The intersectional politics of the Grunwick strike

Over the last year or so, the concept of intersectionality has been hotly debated within the British left. Phil at A Very Public Sociologist has written some insightful stuff into the left’s grappling with the concept, but I think a lot of the debate has lacked a historical perspective. As I noted in this blog post, what we term as ‘intersectionality’ nowadays was recognised in the 1970s and 1980s as a challenge for the traditional assumptions of the British left and I think this is exemplified by the Grunwick strike of 1976-78, which raised questions concerning the overlapping and competing demands of class, race and gender politics. Below is a section from my PhD (that I’m currently working on turning into a monograph) which discusses how these different elements of the strike were interpreted during the strike and afterwards – but it needs some serious re-working! If I have time, I’d love to turn this into a paper that discusses the historical aspects of the challenge posed by intersectionality to the British left (and if there’s anyone willing to join me in writing such a paper, please get in touch).

grunwick

The strike at Grunwick began with a small number of Asian workers walking out ‘in protest at oppressive working conditions’ on 20 August 1976,[i] becoming one of the longest strikes in British history, before it was eventually defeated in July 1978. Asian workers led the strike, but the union leadership of APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs), the Brent Trades Council and the TUC opted for negotiation through the official industrial relations machinery of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), whose decisions were ignored by the owner of the Grunwick plant, George Ward. This led to a long-running stalemate between the strikers and their supporters, the official bodies of the labour movement, the institutions of the state and those who supported George Ward, with several violent confrontations between the striking workers and the state. This stalemate led the different interested parties in the dispute to claim various issues raised during the strike, contesting what the strike was actually about and how it fit into wider narratives. The historical importance of the Grunwick strike can be found in many competing histories – in black history, in the history of the labour movement’s decline, in the history of anti-racism and anti-fascism, in the history of women’s liberation; and while these competing histories are not mutually exclusive, they take very different aspects of the strike to forge their narrative.

The strike drew together many elements of society, with Graham Taylor, a member of the Executive Committee of the Brent Trades Council, writing:

The Grunwick strike is focus for many different issues and struggles. For trade unionists it is a struggle for trade-union recognition; some fix on police brutality; feminists point to the oppression of female workers; while democrats denounce gross violations of the human rights to work, to speak freely and to associate. To many, Grunwick is part of the struggle against racialism and imperialism… Others regard the racial aspect as minimal and rally behind a simple class struggle by the under-paid. It is the importance of the Grunwick Strike that it embraces all these issues.[ii]

Taylor, along with Brent Trades Council Secretary Jack Dromey, wrote in their account of the Grunwick strike that the significance of Grunwick was that for the first time, the labour movement could mobilise significant support for black workers, while before Grunwick, ‘It would not have been capable of summoning up such solidarity for a tiny strike’.[iii] This can be seen as partly the result of the policy change towards positive action on issues of racism by the trade unions that had occurred in the mid-1970s.

The (primarily white) left saw the main issue of the dispute as George Ward’s refusal to recognise the demands of the strike made through APEX as the strikers had begun the strike without being members of the union. As the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) declared in a pamphlet on the strike, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’.[iv] Linked to this idea of union recognition was the fear that defeat at Grunwick would be followed a full-scale assault by the ruling class upon all trade unions and the fundamental rights of workers that unions were supposed to uphold. The International Marxist Group (IMG) depicted the strike as part of a longer union history, warning readers of their paper of what was thought to be at risk:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[v]

The Grunwick Strike Committee, organised by APEX, saw the strike as the first line of defence against an assault by the ruling class and the State. However the historical analogy put forward by the Strike Committee was an appeal to the white working class, stating in September 1977, ‘This strike is a Dunkirk for our great movement’.[vi] This analogy to Britain’s ‘finest hour’ may have made some connection with the white members of the trade unions, but this patriotic slant on the strike is an example of how the union officials disregarded the cultural sensitivities of the Asian strikers in favour of making appeals to the interests of the wider working class. The petition to white workers to become involved in actions of solidarity with black workers to prevent any further attack upon the trade unions and the struggles of black workers as the first line of defence against a larger capitalist offensive was widespread in leftist literature on anti-racism and black militancy. The sequence of the ruling class using racism to divide black and white workers in a time of crisis in order to prepare for an attack upon the trade unions was tied to the leftist historical analysis of inter-war fascism. The same anxieties that the left had about a defeat at Grunwick was applied to the campaign against the fascism of the National Front in the 1970s, especially as the economic crisis worsened. As the Trade Union Committee Against Racialism declared in the early 1970s: ‘But racialism is only the most obvious of [the National Front’s] anti-working class policies. For their aim is the aim of all fascists; to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’.[vii]

However some black workers felt that to mobilise on the issue of union recognition ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[viii] What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces.

