Remembering Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick dispute
As the first Black Member of Parliament to represent Liverpool – home to the oldest established Black community in Europe – it means a lot to look back and remember the women on whose shoulders I stand.
Their struggles paved the way for me and inspired my early community activism and later my step up into the trade union and Labour movement.
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1970s, a time when our city – the greatest in the world – was suffering under the twin evils of Thatcherism and racism. Class and race consciousness spread like wildfire among my generation as we fought back against policies of “managed decline” and escalating police brutality on our streets. With Black communities and trade unions on the front line of the visible war on our streets, I started to get interested and active in political movements.
That is why, this Black History Month, I have chosen to pay tribute to one of my all-time heroes: Jayaben Desai, the south-Asian “lioness” trade unionist who took the fight to her bosses as I was growing up and transformed trade unions forever.
Desai, and many other migrant women workers of her generation, showed incredible resilience and tenacity in the face of racism, sexism and some of the worst worker exploitation. They were treated with contempt, patronised and bullied at work. They also faced threats due to the rise of the fascist National Front.
The successes of Desai and the striking Grunwick workers marked a significant turning point in workforce unionisation in Britain
Under Desai’s fierce leadership, migrant women workers at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratory in London walked out, from 1976-8, against poor conditions and management bullying and humiliation. Their spirit and struggle won the hearts and support of key unions, including the Union of Postal Office Workers who boycotted the factory. Within a year, over 20,000 people joined them on the streets – met by aggressive policing and condemnation by prime minister Thatcher.
Desai and her comrades shattered the stereotype of submissive South Asian women and took a stand for women workers everywhere. Instead of dismissing Black and migrant workers, and particularly women, as vulnerable and difficult to organise – the unions were forced to accept the dignity and determination of these workers and eventually came out to support in full force.
Despite the defeat of the immediate dispute, the successes of Desai and the striking Grunwick workers marked a significant turning point in workforce unionisation in Britain and paved the way for me and so many others.
My journey into politics began in the trade union movement when, at 18 I walked into my first job and joined the Public and Commercial Services Union. I’ve been a trade unionist ever since. I became a trade union representative in my workplace, and eventually got active in regional and national Black members committees in Unison. Without trade unions, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Desai played a leading role in paving the way for the opportunities I have benefitted from. I am proud to pay tribute to her spirit and her struggle.
Kim Johnson is the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside
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