14th July 1978. ‘Strikers in Saris’.
Many strikes of the 1970s and 1980s reflected a real sense of worker grievance. One such was at the Grunwick Company at Willesden, London, a dispute which began in 1976- the hottest summer on record-when an employee was dismissed for slow working. Other workers ‘came-out’ in sympathy: it resulted in a two years’ strike.
There had been a history of poor labour relations at the firm which refused to acknowledge unions and where low pay and poor working practices requiring compulsory overtime was backed by a ruthless management style.
It wasn’t until two years’ later, Today in 1978, that the dispute ended at the photograph processing plant, which traded under names such as ‘Bonus’ and ‘Triple Print’.
In the process 130 workers, mostly Asian were sacked, never to be reinstated.
Picketing which began in 1976, to be joined by miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, saw violent protests the like of which had rarely been seen since the 1926 General Strike.
The worst violence was seen in November 1977 when 8,000 congregated at the factory gates, when 243 were injured.
Labour MPs on the picket line included Fred Mulley, Denis Howell, and Shirley Williams who lost her seat in the 1979 election.
The workers were supported by the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and The Working Woman’s Charter Campaign, along with Harriet Harman of Brent Law Centre and Jack Dromey of Brent Trade Centre Committee.(1)
There were 500 arrests and much police violence as attempts were made to ‘bus-in’ strike breakers. Local postal workers placed a ban on deliveries. Chemist shops were picketed to stop their benefiting from the dispute.
The Grunwick action proved to be a cause celebre for Trades Union and Labour Relations Law. It saw for the first time use of the Police Special Patrol Group, and where the majority of the strikers were of an ethnic minority. Previous disputes at Leicester and Southall had been ‘marginalized’.
The Company never did accept the demand for Collective Bargaining as recommended by the Lord Scarman Report, and the Law Lords upheld its right not to recognize a Trade Union.
However the Inquiry did say the Indian born owner, Graham Ward, had operated, ‘the letter but not the spirit of the law’.(2)
In the middle of the dispute in August 1977, Tory hard-liner, Sir Keith Joseph said that it was: ‘make or break time for British democracy’, and that the Labour Ministers were, ‘[m]oderates behind whom red fascism springs’.
Which comment even Mrs Thatcher, Tory Leader and two years’ later Prime Minister, thought was, ‘too sharp’. She was to change!
Grunwick and other strikes, proved to be a prelude to the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ of widespread strikes, and the later Tory backlash under Margaret Thatcher.
Grunwick closed in 2011 due to competition from digital cameras.
(1) Both now Labour MPs.
(2) Ward died in April 2012.
Ref: Path to Power 1995, London, Harper Collins p. 402.
Ref: Brown, Bill, 15.7.1978, Morning Star.
Ref: theguardian.com/grunwick-dispute.Strikers in Saris, Image Reference.