Here to stay, here to fight: How Asians transformed the British working class

Issue: 153

Yuri Prasad

During the blisteringly hot summer of 1976 a group of Asian workers, predominantly women, walked out on strike at a small factory in north west London. Most were recently arrived migrants from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and were as unlikely a group of militants as you were likely to find that year. The Grunwick strikers acted spontaneously, without a union to back them and without knowing whether they could count on any wider support. Yet their determination and courage during a dispute that would last until the summer of 1978 would transform the politics of race in the labour movement—and in doing so would have huge ramifications for British society in general. Without taking account of the strike, it is impossible to understand the way in which attitudes towards Asians in Britain have changed over the post-war period. But in many ways Grunwick was the culmination of decades of struggle by workers of South Asian origin—struggles that younger generations of British Asians and many anti-racists today may have only scant knowledge of. The lessons of those battles are crucial for all those fighting for the rights of migrant workers in Britain today.1

The breaking down of stereotypes and the forging of new traditions of a multiracial working class are key reasons why many conditions improved for subsequent generations. This finds a reflection in health, employment, education and even popular culture, from TV and music, to sports, food and fashions. Some (and I stress, some) key institutions have been forced into change, with schools being among the most obvious as the celebration of different cultures is now commonplace in the curriculum. For some, these improvements are a product of gradualism. People just get used to one another, education erodes irrational prejudices and new anti-discrimination laws regulate society, they say. But prejudices don’t simply wane and the legal system doesn’t simply adjust itself naturally. All these changes are the result of real struggles by real people—in this case, the struggles of Asian migrants themselves, and those of a growing anti-racist minority within the working class that made it their business to support them.

The struggle of Asian workers in post-war Britain provides many important lessons from the past. It’s the story of the fight against racist employers and their backers in the ruling class, it’s the story of a fight for and within the unions, it’s the story of overcoming the prejudices of many white workers, and it’s a story of resistance to the fascists of the National Front, racist attacks, racist policing and racist immigration controls. Ultimately, it’s a story of transformation. The struggle transformed the indigenous workers but also its transformers, the Asian workers themselves—from being outsiders to an integral part of the British working class.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was common to hear Asians described as particularly apt to be used as cheap labour. They often spoke little English and were thought therefore to be uneducated and without a tradition of resistance. To many they appeared servile and meek; women workers whose origins were in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were thought particularly docile and therefore ripe for exploitation and abuse. Attitudes towards migrants from Africa and the Caribbean were no better, despite the lack of a language difficulty, and they fought many industrial disputes in their own right.2 This idea that subservient groups of workers were undercutting wages and competing for scarce resources suited the ruling class because it both acted as a threat against those who demanded better conditions and at the same time deflected blame for poor living standards away from themselves. Construction, clothing sweatshop, factory, foundry and mill bosses were only too happy to use the newly arrived to fulfil the most dangerous, dirty and unskilled jobs during a time of general labour shortage, no matter what skills or status they had on arrival. They could pay them less than white workers on the assumption that they were isolated from the regular workforce and had no means of fighting back.

This isolation was aided by hundreds of years of colonialism and imperial domination, in which all Britons were encouraged to see themselves as part of a master race. No matter if you as a white worker were treated like dirt, at least you were part of something great…Great Britain. The empire’s subjects found themselves ruled over because they were seen as inferior to whites, of all social classes. That was a damaging enough ideology when those subjects were thousands of miles away in the colonies, but the effect on the working class was devastating when those subjects were now in the same communities and workplaces, and racism could be used to drive a wedge between workers. Satnam Virdee describes this using the example of English and Irish workers in the 19th century:

Being able to lay claim to membership of the ruling race of the nation proved a powerful means by which to justify Irish exclusion from “good jobs”, as well as others who could not be imagined as an organic element of this island race. It gave the English working class another strategy for improving its economic and political standing—one no longer dependent on the manufacture of a broad class-based solidarity, nor a frontal confrontation with the state—by simply asserting their legitimate rights as members of the British nation.3

It was an ideology that fitted well with the bureaucracies of the trade unions and later the emerging Labour Party. For their part, the unions believed Asians were victims of unscrupulous bosses and, at the same time, a threat in much the same way as the women workers who filled the factories during the war had been. Both, it was said, lacked the traditions of militancy that had been built up on the British shop floor. The leaders of the TUC said they hoped their branches would welcome and aid the overseas workers while at the same time pleading with the government for immigration controls to “maintain full employment”.

One highly contradictory resolution put to the 1958 TUC Congress reflected thinking common to the movement:

The coloured people coming to England are British subjects only seeking a means of existence which is denied them in their place of birth. We implore all trade unionists to do all in their power to help them obtain employment and join their respective trade unions, thus enabling them to work and live as decent human beings.

It is time a stop was a put to all foreign labour entering this country; they constitute a danger to the workers of this country. In the event of a slump occurring, the market would be flooded with cheap foreign labour and a serious deterrent to trade union bargaining power.4

In many places local union organisation helped to keep migrants out of jobs, restricting the number of African-Caribbean and Asian workers allowed into the workplace and in some places keeping them out altogether.5 As a consequence, many Asian workers were sceptical about trade unions, if not the idea of collective action in the workplace. Their experience was often one of having their grievances ignored by officials and stewards alike, and being met by indifference and sometimes downright prejudice by the white workers they toiled alongside. But in a time of high worker militancy, centred on the factory floor rather than in the union offices, it was inevitable that the spirit of the times would soon spread to migrant workers. Between 1964 and 1967 some 2,333 strikes were recorded with over 2,597,000 strike days taken.6 Those involving Asian workers formed part of this general trend.