A. Sivanandan wrote, the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[ix] The official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[x] In February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[xi] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands.

With Grunwick’s owner George Ward dismissing the recommendations made by ACAS on recognition of trade union membership, the APEX leadership called off the strike, which ended in unclear circumstances on 14 July, 1978.[xii] Tom Durkin, a long-time CPGB member and Chair of Brent Trades Council, saw the defeat as the result of the domination of the right wing of the trade union movement, stating:

It was the Right within APEX, the General Council and the Government which took the strikers into a legal morass, worked might and main to prevent the full power of our movement being used to paralyse Grunwick and which then deserted and ditched the brave men and women of Grunwick.[xiii]

Others, such as the SWP, saw the defeat as the end result of the ‘increased involvement of trade union organisation in the machinery of government’ and the ‘involvement of senior shop stewards in the management policies of many firms’.[xiv] The apparent betrayal of the striking workers by the TUC and upper echelons of the trade union movement was portrayed by the SWP as a vindication of their rank-and-file strategy. For the SWP, the strikers who had maintained the mass pickets at Grunwick throughout 1977 had been ‘entirely deserted by the official leaders of the trade union and labour movement’, but winning the dispute meant ‘breaking with the official side of the… movement and making direct appeals to rank and file workers’.[xv] The SWP declared in the final stages of the strike, ‘The shift to rank and file tactics is the only way of avoiding humiliation and defeat’.[xvi]

This sense of betrayal by the white trade union leadership was also seen in the comments made by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the Grunwick strike, when she declared in late 1977, ‘The union views itself like management… We are the real fighters… But the union just looks on us as if we are employed by them’.[xvii] For black activists, it was the use of ‘official channels’ that had ‘steered the black workers away from community based support’ and towards the unions, who in the end ‘finally betrayed them’.[xviii] The impact of the defeat upon the black workers, and the wider black communities, was that the labour movement had failed to respond adequately to the demands of the struggle against racism in the workplace. The left and the labour movement had traditionally portrayed themselves as accessible vehicles for progressive politics, but the aims of these organisations could not be interchangeable with those of Britain’s black population. The left celebrated its anti-colonial (and anti-fascist) legacies and saw their anti-racist work in the post-war period as a continuation of these former struggles. However a number of black activists saw the left and the wider labour movement as complicit in recreating the labour aristocracy that saw some socialists and trade unionists support the British Empire in the domestic environment.

In 1973, a study of trade unions and racism in Race Today stated:

Yet despite the obvious deficiencies of union organisation in the area, it is interesting to note that not one leading black militant involved in any of the above disputes is in favour of forming separate structures outside the trade union movement. Despite the apparent failure of the official organisation to support black workers in struggle, leading figures still want to fight on inside the present union set-up.[xix]

However by the late 1970s and early 1980s, black activists such as Sivanandan and Darcus Howe argued that the practical benefits of the trade unions in black industrial struggles were lost on many black workers. The Race Today Collective wrote in their history of Asian workers in Britain in 1983 that a common feature of strikes involving black workers was left-wing politicians, who ‘don’t believe in the independent movement of the black section of the working class’.[xx] The Collective emphasised that, ‘Not a single industrial strike of Asians or black workers has been won through this network of assistance’.[xxi]

It is a widely held viewpoint that the defeat at Grunwick was a watershed moment; one that saw the end of more than a decade of black political action and a precursor of the neo-liberal agenda to destroy the organised labour movement. The widening schism between the organs of the labour movement and the black workers is seen to have left the black communities without a readily accessible vehicle for political recognition. The victory of the neo-liberal elements of the ruling class at Grunwick and the alleged ‘betrayal’ by the union leadership of its rank-and-file is seen by some as the starting point of a longer history of the end of traditional militant labourism. For many, it foreshadowed an end to class politics that was eventually realised with Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985. In the 1980s, there were arguments that the machinery of the trade unions, through ‘proper procedures’ and their emphasis on ‘British ways’, had hastened the decline of black political action that was receptive to wider working class politics. As Paul Gordon wrote:

More important, perhaps, than the defeat itself was the fact that Grunwick marked the end of an era of vibrant and creative black struggles which had threatened to bring a political dimension to industrial struggle. It was an end brought about by the invasion of official trade unionism, which had moved from a position of opposition or apathy towards black workers to a strategy of control through co-option.[xxii]

