decided that what we would do would be to, for one week - a hundred a day, every day - that we would mount a solidarity picket outside. And that was very much designed to give strength to those inside wavering, to encourage them to come out, and indeed it worked. And then on the first day, the Monday - and I'll never forget it - it was June of '97 - '97, beg your pardon, the years have passed on. June of '77. On that first Monday, there was 84 people arrested, and the police appeared out of blue. In fact, one or two of the local police were horrified about what happened. And there was 84 people arrested. And that ended up - I'll never forget - in the 'Evening Standard' afternoon editions, and then TV that night, newspapers the following day. What then happened was the most extraordinary explosion of solidarity from across the trade union movement, so that you had a strong sense of burning anger in the traditional big battalions, with people saying "this is wrong, this should not happen." And then a sense that the strikers were under attack. And by the Wednesday there was 1000 there, and then 2000 and then 3000. And then workers came from all over Britain, culminating in July the 11th 1977, when, even according to the police, who are notoriously bad at counting in these circumstances, there was 20,000 outside of the factory. So there was this out-pouring of solidarity. And of course, what that did was it led to the Cricklewood Post Office workers for a second time deciding that they would black the mail to Grunwick. And they did it, and they then stood up to the most ferocious pressure from their own union to sustain it. They were suspended from work, and these were people, by the way, if you think about it, they were all white, I think bar one Afro-Caribbean guy. White men putting themselves on the line in support of an overwhelmingly female Asian workforce. And this was but a few years after Enoch Powell, Mansfield Hosiery Mills, Imperial Typewriters. It was one of the most remarkable episodes of trade union solidarity in history.
Now, what was happening with the government at the time? They appeared to be impotent to do anything.
The problem with the government was this: that the then Labour government had created institutions built upon the post-war industrial consensus that they thought were capable of resolving disputes of this kind. It was ACAS, newly established, with powers to promote union recognition, and they thought that, first ACAS and then ultimately the Scarman court of inquiry, would solve the dispute. The problem was they totally failed to understand that what was emerging in the second half of the 70s was a new breed of ideological right-wing employers and politicians. And there was a nexus of Margaret Thatcher, Hendon South Conservative Association, John Gorst, the National Association of Freedom. There was a network that came together at that time fundamentally to challenge that post-war consensus. And I'll never forget, when the TUC leaned on APEX - because the TUC were leaned upon by government, and they leaned upon APEX in terms of winding down the mass pickets to allow the Scarman Inquiry to proceed. I remember them saying to us in the Trades and Labour Hall, "look, we can be confident of the outcome, and no employer in history has defied the finding of a court of inquiry under the 1922 Act" as it's described. And I said, "you don't know George Ward. I am confident that we will win before Scarman recognition and reinstatement. I think he will then give the recommendation two fingers. If what you do is to wind down the mass movement around the strike, and in particular, we see an end to the postal blacking, I think we will have tremendous difficulties getting postal blacking a third time, which was always going to be key to winning the dispute."
Let's talk a little bit about George Ward, his background and his values and his attitude. How were they acquired?
It's a very interesting character. George Ward was typical of an emerging breed of employer in the second half of the 1970s: get rich quick at any price. A man who had disdain for his workers, whose managers treated the workers shamefully, and a rather peculiar man also. I mean, I remember Scarman telling a story privately after the strike was over when he went into the factory, and in George Ward's office there was these pornographic pin-ups, and he pointed at them and he said, "do you like my girls, Lord Scarman?" Now, this man was an unsavoury individual. Now, he thought that as a consequence of becoming an icon of the emerging Tory ideological right that he would become a major figure, including in the Conservative Party. He actually was contemplating at one stage running for member of parliament. I think now, people - mention George Ward, they say "George who?" He's faded into the obscurity that he richly deserves, other than to this day when people want to describe in the trade union movement a bad employer, quite often people still say, "it's a Grunwick-style employer."
Did he find the National Association of Freedom or did they find him?