The background was one of growing official racism coupled with racist violence on the streets. The attacks on black communities in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958 were the most visible manifestations of a widespread problem of racist attacks and a climate of fear. The violence met with angst in the press but it was widely assumed that the problem was that there were too many immigrants. When the Tories moved to control Commonwealth immigration in 1961, Labour rightly accused them of racism, saying the new law deliberately targeted black and Asian workers and their families. But often as not Labour’s protestations were based on the fear that such obvious discrimination would damage Britain’s national interests, rather than the damage being done to working class unity. Thus Barbara Castle, the Labour MP and soon to be minister, argued: “I do not care whether or not fighting this Commonwealth Immigration Bill will lose me my seat, for I am sure that this Bill will lose this country the Commonwealth”.7

In the 1964 Smethwick by-election the Tory candidate was able to win a Labour seat using a leaflet that read: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. After this the Labour Party capitulated to the prejudice it had attacked and instead decided to join the growing racist clamour, committing itself in the general election that year to maintaining existing immigration legislation while bringing forward legislation to outlaw discrimination. The effect of immigration law was to legitimise racism, giving official backing to those who saw migrant workers as a “problem”. And every concession made to racism simply increased the craving for still greater clampdowns. Far from being cowed, Asian workers chose this period to call time on racism in the workplace. The first major strikes came in 1965 at Courtauld’s Red Scar mill in Preston and at the Woolf Rubber factory in Hayes, west London.8

The fight at Red Scar

The Courtauld Red Scar textile mill employed almost 2,500 workers, a quarter of them Asian (half Pakistani and half Indian Sikhs). The company organised workers along ethnic lines with English speaking leaders and nearly all the Asian workers shunted together into two of the lowest skilled and lowest paid departments. Trouble flared when officials and shop stewards from the Transport and General Workers’ Union agreed a deal that would see workers in those departments working 50 percent harder for just a 3 percent increase in their bonuses.9

Asian workers walked out without official backing from the union—which said the dispute was “tribal” and that it sought to advance Asian workers’ terms at the expense of others—and started what became a three-week strike. Despite the lack of official support, attempts by black nationalist activists from outside Preston to encourage the formation of “black only” unions were rebuffed.10 In most senses, the strike was not a success. Management were able to keep production in the striking units running at 85 percent by using other workers. And the labelling of the strikers as racist put them on the back foot. The strike ended without its demands met and most histories, including Peter Fryer’s excellent Staying Power, record the failure of the white workers and their union to back the Asians as the most distinguishing feature.11

But not everyone swam with the tide. Ian Birchall has written some notes on the role played by Ray Challinor, a member of the International Socialists (the predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party), in raising support for the strikers.12 Challinor grasped the importance of the strike and insisted that the labour movement should offer its whole-hearted support. He toured union branches and Labour Party groups to raise money and wrote to MPs on behalf of the strikers. As a consequence, he enjoyed the confidence of strike leaders, and was given a standing ovation by a mass meeting of 900 strikers. Birchall points to two gains that the strike made despite the odds against it. First, Asian workers had proved by fighting back that they were not simply cheap labour that could be used and abused at the bosses’ whim. Second, Courtauld’s management were shocked by the levels of support for the strike among their Asian employees and maintaining production had caused them problems. In a bid to ward off any further action they started to improve conditions in the sections where Asian workers predominated.

But there is also a third point.

Marxism is often caricatured by critics on the anti-racist left as ignoring or downplaying questions of divisions inside the working class, or insisting simply that class struggle will by necessity wipe away all obstacles to unity.13 That is not an interpretation of Karl Marx’s views or of Marxism that fits the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors, either in theory or practice. It is clear that both Ray and fellow International Socialist Paul Foot, who wrote a lengthy article on the strike for the Institute of Race Relations, were concerned to make the strike a challenge to the racism inside the trade union movement. Their involvement aimed to provide solidarity but also concrete proof that not all white workers were racist, that sections of the labour movement could be won to fighting alongside migrants. But it was also an attempt to flush out an argument inside the working class.

Perhaps because of its controversial nature, and because of the efforts of a minority of anti-racists, the strike became a major talking point in the union, with a TGWU meeting devoting a whole day to discussing it. According to one account, a Courtauld’s shop steward later confided to the union that he had made a mistake by allowing the Asian workers to fight alone:

In this instance, by accepting dual standards and giving up trade union principles, the white members of the union allowed the dispute to be turned into a colour strike. The shop steward told of how the white workers were subsequently compelled to accept the conditions originally given only to the coloured workers.14

That white workers would also suffer if they allowed themselves to be divided from Asians was to be another harsh lesson that the working class would have to learn through experience. This was a point that Marx made in 1870 when discussing the tensions between English and Irish workers in Britain:

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.

And, Marx goes on to say: “this antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this”.15

Howling at the Woolf

The second significant Asian strike of 1965 came at Woolf, which made rubber components for cars. It paid its workers so badly that it was common for them to work a seven-day, 75-hour week just to make ends meet, with many forced to bribe white foremen in order to get extra shifts. Some 90 percent of its unskilled workers were Sikhs from the Punjab. Many spoke little English, but among their number were activists in the Indian Workers’ Association, which was linked to the Communist movement in India. They were determined that Woolf would have a union and that Asians would not be treated like dirt.16

Vishnu Sharma, a production line worker at Woolf, remembers:

We in the Indian Workers’ Association brought in the Transport and General Workers’ Union and tried to get everyone to join, but secretly, going house to house in the community, so management could not know the people who were actively behind this. After two, three, months a majority of the workers in the production department had become members of the union and the matter was handed over to the union officials to negotiate with factory management.17

Workers won recognition for their TGWU union in 1964 but management reneged on the agreement and sacked activists the following year, leading to a seven-week strike. The national union pledged its support: after all, winning the strike would benefit all employees and the national union. But confusion reigned. Lorries driven by fellow TGWU members crossed picket lines, and the union offered no strike pay. The new shop stewards found they had to fight their union’s bureaucracy as well as management to win effective action and solidarity. However, the strikers could draw on militant traditions from home. Community organisations appealed for food and funds, and ensured that many Asian landlords and shops extended lines of credit during the dispute. Some £1,500 was collected (something like £26,000 today) in donations and fundraising.