A number of activists and scholars have drawn on the continuity between the black struggles of the 1970s and the defensive struggle of the labour movement’s existence during the Miners’ Strike, viewing the state as increasingly geared towards an explicit ‘law and order’ mode, with Trevor Carter writing, ‘You could say that the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[xxiii] Although the left (and the trade union movement) had been significantly involved the fight against the National Front with the Anti-Nazi League and had given mass support to the strike at Grunwick, it was almost always done, Paul Gordon argued, ‘on their terms’[xxiv] and the aims of the left and of the black communities did not coincide, with ‘little involvement by the labour and trade union movement in the main concerns of black people’.[xxv] The defeat at Grunwick to the challenge to the unions by Thatcherism can be seen as part of a wider narrative of the rise of identity politics and a realisation of the limitations of organised unionism, which have thus shaped the function of British politics in the post-Thatcherite (and New Labour) period. As Carter wrote, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[xxvi]

I know I’ve completely overlooked the gender aspect of the Grunwick strike despite mentioning it in the first paragraph. It’s something that I recognise will need to be emphasised much more if I am to re-write this into a proper paper. In the meantime, I will point to the work (here and here) of Sundari Anitha, Ruth Pearson and Linda McDowell as part of the Striking Women project


[i] Andy Forbes, ‘In the Wake of Grunwick’, Marxism Today, December 1978, p. 386

[ii] Graham Taylor, ‘Grunwick’, Broad Left, 12, n.d., p. 8; Italics are in the original text

[iii] Jack Dromey & Graham Taylor, Grunwick: The Workers’ Story, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978, p. 190

[iv] SWP, Grunwick, SWP pamphlet, London, 1978, p. 4

[v] Socialist Challenge, 3 November, 1977

[vi] Grunwick Strike Committee, Bulletin 53, 5 September, 1977, G1402/7, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[vii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People’s History Museum, Manchester

[viii] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154

[ix] ‘Grunwick (2)’, Race & Class, 19/3, 1978, p. 292

[x] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, Race & Class, 19/1, 1977, p. 70

[xi] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February, 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, MRC

[xii] Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987, p. 307

[xiii] Tom Durkin, Grunwick: Bravery & Betrayal, Brent Trades Council pamphlet, London, 2006, p. 23

[xiv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 16

[xv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvi] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvii] Cited in, ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 294

[xviii] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292; A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 26/4, 1985, p. 7

[xix] ‘The East Midlands: A Cameo in Conspiracy’, Race Today, August 1973, p. 239

[xx] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 15

[xxi] RTC, The Struggles of Asian Workers in Britain, p. 15

[xxii] Paul Gordon, ‘“If They Come in the Morning…”: The Police, the Miners and Black People’, in Bob Fine & Robert Millar (eds), Policing the Miners’ Strike, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1985, p. 172; p. 173

[xxiii] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986, p. 115

[xxiv] P. Gordon, ‘If They Come in the Morning…’, p. 172; Italics are in the original text.

[xxv] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 116

[xxvi] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 115

3 comments

  1. I remember many mornings spoent at Grunwicks, and the strong sense that the pickets were an important parallel and complement to the anti-racist activity that culminated with the Anti Nazi League. I also remember Jack Dromey, now a leading Labour MP, making me take down a Right To Work Campaign banner because it “wasn’t a bona fide labour movement organisation”. He was a petty-minded bullying bureaucrat then, and he remains one.
    On the point that Grunwicks was a turning-point and that such support for black workers could not have been won earlier, I think you are right. But it is worth remembering that such solidarity did not fall from the sky – it was built on earlier and smaller struggles. At the risk of immodesty, I am adding a link to an account of the Courtauld strike of 1965. http://londonsocialisthistorians.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/ray-challinor-and-1965-courtauld-strike.html
    Without pioneering efforts such as this, the mass pickets at Grunwicks might never have happened.

  2. What you say is little more than the regurgitation of this very well trammelled bit of trade union history. Had the advice I gave to Roy Grantham General Secretary of APEX after my Taking the first phone call from Len Gristey the APEX Organiser who wanted to recruit the Grunwick employees been followed, the strike may never have taken place, certainly not under the banner of APEX. My advice to Gristey was clear. APEX does not accept into membership people who are on strike and become liable for strike payments. It was Jack Dromey, who exceeded his role as Brent Trades Council Chairman who interfered with APEX rights in his anxiety to take action against an employer (Grunwick) which his own union the TGWU had previously been defeated.
    I was at the time Assistant General Secretary of APEX, and am probably the last one standing who really knows the truth of what was going on at executive level and behind the scenes in this dispute.
    Dr. Raymond Edwards

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