Sunday, September 17, 2006

Grunwick Commemoration

"I will no longer take it. I want my freedom"
(Jayaben Desai to management as she led women workers on strike)

"The law on trade unions will remain the most restrictive in the western world"
(Tony Blair - March 1997)

I attended the commemorative event on Grunwick organised by Brent Trades Union Council today. I would have posted earlier but went for a drink with Kit from Kit Notes and quaffed too much Guinness (can you quaff Guinness? Oh and I am a lightweight when booze is concerned!)

Firstly, I want to get my gripe out of the way. When I got there I was asked whether I wanted to attend the AM or PM sessions. This was because there wasn't enough room to hold all participants. Well, I wanted to hear all of the speakers but eventually chose the AM slots and missed out on hearing Amrit Wilson speaking and the discussion about Gate Gourmet (I couldn't sneak in as they were checking tickets). It would have been really nice to have been able to have attended all the sessions!

The conference was introduced by ex-ISG comrade Pete Firmin who spoke about how it was important to celebrate Grunwick strike. The first session kicked off with Jack Dromey, who was secretary of Brent Trades Council at the time of the strike, who gave an overview of the strike. Thousands of trade unionists mobilised to support and show solidarity with the Grunwick strikers. These women wanted union recognition and scum like George Ward, Grunwick boss, refused point blank.

Strikers spent 14 weeks on a picket line to end up being betrayed and sold out by the trade union bureaucracy. Strike organiser, Jayaben Desai and other women activists went on hunger strike outside TUC House in protest at the way the TUC was selling them out while rank and file activists were supporting their struggle. Dromey said that it brought to the forefront of the labour movement issues around racism, migrant workers and sexism. Issues which nobody had really considered before.

Derek Walsh from the then Union of Postal Workers (UPW) spoke about postal workers refusing to handle post for Grunwick. Unfortunately, another bunch of scumbags, The Freedom Association (backers of apartheid in south Africa and Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia) threatened to take the UPW to court. Walsh spoke of the tensions between the London District Council who supported the strikers while the Executive Council put pressure on them to handle the mail. Supporters of the strike in the UPW lost the vote.

Cricklewood sorting office carried on refusing to sort mail and workers were suspended and eventually fined. The Freedom Association, helped by Royal Mail managers took 68 bags of undelivered mail and posted it around the UK. The union was fined for disobeying a vote and refusing to handle the post. Arthur Scargill spoke about being summoned to TUC House to be told to call off mass strike action! Scargill told them to, "Get Stuffed!" and walked out. Scargill was the best speaker on the platform and the most eloquent.

Grunwick was a defeat and a betrayal by the very people who should have been supporting these women. The TUC and APEX (now part of the GMB) sold these women out and the trade union movement overall. The TUC was definitely on its knees. But what came out was the heroism of women like Jayaban Desai and other strikers who showed defiance and courage and stood firm against these attacks but also rank and file trade unionists who showed solidarity with these women unlike the bureaucracy who were itching to sell them out.

Parallels were made with Gate Gourmet and how the anti-trade union laws have stopped secondary picketing. No big demonstrations or mass pickets on the scale of Grunwick have happened at Gate Gourmet. Nor have there been Labour ministers on the picket line at Gate Gourmet unlike Grunwick. Both of these strikes were led by Asian women who desperately needed union support. Like history repeating itself, the rank and file membership showed support and solidarity but only to be sold-out by the bureaucracy (yes and that means you T&G Deputy Secretary, Comrade Dromey!)

John McDonnell spoke of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, which funnily enough, the TUC is suffering from the jitters about (it must be hard being a bureaucratic as their backbone is made of jelly and I have seen jellyfish with more nerve) . The Bill is watered down and leaves out quite a lot but what McDonnell argues is that it is at least something and we can get a foot in the door. He is calling upon rank and file activists to put pressure on the labour movement overall.

Interestingly, when asked of the panel who they would support as Labour Party leader, Jack Dromey sidestepped the question (his missus at the back in vibrant red.....) and so did Arthur Scargill while there were murmurings in the audience of support for John McDonnell.

Ed Blissett (GMB) formally apologised to Jayaben Desai on behalf of the GMB for the disgraceful behaviour of APEX during Grunwick. He also spoke of international solidarity with other trade unions and the good work the GMB have been doing. John Hendy (Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers) worryingly said that at the time of Grunwick 78% of workers had their terms and conditions underpinned by collective agreements. Now it is 35%. The rest of Europe is around 90% and one country which comes closest to the UK is Greece at 65%. One of the reasons for this severe drop is the shackling of the trade union movement and repressive legislation.

Overall, I found the day both depressing and optimistic (I can feel a Gramsci quote coming on). Depressing, due to the continued obstructive behaviour and constant betrayals by the union bureaucracy but optimistic when women like Jayaben Desai stood firm and show immense courage along with the postal workers and other rank and file members. As the majority of the platform were white male trade unionists it was damn good to see them (along with the audience ) give Jayaben Desai a standing ovation.

Apols. for the long post but I am trying to be as fulsome as possible.

Btw: Brent Trades Union Council have produced a pamphlet called, "Grunwick: bravery and betrayal"