Roger Cox was an engineering shop steward in north west London at the time of the Woolf strike. He remembers that workers at the ENV factory, where members of the International Socialists ran the stewards committee, supported the strike:

You have to understand that the level of racism against immigrants was terrible, far worse than today. Raising support for an Asian strike meant having an
argument—even in a factory with a lot of Irish workers, many of whom had come to Britain after the war. Nevertheless, ENV adopted the strikers and organised a levy of all the workers; the factory had around 1,100 at that time.

There was resistance to the levy among some workers, despite ENV being known for its solidarity with other workers on strike. Sometimes stewards were able to enforce it because people respected them. But there were tensions. At the time our arguments against racism were a bit crude. We’d talk about the need for working class unity and make humanistic appeals. But remember, we hadn’t had the big outbreak of Asian struggles or a big anti-racist movement to lean on; all of that was to come later. So we were just learning about how to take on racial prejudice in our own class.

Roger says the importance of having principled socialists in the workplace was crucial:

The leading stewards went the extra mile. They kept a close relationship with the Woolf strikers and advised them on how to operate in the union. IS member Geoff Carlsson was particularly important. He was absolutely clear on the need to oppose racism. I remember him having a big row with a fellow member who thought we should soften our opposition to immigration controls.

The whole episode reminds me of just how important even a small number of committed revolutionaries can be, and how precious that tradition is.18

In January 1966 the strike ended without victory. Many of the best activists were not taken back, and the company subsequently closed the factory. That the strike did not win was not the lesson that workers and their families took. Instead it was clear that only militancy and being prepared to act outside the structures of the official union could force the hands of racist employers and an indifferent union leadership. But it was also clear that some white trade unionists, especially those with strong traditions of rank and file organisation and high levels of confidence, could be argued into delivering practical solidarity for predominantly recent migrant strikers. For the rest of the decade Asian workers were to strike both as part of the wider workforce, only rarely refusing to join official action, and on their own when necessary—with and without official union support.

Strikes involving Asian workers towards the end of the 1960s occurred in the context of a growing racist clamour. The gutter press and right wing politicians launched a huge campaign against Asian families fleeing persecution in Kenya in 1968. The Labour government and nearly all Labour MPs joined in. They pushed a bill through parliament in just one day that removed the right of Asians to enter the country even if they held British passports. But every concession to racism created a thirst for more, culminating in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in April that year and hundreds of building workers, engineers, dockers and meat porters walking out on strike in support of him.19

Finally, alarm bells started to ring in the TUC headquarters. But what should be their reaction? Too many drew the wrong conclusions. Asian workers were singled out as a particular problem, with lack of language skills and different cultural traditions being a reason why their rights to come to Britain should be curtailed.20 The result was increasing tension in workplaces with high concentrations of migrant workers. Examples of racist shop stewards and officials being in cohorts with management to deliberately sideline and exclude migrant workers were commonplace.

But, as US civil rights researcher Beryl Radin notes in her study of British unions and migrants, two distinct patterns emerged. One reflected the so-called “colour-blind” indifference of the union leaderships, which in reality masked racist injustice. The other was an emerging tradition among a minority of white socialists and trade unionists who wanted to make the unions a home for migrant workers; it was the beginning of a new anti-racist spirit among some on the shop floor and some in the union machine. Radin describes meeting union organisers who, together with Asian members, used their own initiative to produce leaflets in Asian languages, and to organise meetings in local Sikh temples where white workers would remove their shoes and don white headscarves before entering. Sometimes meetings would be held in two or more languages, with one local official in construction describing the migrants in his branch as “our International Brigades”.21

The two traditions within the unions were to be tested in two crucial disputes that followed.

Mansfield Hosiery

Mansfield Hosiery in Loughborough made jumpers. In common with many other clothing firms they divided their employees along racial lines, with Asians—and Asian women in particular—doing the least skilled and lowest paid work. Several hundred workers joined a strike in October 1972 after an Asian woman was told that she could no longer wear a sari to work.22 But in reality, grievances related to the harsh conditions at Mansfield’s, and its nearby subsidiary which also joined the strike, the way Asian workers were restricted to being bar-loaders on half the pay of knitters, and the general level of racist abuse they suffered at the hands of foremen and managers who refused to learn their names, instead referring to all Asians as “Oi, you!” The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers was known for its hostile attitude towards migrants and was determined to end the walkout without further action. But the strikers marched through town to the union office and occupied it, chanting various mantras, until the leadership agreed to declare the strike official. Although the knitters, who were exclusively white, had joined the strike for the first week, the union decided not to make them part of the official action. White workers were prepared to back their Asian colleagues in a battle for better pay but not for promotion and the union was not prepared to challenge their prejudices.23

Management held a hard line for 12 weeks, going door to door to try and convince their staff to return to work. But the strikers stood firm, again with massive community support and the threat of action by other factories with a large migrant workforce. The return to work when it came was at least a partial victory, with employers and the union agreeing that Asian workers would now be trained to be knitters. And the effect of the victory on the union machine and upon white workers was telling. Bennie Bunsee concludes his report for Spare Rib magazine by saying:

The workers now have a shop committee consisting of 15 representatives, 11 of whom are Asians… The relationship between English and Asian girls is different: problems like pricing of articles are discussed together. Swearing has stopped… Some of the Asian women are now trying to learn English and some of the English women know a little Gujarati. The strike finally ended when Asians were granted knitters’ jobs—but the strike had raised many issues, not least of which was the dignity of the Asians themselves as people. A familiar slogan of the workers was “We will not go back like dogs”.24

Ultimately, Mansfield had proved that by fighting, Asian workers could transform their own situation and also start to break the hold of racism on their white colleagues. Their success was in part due to the militancy and political nature of the strike leadership, but also because they were able to apply pressure on the union and management with threats of spreading the action to workers at other factories.

