Chinese students at Grunwick? An overlooked aspect of the strike

Grunwick Strike Committee Banner, designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani, UK, 1976. NMLH.1993.604, ©People’s History Museum, Manchester, UK.

Grunwick Strike Committee Banner, designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani, UK, 1976. NMLH.1993.604, ©People’s History Museum, Manchester, UK.

I am currently looking through the photographs I took in the archives during my recent UK trip and today have been looking through the papers of the Grunwick Strike Committee (held by the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick). This material will probably be used in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race.

Whilst reading these archival papers, I found two references to Chinese students being used as workers during the Grunwick strike and the query by APEX (the union in charge of the strike) as to whether the company was using this labour to break the strike. This is interesting because I had not come across this allegation before in the literature on Grunwick. The strike at Grunwick between 1976 and 1978 is probably most well-known because it brought together South Asian workers and the trade union movement really for the first time for ‘effective’ industrial action, despite the strike eventually failing. The ‘face’ of the strike was Jayaben Desai, who represented the largely South Asian and female workforce that picketed the company during the strike. We also know that a number of African-Caribbean workers (also constituting a large female contignent) were involved in the strike, but as Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson have recently written, they have ‘largely disappeared from the historical record’. But until now, I had not read anything about any Chinese students working at Grunwick either before or during the strike.

The first document mentioning Chinese students working at Grunwick is an internal APEX memo from one of the union’s research officers to its London Area Organiser, Len Gristey. The memo, dated 24 May, 1977, said:

On Friday 20th May I had a telephone call from Mr. Frank Douglas, who claimed to have some inside knowledge about the workings of [Grunwick Processing Laboratories]. He says at the present time, Grunwick are endeavouring to hire Chinese students from local colleges who cover their staffing requirements over the summer period. He says that he knows that Grunwick are counting firmly on having a supply of labour from this source, and urges us most strenuously to get in touch with local colleges of education, polytechnics, technicals and the like, with a view to making our position on Grunwick known, thus discouraging Chinese students from taking up employment with the company.

The second document is an internal letter, dated 7 September, 1977, from Gristey to APEX’s General Secretary, Roy Grantham, stating:

[N]one of us are able to establish anything at all concerning very recent employees who joined the company around the time of mass picketing, many of whom appear to be of Chinese or Japanese extraction. Some of these are undoubtedly students and I would therefore assume that their colleges would have checked on the question of their entering this country, but as regards those others who are not students I regret that it is impossible at this moment to secure any type of check upon them at all. The police are unable to assist in this matter because, of course, they do not know who the individuals are anyway.

These are the only two documents that I have come across that mention Chinese students at Grunwick, so I am unsure whether the matter was pursued any further than these memos. I have no idea who Frank Douglas was or what his motives were for contacting the union. Was he concerned with Grunwick’s attempts to hire labour to break the strike? Or was he concerned that the workers were Chinese?

One possible reading of the second document is a reinforcement of past prejudices within the labour movement and the suspicion that ethnic minority workers were being recruited en masse as strikebreakers. Neither document confirms that Chinese workers (students or otherwise) were employed at Grunwick and merely alleges that people of ‘Chinese or Japanese extraction’ had been working there during the strike.

It is also interesting that Gristey mentions the possibility of using the police to make enquiries into these workers at a time when relations between the labour movement and the police were very low after the violent clashes between police and picketers in the summer of 1977.

Has anyone come across any other mention of Chinese students/workers at Grunwick? The Grunwick Strike Committee used to produce a weekly newsletter. I would be interested to see if this was mentioned in it.

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