The National Association of Freedom found him, because as we discovered subsequently, I had a very interesting discussion during the dispute with an old Macmillanite Conservative councillor from Hendon, who was very twitchy about what was going on in his association. And there were clearly relationships there between the Hendon Tories and George Ward, and some of them were plugged in to the emerging right-wing network, the National Association of Freedom. And therefore, at an early stage, they offered their help to a grateful George.
Just to go back to the story earlier about the involvement of the police and the first arrests, which is obviously to put it on the front of the newspapers. Why were the police so violent from the beginning?
The dispute saw defining moments, and one of them was the emergence of a new style of aggressive policing, and ultimately, what became almost paramilitary policing that we saw, for example, in November of 1977: Special Patrol Group and what then emerged in the years that followed. And it was very interesting the tensions that there were, because what you saw in the Met. Police in particular at the time - and incidentally, shameful that there was not proper political control over what was going on in the Met. Police - what you saw were tensions between still some of the local bobbies, on the one hand - I remember one really very nice guy who'd sort of periodically come by and sort of look over both shoulders and say, "how are you?" and "good luck" - with, on the other hand, an increasing para-militarisation of the police to deal with industrial disputes. Now, it became a fine art later during the dispute. I mean, a grotesque fine art, and then, of course, with the miners in the 1980s and with with others. But Grunwick, in that sense, was a bit of a test-bed for a new style of policing. And the irony was that the original arrests of the 84 out of the 100 on that June day in 1977 saw the situation explode in a way that perhaps it would never have done had the police not over-reacted in the way that they did.
And why wasn't there proper political control? Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees: what - ?
It was one of the serious criticisms that we made at the time of government. There were fundamentally two key players under the Prime Minister. One was Albert Booth, the Secretary of State for Employment, and his problem was that he failed to recognise that the post-war industrial relations consensus was breaking down, that there was that emergence of a new ideological right, that they were no longer playing by the game rules, the ground rules, they didn't give a damn about ACAS, they didn't give a damn about Scarman's recommendation. They wanted to take on organised labour. So I think he was a well meaning individual; I just think he read what was happening wrong in the second half of the 1970s. With Merlyn Rees, there were terrible things that happened on the picket line, and I know that Cabinet ministers, those who I spoke to subsequently, who raised their concerns with him. But whether he did not want to intervene or whether he just failed to give any kind of political leadership, I don't know, other than what's clear is this: that it was wrong what was happening on the picket line, and a Labour Home Secretary with the powers, of course, that the Home Secretary then had over the Metropolitan Police, should have acted and said, "this has to end."
On the contrary, when you look at the footage of November the seventh and relevant stories, people are saying, at that time, the word was out, with full political agreement of the Home Secretary, to intimidate. "We want this picketing over. We don't want it in our newspapers every day, and if sheer brute force is going to be terrifying them away, so it shall be."
Yes, I think that's a very interesting point, because I think at an earlier stage of the dispute, there was a lack of political leadership. I think that as the dispute then unfolded, that that lack of leadership changed into something different, which was "we have to end this dispute." And effectively licence was given to what then happened, including on November the seventh 1977, and that was absolutely wrong, absolutely wrong.
With the full sympathy of the government?
Within the government there were widely different views. I mean, I was a critic of how it was handled by the government, to be absolutely frank, the dispute, but there were many people who were very sympathetic to the strike. Those Cabinet ministers who came on the picket line, for example. But did the government fail to recognise, as they should have done, that these were workers with a justified cause, and rather than getting in the way of justice, they should have supported our drive to win justice? They failed, they failed. They didn't back the Grunwick strikers and they should have done.
The involvement of the miners: how did the miners become involved?
One of the many visits in the first 40 weeks of the strike was to the various coalfields, and in particular Kent, south Wales, Yorkshire. Also elsewhere to Durham and Scotland.
This was the strikers visiting?
The strikers went to the coalfields and met with miners' representatives. I remember at the time Jack Dunn in the Kent coalfield on the one hand, Arthur Scargill in the Yorkshire coalfield on the other hand. Then, when in June of 1977 the dispute blew up because of the police arresting large numbers of pickets, there was the most extraordinary mobilisation by miners from all over the country. And I'll never forget July the 11th 1977, one of the most stirring moments in my trade union life, seeing 3000 Yorkshire miners coming down Chapter Road. And these were people who, in many senses - in terms of culture, industry, community - were 1000 miles away from the Grunwick strikers, or might well have been, but they just saw injustice and were determined to mobilise on a grand scale, by way of solidarity, to win justice. I think it was an extraordinary moment in trade union movement history.