Imperial Typewriters

The fight at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974 was even more bitterly fought, and involved a struggle against a vicious multinational firm, a racist local union and the fascist National Front, which organised some white workers at the factory under the guise of the White Workers of Imperial Typewriters. Some 1,100 out of 1,600 workers were Asian, mostly recent migrants from East Africa. But there was only one Asian shop steward in the whole factory, with the union having deliberately cultivated its rule book to deny non-whites a chance to be elected as reps. All workers, but Asians in particular, had a long list of grievances but a production speed-up in one particular section where all the workers were Asian was the trigger for what became a three-month long dispute. Some 27 women and 12 men walked off the job on 1 May. A week later 500 had joined them and production was down by around 50 percent.25

The quickest way to resolve the dispute would have been for the union to call everyone out together and shut down production completely. But the TGWU never made the strike official and management took that as their cue to sack everyone in the section that initiated the walkout. While conditions inside the factory for Asian workers were terrible, white workers were also subjected to poor pay, speed-ups and appalling conditions. The union should have recognised the danger posed by racial divisions inside the plant and used the general grievances to bring about a factory-wide dispute, but instead the stewards and local officials accused the Asian strikers of rocking the boat.26 According to striker Chunilal Parmar, many white workers had no idea what lay behind the Asian workers’ walkout so there was a missed opportunity at the very beginning of the strike for united action: “When we came out, the white workers said, ‘We don’t know anything about this. How can we come out too?’ But at first they did come out and then went back”.27

For some strikers, and for the black nationalist orientated Race Today collective, which played an important role in the solidarity campaign, the Asian community was the focus for resistance. They argued that “race and a sense of community have so far been the strikers’ only power base”.28 Nevertheless, many strikers remained committed to “winning over the white workers”.29

It was clear from early on that this was to be no ordinary strike. The leadership, thrown up rapidly in the course of the action, was young, with the two key reps being just 21 years old. And the strikers themselves barely fitted the stereotype of the Asian worker, as one report captured:

A new element has emerged amongst the strikers: young, long-haired, golden-earringed, bedenimed and brown-skinned, they are fearless and energetic. They have no qualms about attacking the National Front, cheeking the police (Leicester Police Force has an East African Asian on its force who is used to control the picket line and interpret for the other men: he is a particular target for the men) and their attitude towards the blacklegs is powerful hostility. The state has been worried for some time about controlling a similar element amongst West Indian youth. Imperial Typewriters has shown the emergence of a similarly energetic force amongst Asian youth.30

The strike itself was run in an activist fashion, with anything up to 200 people on the picket lines and regular mass meetings, which were tape recorded so that no one could be in any doubt about what decisions had been made. Every tactic and every development was discussed at length, as were many other political issues, and women workers emerged as a very powerful and militant force.

The meetings and picket lines were regularly attacked by the police and the fascists, who were fast emerging as a significant threat to both black and Asian communities, and to the labour movement more generally. The strikers had to learn to organise themselves both physically and in the courtroom. But there was no shortage of community support, including from local factories with a large Asian TGWU workforce, many of whom promised to join a 24-hour stoppage in support of Imperial if needed, and from the growing anti-racist movement across Britain, which helped organise pickets of shops and offices associated with the firm.

The argument for a community response was strong but alone it was not enough to win. Avtar Jouhl, who as part of the Indian Workers’ Association played an important role in both the Mansfield Hosiery and Imperial Typewriter strikes, makes it clear that the union, both regionally and locally, must accept the blame for the failure to lead a united strike:

The union principle is: if one worker is on strike, other workers should not do his or her work, should not cross picket lines and should not distribute any of the goods made at the factory. But the white workers crossed the picket line, worked on the jobs of the strikers, and distributed their goods… When it came to the report of the regional committee [the TGWU report that was critical of the local union and recommended changes] it was very mildly worded. But before it could be implemented Litton Industries decided to close down Imperial Typewriters.31

The strike ended in a bitter defeat. Imperial Typewriters’ owners saw the weakness that disunity among the workers created and managed to close down both the Leicester and Hull factories without a significant fight.32 By not fighting side by side, both Asian and white workers had lost—and many struggled to find jobs in the years following the closure.

There were many other disputes involving Asian workers in 1974, including Art Castings in Nuneaton, Perivale Gutermann in west London, Delta Mouldings, Punfield and Barstow Mouldings and Kenilworth Components in Leicester and Combined Opticals of Slough. Looking at the year’s anti-racist working class struggles Socialist Worker noted a factor common to most:

In these badly-organised, badly-paid factories many black workers have had to take jobs. But time after time…they showed, in defeat and in victory, the ability to fight and to organise. With all too little official union backing, organisation has been thrown up in the course of struggle, with workers finding for themselves the ways of fighting the bosses. The efforts of the union officials have ranged from too-little-too-late to nothing or deliberate sabotage.33

There were signs that attitudes among union members and their leaders were beginning to shift. The threat of the National Front formed part of the pressure upon them, but the sheer persistence of Asian workers and their allies in the anti-racist movement also played their part. So Jack Jones, the left wing leader of the TGWU, endorsed a dockers’ rank and file pamphlet which declared: “The harsh reality is that the working class is divided by racialism to a damaging degree. An urgent responsibility falls upon trade union activists to seek those remedies which can unify our class and meet head-on the racialism embedded in so much of our society”.34

But, welcome though these sentiments were, in themselves they were not enough to ensure that future strikes would be successful. The working class movement as a whole was facing a structural problem—the increasing fragmentation of workplace organisation. This meant that victories in individual factories or sections “were not seen as ones for the class as a whole, and that solidarity between different groups of workers was weak”.35 Strikes involving Asian workers took place in this context and could not by themselves buck the trend.

The long hot summer of ’76

The year 1976 would not have seemed promising for socialists, rank and file trade unionists and those hoping to turn the tide on racism. The Labour government was implementing the social contract that saw living standards plummet and the national unions seemed determined to do nothing but sit on their hands. Racism was rampant, with the National Front marching and winning worryingly large votes in local elections—and the press had returned to one of its favourite preoccupations, the “menace” of Asians seeking refuge from dictators in Africa, this time just 250 people from Malawi. A series of racist murders followed.

