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Special Feature

South Asian women strikers are heroes in an anti-racist struggle in the workplace

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 30/10/2019
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In 1974, when a few dozen Asian women led a walkout at the Imperial Typewriters factory in Leicester they had no idea they would spark a three-month strike that would help change race relations in Britain.

This new exhibition pays a brilliant tribute to those who fought, and allows strikers to tell their story.

The dispute began after a ­payroll mix-up revealed that whites were being paid more than Asians for doing the same work. The Asians demanded an explanation from management and, when none came, they went to the union.

The TGWU convenor made it clear he had little time for them, calling their grievance ‘tribal’.

The way he dismissed the women was symptomatic of the way many in the movement treated migrants.

They thought newcomers were fodder for the bosses—and were being used to drive down wages.

Asians were stereotyped as docile, and unions said they were difficult to organise because of ‘language problems’.

Grievance 

When Asians showed they could fight, as they did in a series of disputes across the decade, few unions took their struggles seriously. But the Imperial strikers were not to be put off.

They took their grievance to workers at both plants in the city and soon hundreds of other Asians joined the strike. The picket lines were lively, with strikers guarding factory entrances and dishing out punishments to some of those who crossed them.

Many white workers joined the strike on the first day, but went back to work when they found the union was against them. Strikers struggled to get their message across to them, but still stuck to their slogan, ‘Black and white unite and fight.’

Management called in the police, who turned up to harass and arrest pickets.

But there was worse to come. Leicester was a stronghold of the fascist National Front. The group tried to organise whites who had carried on working, and launched physical attacks on the Asian pickets. But a combination of strikers and the growing anti-racist minority in the unions saw them off.

After 14 weeks of hardship, the management caved in, and the strike leaders were at first greeted as heroes. But within a few weeks of the victory, Imperial announced it was closing all its British plants.

For some, that means the strike was a failure. But the experience of being on strike transformed the Asian workers. It changed the way they thought of themselves—and the way others thought about them.

Britain was gripped by anti-racist struggle at the close of the decade, and these brave strikers fully deserve their place in that story.

COMMENTS by:

Tariq Ali: Political activist, Writer, Journalist and Historian: We live in a totally different political culture today …. Britain has de-industrialised …. This system is creating great alienation and the only way this can be stopped is by proper planning, which means a fundamental break with the capitalist system.

Amrit Wilson (Writer and Activist): Capitalism is now in a phase of neo-liberalism. Whereas at one time firms located to the global South looking for cheap labour, there is so much poverty in the metropolitan countries themselves that cheap labour can be exploited there.

Professor Emerita Avtar Brah (Writer and Academic): Employers and employees live in two different worlds. One wants to make a profit, the other wants a fairer and just return for their work. The employer is not concerned about the colour of the employee; only how best they can make a profit.

Yuri Prasad (Writer): Asian bosses are as capable of exploiting migrant workers as their counterparts. The fundamental divide in our society is between classes.

Dr Carlton Howson (Writer and Academic): It is tragic today that young people are turning against themselves instead of understanding that they are being manipulated by outside forces far bigger than themselves and that the only way to overcome them is to band together.

Sujata Aurora (Writer and Activist): We have class enemies in our community – there are people who look upon the Grunwick strike as a shameful episode in our history.

(Courtesy of the Socialist Worker 25 June 2019)

(For the story of the Grunwick Strike led by Jayaben Desai in 1976-7 (Volume See AwaaZ Volume 14 Issue 3, 2018)

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