And there was also there own history of solidarity towards them, presumably, that motivated the situation.
Yes, there were remarkable traditions in the National Union of Mineworkers - it's tragic what has now happened to the NUM - of solidarity between miners, but solidarity with others in struggle. What we saw around Grunwick - and it's extraordinary if you reflect on it just for one moment - is that a workforce of predominantly newly-arrived Gujarati women at the heart of the biggest mobilisation in labour movement history. I think that reflected very well on all those who came from all over the country to stand on the Grunwick picket line.
And then, obviously, everyone sensed victory. There was a huge explosion of solidarity, "we can't lose now" was the feeling. What happened after the big day?
There was pressure brought by government, because government was increasingly embarrassed by what was regarded to be public disorder, on the TUC and in turn on APEX. And what was argued was that "we will set up a court of inquiry under Scarman, and that will resolve the dispute." Now, there were two different views. The view that Jayaben and I expressed and others was that we should not wind down the mass movement around the dispute because if we maintain that momentum, we maintain the postal blacking, and Scarman will take six days rather than six weeks to deliver his verdict from the court of inquiry. And we were always confident that it would be for recognition and reinstatement. What the TUC did was to put APEX under tremendous pressure effectively to defuse that mass movement and in favour of what became a best part of six weeks' process as Scarman deliberated. Now, I think that was a fundamental mistake, it was a fundamental mistake. And if you look back, it was that mistake which I think let George Ward off the hook. We always knew that Ward would defy the court of inquiry, and to put all of your eggs in the basket of Scarman, however eminent and admirable he may have been, to put all the eggs in the basket of the court inquiry was a mistake.
And behind the scenes, after - let me get my history right. Were there attempts subsequent to Scarman to get essential services cut off?
Yes. When Scarman made his recommendations, and there was - I'll never forget, the TUC in 1977, the Grunwick strikers were celebrated by the TUC - but when it became clear that George Ward, with the support of the ideological right, was giving two fingers to Scarman, it was then about how could we bring decisive pressure to bear upon George Ward. Everything possible was tried in what became, to be frank, increasingly bitter exchanges. But the moment had been lost. There were two moments of history in terms of potential victory in the dispute. One was six weeks, the first postal blacking; the second was the mass pickets and the second postal blacking. If you wind down that mass movement, it becomes very difficult to regain momentum, so mountains were moved in August, September, October, November of 1977, to try and regain the initiative, to rebuild that momentum, but it proved to be impossible.
Feelings were clearly running quite high then, because in the November or December, was it? Yes, the hunger strike. Who decided on the hunger strike, and why was that decided as a protest action?
Yes, I know some years later, I discovered that the then general secretary of the TUC thought that I'd put them up to it. In fact, they needed no encouragement. These were people who'd listened much earlier in the dispute to Len Murray coming to the Trades and Labour Hall and addressing them, pledging the undying loyalty of the TUC. And they became increasingly disillusioned about what they regarded to be, particularly post the TUC Congress in 1977, a failure to act to bring Grunwick to its knees. And that ultimately became expressed in what was bitterness, a hunger strike outside the TUC. Now, it was an initiative by the Asian women themselves. It was an unusual initiative. I can't remember that having ever happened before. But it was them who felt that they had battered their employer, battled in the most difficult of circumstances, been put under the most immense pressure, and then felt let down. And that's why they did what they did.
What were the consequences?