In South Woodford, east London, Dinesh Choudhri, aged 19, and Riphi Alhadidi, aged 22, were stabbed to death by white youths.36 In Southall a gang of racist youths killed 18 year old student Gurdip Singh Chaggar. Fascist local councillor and former chair of the NF John Kingsley Read, told a meeting: “Fellow racialists, fellow Britons, and fellow Whites, I have been told I cannot refer to coloured immigrants. So you can forgive me if I refer to niggers, wogs and coons.” Then, speaking about Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, Read said: “Last week in Southall, one nigger stabbed another nigger. Very unfortunate. One down, a million to go.” Read was later found not guilty of incitement to racial hatred. In September a 60 year old woman, Mohan Dev Gautam, was murdered; a racist gang dragged her from her home in Leamington Spa and set her alight. At least four Asians, including Altab Ali, were murdered in east London by white gangs in the two years following the scare stories whipped up over the Malawi Asians.

But 1976 did yield crucial responses to the crisis. The new, younger generation of British Asians—such as those who helped lead the strike at Imperial—rejected as too timid the politics of some of the older generation of activists who had settled in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They demanded a more radical and physical response to a worsening situation. Some extended their cynicism about their parents’ generation to the wider radical left. But many of the founding members had spent time in revolutionary groups and were already committed socialists—and most believed in working as part of the growing anti-racist movement. Together they formed “youth movements” as a means of community self-defence.37 In doing so they were following a tradition that began in Gravesend, Kent, in 1969, when Balwinder Rana and his friends set up a youth group, The Indian Youth Federation, to counter a wave of racist attacks in the area—referred to in the local media as “Paki bashing”.38

The Southall Youth Movement was to play a crucial role in the ever more vital anti-racist struggle. As John Rose wrote for this journal:

The test of the leadership of any movement is its ability to mobilise support. The Southall Youth Movement has passed this test. It has brought out hundreds on a number of demonstrations, ignoring the traditional “demonstration” etiquette of the left wing organisations by chanting slogans rhythmically rather than shouting and accompanying them by homemade drums of cans and sticks. Further, the Southall youth astonished even seasoned members of the International Socialists by organising a mass sit-down in Piccadilly Circus on the 11 July demonstration when two of their number were arrested for chasing racists on the pavements and refusing to budge until their comrades were released.39

The example of Southall was soon followed in Asian areas of cities all over Britain, with Asian Youth Movements established in many parts of London, Bradford, Luton, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and elsewhere. The groups often acted as a militant wing of what was already a militant anti-racist movement. They proved that Asians were not meek but could hit back hard against racist gangs and police harassment.

The spirit of resistance was to carry on into 1977 with the Battle of Lewisham, in which 5,000 black youths and local anti-racists including members of the SWP broke an NF march that attempted to intimidate one of Britain’s biggest African-Caribbean communities. The fascist march ended in complete disarray as even thousands of police were unable to guide the march through a hail of bricks and bottles. The success of Lewisham was behind the creation of the Anti Nazi League and its cooperation with Rock Against Racism, which had been formed a year earlier. Thousands of young people of all backgrounds were drawn into anti-Nazi activity, from gigs, carnivals and leafletting to physically confronting the fascists. Some were to witness the racism and brutality of the fascists at very close quarters. Some, such as teacher and SWP member Blair Peach, who was killed by police on a march against the National Front in 1979, were to pay a high price for their involvement.

Southall Asian Youth Movement activist Iqbal Khan was at the demonstration where Blair was killed and recalls events. He recently told Socialist Worker:

My first encounter with the NF was when I was about 16 or 17. I went with my cousin, who was a couple of years younger than me, to pick his sisters up from school. On the way back we heard six white guys shouting, “Get the Pakis!” Then we realised they meant us. They chased us and beat us up. I saw them carve NF on my cousin’s back. There was nothing I could do about it because the NF guys had got hold of me. This was my first experience of the violent side of the NF. It was a vicious attack… For a long time we had thought that it was just our fight, but [during the demo] we could see that we had a lot of the wider, indigenous population standing with us.

The big demonstrations made us feel we could win. It also made us look at everything a bit differently. We were no longer fearful of every white person we came across. We saw there were a lot of people on our side. I used to think that all white people were racist in some way. But I saw that some people were willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with us—even if it might mean, as happened with Blair Peach, that they lose their life.40


Only on rare occasions does the sheer ruthlessness of ruling class power go on show in capitalist society. The everyday violence built into the heart of the system is concealed by a web of deceit. But there are moments in class warfare when only by coordinating and exercising their full powers can our rulers hope to secure a crucial victory. The Grunwick strike was one of those moments.

Many on the side of the working class also understood the pivotal nature of the strike. Not only was the right to a union and the right to picket at stake; it was also a battle to integrate some of the most downtrodden workers into the union ranks. Grunwick was to see some of the greatest scenes of black and white working class solidarity in the history of the trade union movement—with mostly white workers travelling from all across Britain to join a group of overwhelmingly Asian women outside their factory gates; pickets of up to 20,000 people taking on mounted police and the paramilitary-style Special Patrol Group; mass arrests and brutal beatings meted out to pickets and protesters; the use of police agent provocateurs to discredit the strikers; and post workers refusing to touch scab mail, despite threats of expulsion from the leaders of their own union. Grunwick was all this and more.

But few would have noticed its beginning on 20 August 1976. The photo processing lab, tucked away in a ramshackle industrial estate on the edge of a quiet residential street in Dollis Hill, in London’s north west suburbs, figured in no map of the local trade union movement, let alone in the radical notoriety of many of the big engineering firms that still dominated the area. Some 440 people worked for Grunwick over two sites, about 80 percent Asian, with most being Gujaratis who had recently been expelled from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The work was mundane and badly paid, conditions inside the factory were poor and the management style was aggressive, with workers forced to put up their hands if they wanted to go to the toilet and chastised by overlord managers if they talked too much or too loudly. Company boss George Ward was viciously anti-union and his profits were dependent on running a low-wage, low-cost firm. Because of the nature of his business, summer was the busiest time, with hundreds of rolls of holiday films arriving to be processed every morning, and then thousands of printed snapshots being sent out in the evening. The company imposed compulsory overtime on most staff in a bid to keep up with the work at peak periods, which meant some could not leave work until 10pm at night but would still be expected in at 9am in the morning. There was little doubt among those familiar with Grunwick that the use of so much Asian labour was a deliberate ploy. Who else, other than the most desperate, would put up with pay less than two thirds of the average wage for unskilled women workers in London?

The strike started after managers sacked a young man who couldn’t keep up with their demands. Three colleagues went out the door with him. Over the next few days nearly one hundred workers, led by Jayaben Desai, had followed them out. She tore a strip off the sergeant-major type who tried to sack her as she left, saying: “What you are running here is not a factory; it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager!”41 In their spontaneous walkout, the Grunwick workers became strikers without even having joined a union. Through contact with Brent Trade Council they applied to join the white collar union Apex, which is today part of the GMB. The union enthusiastically took them, set about trying to negotiate with George Ward for union recognition for their now 150-strong strikers and even started paying them strike pay.

For several weeks little happened beyond basic picketing and some intimidation by the police. But then came a crucial development—postal workers at the Cricklewood office that serviced the company started blacking its mail, which had a devastating effect on a company dependent on mail-order. Within days Ward enlisted the assistance of the National Association for Freedom, a pressure group formed by hard-right Tories and leading businessmen. The NAFF understood one thing clearly: trade union leaders were wedded to the law and to holding on to their union’s assets. If it could have action in support of the strike declared illegal, the union bureaucracy would buckle. Together with Grunwick bosses they won a high court injunction against the postal workers’ UPW for blacking Grunwick mail and the union instructed the Cricklewood office to resume collections and deliveries to the firm. Many rank and file workers there were furious.

But the legal case had put the strike on the map nationally. Soon Labour MPs and even cabinet ministers were keen to be seen supporting the strike, which they all agreed was for fundamental rights. The newspapers saw a certain novelty in “strikers with saris” and even Len Murray, head of the TUC, put in an appearance at Brent Trades Council, declaring to the strikers: “We do not just stand behind you, we stand side by side with you all the way”.42 Compared to the comparative isolation that previous Asian strikes had been forced to endure, this official backing must have felt like a sea-change. But the support came at a high price. From here on those at the top of the union machine wanted to call the shots. They pushed for the dispute to go to the conciliation service ACAS in a bid to take the heat out of the struggle.

Some leading anti-racists, including Ambalavaner Sivanandan of the Institute of Race Relations, were deeply sceptical about the union leaders’ changing attitudes to racism. Sivanandan thought the shift was in part because some black workers were drawing the conclusion that the levels of racism inside the unions was so great that they needed separate organisations. But he also saw the union leadership working with the Labour government, and the state in general, to better control the explosive struggles in both the streets and in the workplace—and above all to protect the government’s austerity plan, known as the Social Contract. The unions were being entrusted with the “management of racism in employment” as part of a wider attempt to incorporate them. In a withering critique he wrote: “What we have, therefore, is not a ‘change of heart’ but a change of tactics—to ordain, legitimise and continue the joint strategies of the state and union leaders against the working class—through the Social Contract”.43

Sivanandan may have described a dynamic at the top of the labour movement but something even more significant was happening at the base of the trade unions—working class anti-racism was becoming a force in its own right. The Grunwick strike committee called for mass pickets of the factory and in June 1977 many hundreds of workers answered their call. Day after day strikers addressed union meetings across Britain, with the Asian women strikers impressing miners, dockers, engineers, hospital, car plant, foundry and construction workers everywhere they went. The image of Asian women as servile and as cannon-fodder for unscrupulous bosses was taking a battering in the popular imagination. Anyone who met Jayaben Desai knew they had met a ferocious class fighter: “We will not back down now”, she told Women’s Voice magazine. “We want to bring this factory to a stand-still. Our fight is for all our rights, and for our dignity. We hope all trade unionists will stand by us”.44

When the mass action came, the police went on the rampage arresting almost 100, including many leading strikers, and even Audrey Wise MP. One Apex official recalled how the secretary of the strike committee was taken: “They grabbed Mahmood and kicked and punched him hard. They’d obviously wanted him especially. They took him round the side of the police coaches to boot him in”.45 Many trade unionists who came to picket had never seen police violence so close to hand and were in shock: “It was awful. Unbelievable,” Mel MacPartland told Socialist Worker, “a lot of us, I’m sure did not expect that scale of violence—we were not prepared for the scale of things. I saw the shock on the face of one very respectable Labour councillor—white and drawn—he couldn’t believe his eyes”.46

Despite wanton police violence, the mass pickets took on a life of their own and quickly outgrew the ranks of the radical left, which had been a mainstay of outside support in the first months. And, as the pickets grew, so did the media attention. Soon the story of “outside agitators” stoking violence was common in both the papers and TV.47 The Labour cabinet worried that scenes of fighting at Grunwick were making it even more unpopular—and that any significant victory for rank and file led methods in industrial disputes could put an end to their social contract with the unions. In an effort to take the initiative away from the strikers, they announced a court of inquiry into the strike, led by Lord Scarman. The Labour leaders pressurised the unions to put a stop to the picketing on the basis that the inquiry would likely back the strikers’ right to a union and to be rehired. The union leaders in turn put pressure on the strike committee to wind down the action. But with preparation for the next mass picket on 11 July well underway, and with the Cricklewood postal workers restarting their blacking, it was far from clear that union leaders would get their way.

The biggest mass picket of Grunwick saw some 20,000 workers completely block the factory and the surrounding area. Yorkshire miners’ union president Arthur Scargill led a huge delegation from the coalfields, supplemented by many from Scotland, South Wales and Kent. London docker Bob Light’s description captures well the spirit of the day:

It was an impressive sight—shop stewards’ banners from the four biggest ports in the country, Hull, London, Merseyside and Southampton, lined up right across the road. The police made a couple of half-hearted attempts to clear the road but there were just too many pickets. We saw five coaches of the Special Patrol Group making towards us. But, 100 yards away, the Scab Protection Group turned around. They obviously didn’t fancy the odds. Having failed with that group of animals, the police sent in the cavalry—three dozen mounted police… The police just could not get through. They were absolutely sick… So after ten minutes the more intelligent horses turned and took their riders away… It was about the most exhilarating moment I’ve ever experienced on a demonstration. It took me back to the live electric days of Pentonville in 1972.48

The TUC, in an attempt to wrestle back the initiative, had called a Grunwick march for mid-morning on the day of the mass picket. They wanted supporters away from the plant and left just 22 strikers at the gate to deal with the scab bus, knowing they could do nothing of the kind. The strike committee had been strong-armed into supporting both the mass picket and the march, on pain of losing the TUC’s support. Leading strikers and their supporters made it clear they were deeply unhappy but felt they had no alternative. And, when 11am came, there was no other group capable of winning an argument with workers to carry on holding the line. Not for the first time the union leaders, under pressure from the Labour government, put their own interests ahead of the needs of the strikers.

But, down the road in Cricklewood the post workers’ blacking was once again hitting Grunwick hard and the company’s mail started piling up in offices across London. The NAFF then mounted “Operation Pony Express”, ­collecting mail from offices, often in the dead of night, and distributing its outgoing mail to Royal Mail depots elsewhere. This attack on the union should have been met with an all-out, nationwide strike, but the UPW leaders were too frightened by the prospect of more legal action to allow it. Instead they turned the screw on the Cricklewood workers, who by now had been locked out of their own office by management, and demanded they end their action, or face losing their union cards, and so their jobs. Still Cricklewood held out in support of the Grunwick strikers until the end of July when they voted narrowly for a return to work.49

With the post office blacking off, the Apex leadership insisted on no more mass pickets, or the union would remove strike pay. All eyes should now turn to the Scarman inquiry, they said, and the demoralised strike committee complied. When Scarman finally released his report at the end of August he urged the rehiring of the strikers and recognition of the union. But instead of being the promised victory, it was a mirage. Within a week Grunwick boss George Ward had rejected the findings and said he had no intention of following its recommendations, and that there was nothing in law that could make him do so.

In frustration at both the employers’ intransigence and the union leadership’s effective abandoning of the strike, the strike committee once again called for mass pickets. Some 5,000 people came to the plant in October, then 8,000 in November—and the police once again ran amok, with 113 arrested and 243 pickets injured.50 But these were the last gasps of the dispute. The strikers maintained their stance for several more months, even launching a hunger strike outside the TUC building, but on 14 July 1978 they eventually called an end to what was close on two years of battle. Jayaben was rightly bitter about the way they had been treated: “Official action from the TUC”, she said, “is like honey on your elbow. You can smell it. You can see it, but you can never taste it”.51

But there was more to the defeat of the strike than the treachery of union leaders. By the late 1970s shopfloor organisation was a shadow of what it had been at the beginning of the decade when active solidarity had been the order of the day. Grunwick strike committee activists reported great enthusiasm and support for the strikers among local shop stewards and union convenors—and a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way on the mass pickets—but when it came to organising support meetings in the factory for rank and file members, most baulked, saying that their members had too many battles of their own to contend with. Many stewards assumed their members were far more conservative than they actually were, but there were few ways in which that thesis could be tested. As a consequence, prospects of strikes in support of Grunwick across the engineering factories of north west London were bleak. There was talk of extending the blacking to cutting off the electricity and water supplies to the firm but such action never materialised. These were precisely the kind of militant tactics that brought anti-union employers to heel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, yet few in the movement now felt confident they could deliver such action again. In this sense the Grunwick defeat was to be an early casualty of what the SWP was later to call “the downturn”.52

Yet the process of striking had effects well beyond the picket line. It marked that Asian workers were now very much part of the working class movement in Britain, and that in the process they had transformed themselves and their place in society, but had also changed the working class movement whose ranks they had joined. In the coming years unions went from being a place where Asian workers often faced indifference and hostility, to playing a leading role in anti-racism. A point that Satnam Virdee grasps clearly:

Despite the disappointment of defeat, the dispute at Grunwick helped crystallise how—in the space of less than a decade—parts of the organised working class had undergone a dramatic, organic transformation in their political consciousness. From being attached to a narrow understanding of class that nested neatly within dominant conceptions of race and nation, key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive language of class that could now also encompass racialised minority workers. Key to facilitating this political transformation were socialist activists. A process of Asian, black and white working class formation was taking place—uneven, contradictory, but most definitely present amid the organic crisis of British capitalism in the 1970s.53


For Marxists, periods of high intensity class struggle are rich with potential. The greater workers’ militancy, the more imaginative and confident become their organisations and strategies. In such periods talk of the need to generalise struggles is no longer the preserve of the radical left but something that emerges as common sense in the movement. These are also moments when there is a chance to break down even long-held prejudices and divisions in the class. The London dockers are a case in point:

Notoriously in April 1968 they went on strike for a day and marched on the Houses of Parliament in support of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech calling for an end to black immigration. The dockers’ action reflected the rundown of their industry under a Labour government which did nothing to defend their interests. In despair and anger they looked to Powell instead. By contrast, in July 1972 the dockers, relying now on their own shop stewards’ organisation, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Tory Industrial Relations Act when they forced the release of the Pentonville Five. The confidence this victory instilled in the dockers strengthened support for more generalised class politics. Five years later, on 11 July 1977, the Royal Docks Shop Stewards banner headed a mass picket of 5,000 overwhelmingly white trade unionists in support of the predominantly Asian workforce at Grunwick in west London. The London dockers were largely resistant to the surge of fascism which swept Britain in the late 1970s.54

Whether the hold of racism upon white workers can be broken is not predetermined, nor is it simply a chance event. It depends on the conscious actions of a minority within the working class who set out to break down the prejudice among their workmates and within wider society. The people who led this approach in the 1960s and 1970s were Asian, black and white pioneers of a new, multicultural working class movement.

