on the world: a view on human rights
The summer of 1976 was the hottest the UK has ever experienced since records began. As people sent snaps of their summer holidays off for development, the heat was also rising at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in northwest London.
The Grunwick Strike started on Friday 20 August 1976 when a worker was fired for working too slowly. Others walked out in solidarity. The following Monday, workers started a picket outside the factory in Willesden. The dispute became one about trade union rights, as the company said it would reinstate striking employees if they gave up union representation.
The strike escalated and became a subject of media fascination, particularly around the “strikers in saris”. At its height, thousands of trade union activists and supporters, from all over the country, came to support the Grunwick strikers, in a mass unprecedented wave of solidarity.
The dispute took on political and legal dimensions. It ended in 1978 when the Scarman Inquiry findings supported trade union membership and the reinstatement of the workers. Rejected by the company management, the trade unions subsequently withdrew their support, leading the workers to abandon their strike.
The workers did not win trade union recognition and were not reinstated, but the strike was not a failure; it changed the landscape of race and gender relations within predominantly white male trade unions, and led to awareness of migrant workers’ rights.
It was the first time the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group was deployed to an industrial dispute. Over 550 arrests were made, “more than in any dispute since the General Strike of 1926”. In the aftermath of Grunwick, the Conservative Party won the general election in 1979 and clamped down severely on trade union rights.
Times have changed. A single digital image can now be shared with millions around the world in a matter of seconds with no need for processing. Where rights are concerned, however, much remains the same. The struggles for workers’, women’s and migrant rights, and the very right to human dignity are still crucial. Forty years after the strike ended, this makes the Grunwick Strike the highly compelling subject of Townsend Production’s play We Are The Lions, Mr. Manager!, now travelling around the UK until mid-May.
Starring Medhavi Patel and Neil Gore in multiple roles, the play focuses on Jayaben Desai, a pivotal figure in the strike, who joined on the day it started after she was sacked for refusing to do compulsory overtime. Her son resigned in support.
The play tells her story, from her birth in a middle class family in India, to immigration to Tanzania and then to the UK in the 1960s. It traces the growing consciousness of the individual within a conflict situation, as it escalates beyond the individual to a national cause, and her awareness of the broader issues involved.
Men and women like Jayaben Desai, who came to the UK after being thrown out of East Africa, were desperate for work. Like other migrant workers, they faced discrimination in finding work which then continued in the workplace. Grunwick’s staff consisted of 80% South Asian and 10% Afro-Caribbean workers who were predominantly female. Foreign female workers were preferred as they were expected to be docile and accept the poor working conditions and low wages offered. Many of the women wore saris and younger women would be harassed by the white male management telling them they would like to see them in a miniskirt.
When Mrs Desai walked out, the line manager compared her and her colleagues to “chattering monkeys”, to which she famously replied: “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 the lions, Mr. Manager.”
The play is timely and uses a historic dispute to draw parallels to a situation that many will find familiar today. Migrant workers, regardless of sex, still struggle to find decent work and are exploited as cheap labour. Many workers struggle with unfair working conditions, even at some of the UK’s largest companies. With many low-paid and/or migrant and women workers in precarious forms of employment who do not always have large union backing, the strike and the play offer hope and a model for the various workers currently taking their industrial disputes to the streets.
By tracing how one woman could emerge as the leader of a movement for rights that took on and shook the establishment, the play gently offers tips and advice on how you could do the same. With jobcentre closures and job losses in the London borough of Brent where the two Grunwick factories were based, there are lessons for the local community too. In an era of social media where too many are keen to hijack other people’s platforms and causes, making an exploited Asian migrant female worker the voice of the play is refreshing.
Given the fortieth anniversary of the strike coincided with the 2016 Brexit vote, the play also challenges the narrative that racism and migrant worker exploitation in the UK are recent; the 1970s were a time of virulent and violent racism and general worker unrest. The play does not eschew the violence the strikers faced or condone violence against the police. Desai, who also went on hunger strike, was arrested for alleged attacking a company manager; the charges were later dropped.
The Grunwick Strike, and Jayaben Desai’s leading role, made migrant workers realise they were a force to be reckoned with and were entitled to demand their rights. It also made employers, the left wing and the trade union movement pay more attention to female and migrant workers, who were otherwise marginalised within these movements. The limitations of trade union support were put aptly by Desai as: “Trade union support is like honey on the elbow – you can smell it, you can feel it, but you cannot taste it.”
The two stars put in passionate performances and manage to condense a major industrial dispute and multiple related issues into an engaging and thought-provoking show, one that should be widely seen by people of all ages. The play is injected with warmth and humour and comes with musical interludes that help to explain the situation in a simple and entertaining manner, particularly as the historical and political context may be unfamiliar to some audiences. Film footage from the era adds to the urgency of the situation the strikers faced and demonstrates what solidarity should look like.
As immersive theatre, the audience is not simply invited to assist as witnesses or to celebrate migrant workers or women by joining in with the singing or on stage; it is a call to action. Having given you the tools and the example of the true story of Jayaben Desai, it is an invitation to pick up her baton. The Grunwick strikers may have lost the battle but the war is still to be won.