The TUC, to say the least, was furious. And I remember having one or two lively discussions with them, trying to make me eat the carpet in Congress House, which I refused to do, and said, "well, what do you expect? What do you expect? You got it wrong back in the summer, and the strikers are bitter about now. They're feeling that you are not doing what you said you would to help them win. What do you expect?" Sadly, in the months that followed, despite all the continuing efforts, it became clear that there was no way back. And there then came that moment, and I'll never forget it, into the spring of 1978, when there was a discussion with the officers of the trades council, Tom Durkin, myself, together with the leadership of the strike, and where the decision was taken to end the strike. Now, it was an immensely difficult decision, but I'll never forget, in what was a tearful discussion, that at the end of the discussion, people went out of the Trades and Labour Hall actually curiously feeling proud, because all of us who battled through that, and particularly the strikers themselves, could genuinely put their hands on their hearts and say, "we did everything we possibly could," and there is nothing ignoble about struggling and losing. Actually, I've always said that you never lose a dispute like Grunwick. Did we win recognition and reinstatement? No, we didn't. Did, however, we bring home to the trade union movement that there was a world of work about which they knew nothing? Yes, we did. Did we build remarkable solidarity between the traditional battalions of the working class and the newly arrived, unprecedented in labour movement history? Yes, we did. And this was all against the background of the five to ten years previously, when there'd been disputes in workplaces where the workforces had polarised along racial lines, or where black workers had been let down by their trade unions: Mansfield Hosiery Mills, Imperial Typewriters. Less than ten years earlier, dockers had marched for Enoch Powell, and suddenly you had Grunwick. So did we win our immediate objectives? No, we didn't. We walked away with pride. And we walked away feeling that every moment of that struggle was worthwhile. You never lose a dispute like Grunwick.
But, in terms of trade unionism in general, it was a victory for the forces that felt that they could take on trade unionism, and that was to have major impacts in the future.
Yes. If, in the 30 years since, I've often been asked, what do I feel looking back at the strike? Well, first of all, I'm intensely proud of what we did. And I would do it all over again, I would do it all over again. Then, in terms of the lessons of Grunwick, positive lessons about that remarkable solidarity between the traditional working class and the newly arrived in our country. I've not had a month go by in the 30 years since when I've not had Asian workers in particular, when I've travelled round the country, now the sons and daughters of Asian workers, talking to me about Grunwick. The impact it had was immense. But there were two downsides, and I've always had my eyes wide open about this. The first was that it was a setback for the trade union movement, the first victory for the ideological right. And there were many then subsequently: dockers, printers, miners. The second is that it got used against us by Thatcher in the 1979 general election, to summon up images of Britain out of control. That and the Winter of Discontent. So, of course, the outcome of the dispute was bad news for the trade union movement, and it got used by the Tories against the trade union movement. But even recognising that, I'd do it all over again.
Just some details now. If you can just talk through how the strike committee worked, how it was elected, because it was presumably a new form of democracy that none of them had participated in before.
Yes. To begin with, it was the the willing who were active, but then we concluded that there needed to be some structure in it. Not in a bureaucratic sense, but, for example, in circumstances where there were constant efforts being made to encourage those still at work to join the strike. And that was a weakness, by the way, that there was one third of the workforce who stayed in. It was right that you had shop stewards for the different sections, who knew the people who'd walked out, but also knew some of the people still inside. So there was a structure put in place to ensure that all the different sections of the workforce were represented. There was also then a structure put in place in terms of the mobilisation of solidarity, and in particular, the work with the Post Office workers on the one hand, and the 2000 factory visits throughout the country on the other hand. And there was a bit of an industry in the strike committee with, at any one time, seven or eight people, together with the trades council, involved in organising that. So they came out with no history of trade unionism and no structure, but a structural struggle was then developed in the first six to eight weeks.
As they moved around the country, you know, as a small band of women, I mean, this must have had huge cultural implications in terms of their home lives. I mean, how was that overcome?
The visits to 2000 workplaces were an essential part of mobilising support, but they did run up against problems within some families within their community. So what Jayaben Desai and Kalaben Patel did was to say to me, "look, we need to talk to the husbands and brothers. We will organise - we'd like you to be there with Tom Durkin - an event Sunday week. The boys, they can make some food," and that's what happened. There was this extraordinary discussion which went on for three or four hours, where there were some cultural anxieties, but it was talked through, it was talked through, and in the end, only one young girl had any difficulties, and the husbands and brothers became immensely supportive, as did the wider community. The Brent Indian Association used to -