There were many more predominantly Asian strikes in the years that followed but they were now fought on very different terrain.55 For those wanting to challenge the stereotype of the acquiescent migrant there was now a solid example, something that affected both the self-image of Asian workers themselves and the wider working class. This story of transformation demonstrates an important point—that the struggle of Asian workers in the post-war period is not just interesting history; it forms part of a repeated pattern inside the working class since its birth. The introduction of new layers of people into industry, such as migrant workers and women, new technology and new ways of working, and indeed, whole new industries, have always posed a challenge to the movement. The tearing up of existing organisations and their replacement with the new is part of the process. It’s an act of permanent renewal that today must encompass the organisation of Eastern European workers and refugees from many parts of the world. But it’s important to recognise that it is not a one-way process. Gains won are necessarily temporary and have to be continually fought for. The progress that Asian workers made are today under threat as Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism make significant strides forwards.

A great deal has changed since Grunwick, but the vacillating nature of the trade union leadership is not one of them. Nevertheless, most unions now have black and Asian members in leading national positions and hold regular anti-racist conferences, and many have proud traditions of overcoming divisions in their ranks. But socialists must be ever aware of the dangers that prejudices old and new can form. Today, parts of the labour movement have responded to the growing racism in British society by seeking to accommodate to it. Right wing Labour MPs have led the charge and are desperate to appear tough on immigration. But the history of British racism shows that such attempts to appease prejudice only fan the flames and bring on still worse. The alternative is to look to a tradition of struggle in a bid to unite workers of all backgrounds and nationalities and break the hold of racism that damages us all.

Yuri Prasad is a contributor to the book Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism.


1 I am grateful to Esme Choonara, Charlie Kimber, Hassan Mahamdallie, Balwinder Rana and Mike Simons, who all made comments on drafts of this article. Thanks are particularly due to Mike for delving into his basement archive, to John Rudge whose archive of IS/SWP pamphlets has been invaluable and to comrades at Socialist Worker who helped dig out so many back issues of the paper.

2 See Dresser, 2013, for the example of the 1963 Bristol buses colour bar dispute.

3 Virdee, 2014, p36.

4 Cited in Ramdin, 1987, p199.

5 Ramdin, 1987, pp199-204; Fryer, 1992, p376.

6 Cited in Joyce, 2015, p121. By comparison the number of working days lost to strikes in 2015 was 170,000 spread over just 106 strikes according the Office for National Statistics.

7 Foot, 1965, p11.

8 They would be followed by disputes at Coneygre Foundry, Tipton, in 1967; and at the Midland Motor Cylinder Company, and the Newby Foundry, West Bromwich, in 1968, which I don’t have space to deal with in this article.

9 Castles and Kosack, 1973, p153.

10 Ramdin, 1987, p271.

11 Fryer, 1992, p386.

12 Birchall, 2011.

13 Gilroy, 1987, Roediger, 1999, Robinson, 2000. See also Bourne, 2016, and my review, Prasad, 2016.

14 Radin, 1966, p162.

15 Marx, 1975.

16 Campaign Against Racism and Fascism/Southall Rights, 1981, pp12-15.

17 Bourne, 2016, p103.

18 Interviewed by the author (2016).

19 See Virdee, 2014, pp115-116, for detailed analysis of workplaces and numbers of workers who struck for Powell.

20 Wrench, 1986; Sullivan, 2012; Radin, 1966.

21 Radin, 1966, p169.

22 Accounts of numbers vary, with Bennie Bunsee reporting 330 in Spare Rib number 21, Robert Moore (1975) reporting 400 rising to 500 in Racism and Black Resistance, and the TUC’s Britain at Work website putting the figure at 500 (Sullivan, 2012).

23 Moore, 1975, p75.

24 Bunsee, 1974.

25 Moore, 1975.

26 Leicester Mercury, 1974.

27 Prescod, 2008.

28 Dhondy, 1974.

29 Flynn, 1974.

30 Dhondy, 1974.

31 Prescod, 2008.

32 There was a brief occupation of the Hull plant but it was abandoned following management threats to redundancy payments.

33 Socialist Worker, 1975.

34 Cited in Virdee, 2014.

35 Callinicos, 1982.

36 Virdee, 2014.

37 See Ramamurthy, 2013, Prasad, 2013, and Mahamdallie, 2007.

38 See the 2002 Channel 4 documentary Sikh Street, directed by Deborah Coleman— Balwinder would later join the IS. He was the chief steward on the Southall demonstration against the National Front in 1979 and the SWP’s full-timer at the Grunwick strike.

39 Rose, 1976.

40 Socialist Worker, 2009.

41 Dromey and Taylor, 2016, p4.

42 Socialist Worker, 1977, p6.

43 Sivanandan, 1982, pp130-131.

44 Women’s Voice, 1977, p17.

45 Socialist Worker, 1977, p8.

46 Socialist Worker, 1977, p9.

47 Rogaly estimates that a third of ITV News at Ten broadcast time related to Grunwick in the two weeks following the first mass picket—Rogaly, 1977, p80.

48 Socialist Worker, 1977, p12.

49 For an interview with two leading Cricklewood postal workers’ union activists see Kimber, 2006.

50 Dromey and Taylor, 2016, p189.

51 Socialist Worker, 2006.

52 For a detailed analysis of the deterioration of shopfloor union organisation and its consequences, see Cliff, 1979, and Callinicos, 1982.

53 Virdee, 2014, p135.

54 Callinicos, 1993, pp60-61. See also Fekete, 2016, for an interview with docker Micky Fenn.

55 Some of the key disputes were Chix in Slough, 1979; Burnsall in Birmingham 1992; Hillingdon hospital cleaners, 1995; and Lufthansa Skychef at Heathrow in 1998, Gate Gourmet at Heathrow in 2005, and Ambala Foods, east London, 2005.


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