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‘We are the lions’ – Jayaben Desai, the sari strikers and the exhibition that celebrates her and solidarity

‘We are the lions’ – Jayaben Desai, the sari strikers and the exhibition that celebrates her and solidarity

October 26 2016

New exhibition explores infamous strike and role played in changing attitudes…

IT’S HARD to believe that a small British Gujarati woman called Jayaben Desai has a hallowed place in the history of British modern industrial relations – but that is precisely how she is seen today.

Some 40 years ago, Desai, an East African Asian, led a now infamous strike against her employers, Grunwick and sparked a revolution of sorts, almost unwittingly.

Now an exhibition called “We are the Lions” celebrates her and the others who joined her in what was a two-year struggle to win better pay and conditions from their employers.

Filled with pictures, posters, video footage and artefacts, it gives an almost blow-by-blow account of the dispute and presents a vivid and stirring picture of that time, a period of great firmament and social change.

Some of the artwork was inspired by Russian Constructivism – a movement created in the Soviet Union and closely linked to workers’ struggles and Socialism.

Laxmiben and Chandrikaben Patel - two of the original strikers

Grunwick, itself, was a camera film processing unit and thrived in the days when people had to send their holiday and family snaps in to be processed and returned as photographs.

Fed up with being paid less, treated badly and ordered to do overtime at just a moment’s notice, Desai took a stand.

“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 can dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager,” thundered Jayaben Desai.

The exhibition has been curated Poulomi Desai (not related), the artistic director of Usurp Art, which helps to engage artists and their work with hard to reach communities.

It is on show at Willesden Library and not far from the original Grunwick premises.

Striker Vipin Magdani said: “Being on the picket lines outside the Grunwick factory was an important moment in my life.

“I am proud that together, us strikers and our supporters made it clear that everyone, black or white, male or female, deserves good treatment at work. I hope that visitors to the exhibition enjoy learning about our struggle and are inspired to stand up for their own rights.”

At a launch event on Tuesday last week (October 18) actor and writer Meera Syal said she had been inspired by the strikers and acclaimed columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was among a packed audience that listened to people closely involved in mounting the exhibition. (See @asianculturevul)

Poulomi Desai told “The exhibition has profound relevance today in the UK with the idea of austerity and cuts being normalised, while government allow corporations to avoid tax – as employment rights and conditions have reduced to such a stage that workers can be sacked even if they are ill, as immigrants and migrant workers are being vilified with racism on the rise in post-Brexit Britain and the spectre of ‘British’ vs ‘foreigner’ being reinforced.”

She agreed that the strike in some ways represented a turning point, a previously hostile working-class element (to immigrants) rallied to support the ‘sari strikers’, as they were known.

Neelu Bhuman, exhibition designer with Poulomi Desai, curator and Sujata Aurora, Grunwick 40 chair mark the spirit of Jayaben Desai

“The exhibition illustrates that regardless of your background and relative sense of powerlessness, you can take a stand and organise – it also shows the importance of solidarity and overcoming difference for a wider goal,” she added.

For her, the strike and the dispute it came to represent have direct lessons for us today as well.

“We also have the largest movement of displaced peoples in the history of humanity today and inequality between rich and poor is extreme, therefore to talk about the intersections of race, gender, class, and equality are highly relevant today,” argued Desai.

A group called The Grunwick 40 was formed last year to keep alive the legacy left by the strikers.

It is formed of local people, some of the original strikers and members of the Brent Trade Council, a union group which was the first to back Desai and the strikers.

Sujata Aurora, chair of Grunwick 40, said:”This exhibition promotes discussion and reflection on themes of unity and betrayal as well as of race and gender.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has donated £24,800 to the Grunwick 40 and a further £19,000 was raised through a crowdfunding initiative. It is hoped the exhibition will go on a national tour after its stint in Willesden.

At that time – 1976, women had not long been in the workplace, non-white immigration was a hugely contentious issue and there was political instability – with some trade unions and working-class organisations deeply opposed to both immigration and industrial reform.

But Grunwick now is regarded as a turning point in the unions and race – many trade unionists supported the strikers, even if their leadership and officials were less supportive or vocal.

Jayaben led a group of workers out on August 23 1976 (which was one the hottest summers on record and Grunwick did not have air conditioning).

More soon joined in, and postal workers also supported the strikers by not delivering mail and requesting Grunwick to collect it themselves.

The dispute was bitter and protracted and there was much legal toing and froing and some credit the dispute with contributing to the Conservatives’ General Election win in 1979 and the ensuing radical trade union reforms implemented by Margaret Thatcher and her government. Grunwick was one of a long line of industrial disputes in the 1970s with Britain often dubbed ‘the sick man of Europe’ with its faltering economy and lack of a clear direction.

The strike petered out in 1978, with no clear victor; Grunwick’s business was on the decline as cheaper processing machines came into the market and local chemists took advantage.

Desai died in 2010 and was still recognised – a cause célèbre at the time – she remains an iconic figure who fought for women’s and workers’ rights and was one of the first Asian women to achieve a national prominence – however unlikely that might have seemed at the beginning of 1976.

Officially, the exhibition is a joint project run by Brent Trades Council, Willesden Green Town team, in partnership with Brent Museum & Archives, and set up to commemorate 40 years of the Grunwick strike, and funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, Near Neighbours and donations from individuals and organisations.

Pictures on page: ©Pete Webster/Grunwick 40

‘We are the lions’ – until March 26 2017, Brent Museum & Archives, The Library at Willesden, 95 High Road, London NW10 2SF from 9am08pm, Monday to Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm. Free Admission. residents/brent-museum- and-archives/

Brent Museum and Archives: 020 8937 3600/

More: www.facebook/com/grunwick40

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture