The Grunwick dispute started in August 1976 in a film processing plant in Willesden. It lasted for nearly two years, the SPG (riot police) were used for the first time in an industrial dispute, and it involved mass pickets, over 500 arrests, strikers run down by cars, hunger strikes outside Congress House, and ended in defeat. At Grunwick nearly all the workers were Asian women. In the 70s large numbers of women from the subcontinent worked in manufacturing and in the years before Grunwick there were big strikes in the midlands involving mainly Asian women, such as the Imperial Typewriters dispute in Leicester in 1974.
Conditions in the factory were awful, the workers were subjected to constant speedups, pay was very low, at £25 a week, and there was a colour bar in operation. The dispute was sparked when a worker was sacked and three others walked out in support. This started a mass walkout and picketing, and the workers went to the CAB to ask how to join a trade union and joined APEX. The strike was made official at the end of August and two days later all 137 strikers were sacked by the company. In November the postal workers union, at the time the UPW, voted to refuse to handle mail to Grunwick, which would have been very effective as the company got sixty per cent of its work from mail order. However the union backed down after a threat of legal action in exchange for a pledge that the company would have to co-operate with the arbitration service ACAS, which it was refusing to do.
The strike was backed both by the TUC officially- they received full strike pay from APEX- and by a massive rank and file mobilisation for pickets, with busloads of Yorkshire miners coming down to support them for days of action. However the strikers were encouraged to look for a victory from the ACAS report and union recognition rather than stopping production at the factory. The support they really needed was blocked, and when postal workers stopped deliveries again they were suspended by their employers and fined by their union. The ACAS report was not complied with by the employer and most of it was overturned in a further court ruling.
After this the strike moved slowly towards defeat, with some of the strikers holding a hunger strike outside Congress House (TUC HQ) to protest the TUC withdrawing support. The strike ended in July 1978 after 693 days without the workers winning their demands. However, the dispute remains an inspiring battle by working class women and a caution against the trade union bureaucracy’s complicity in the quelling of rank-and-file militancy.