The Grunwick dispute, which lasted almost two years from August 1976 to July 1978 was a dispute over union recognition that became a cause celebre both for the union movement and the emerging British right.

The background

Grunwick Processing Laboratories Ltd of Willesden in North-West London ran a mail-order film processing service which operated under a variety of trading names, most notably that of Bonusprint that undercut the traditional outlets. It was owned by an Anglo-Indian by the name of George Ward and it would be fair to say that Ward was of the hire and fire school of management, who paid his staff as little as he could get away with and provided the bare minimum of facilities. Of course from Ward's point of view he was complying with all the relevant legislation and operating his business in the way that suited his purposes.

How the strike began

During the long hot summer of 1976 four young men employed at Grunwick's Cobbold Road plant decided to operate a go slow one afternoon, as a result of which one was sacked and the other three walked out in sympathy. A number of employees were thus told they would be required to work overtime, one Jayaben Desai refused and together with her son Sunil handed in their cards and walked out. However before leaving Mrs Desai took the time to issue a warning; "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 following Monday Mrs Desai, her son and the four other workers turned up outside their former place of employment armed with placards, calling on the other workers join them onstrike and sign their petition demanding trade union recognition. Seven workers joined the strike that day, at which point it must have occured to someone that since they were demanding union recognition, they really should decide which union they were fighting for, so Sunil Desai cycled over to the local Citizens Advice Bureau. After being given some contact details the Grunwick strikers went and joined the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX) and as union members became entitled to strike pay.

Over the succeeding days they were joined by others until by the end of August there were 137 strikers out of a workforce of around 480. The strikers duly formed their own Grunwick Strike Committee (GSC) and announced that they would not return to work unless and until Grunwick recognised their newly adopted trade union. In response George Ward declared that the strikers should consider themselves dismissed and simply hired some more workers.

The conduct of the strike

From the beginning the Grunwick strikers faced a challenge as the vast majority of the workforce remained at work and it was therefore difficult for them to have much effect on the actual operations of the company. Thus the GSC sought support from fellow trade unionists in their struggle. They achieved some success when the workers at Kodak refused to supply the company, but Grunwick managers simply went out and brought the necessary supplies themselves and carried them into the plant in the boots of their cars. They also persuaded the Union of Postal Workers (UPW) to refuse to deliver or collect mail from Grunwick, a severe blow against a mail-order business. However George Ward had been approached by the National Association of Freedom (now known as the Freedom Association) an organisation which had recently formed in 1975 to counter what it saw as the drift to socialism in Britain. With their legal advice and assistance Grunwick was able to obtain an injunction against the UPW. (Since the Post Office was legally obliged to deliver the mail irrespective of its employees views on any of its customers)

By March 1977 the strike had run out of steam with and Mrs Desai complaining of the lack of support the Grunwick strikers had received from the Trade Union movement; "Official action from the TUC, is like honey on your elbow; you can smell it, you can see it, but you can never taste it."

Days of Action

With the strike close to collapse the strike committee decided to adopt the tactic of the mass picket which had earlier proved its worth during the Miners' Strike of 1972. Clearly they needed outside support for such a tactic and so the GSC called on any and all sympathisers to support a series of days of action.

The first day of action was called for Monday 13th June 1977 and was supported by the usual suspects, which is to say sundry Trotskyist organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party mobilised their members to turn out in support of the Grunwick strikers. The result, as relayed on TV screens across the nation was two weeks of violence, as the pickets tried to blockade the factory and the police tried to prevent them so doing. On the 27th June the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees felt obliged to put in an appearance in to make an appeal for calm, explaining that "All the police want to do is provide the circumstances where this lady can talk to the people going in and if they don't want to listen, they have the right to go in. That's the law."

Naturally the pickets blamed the police for the violence, whilst the police blamed the pickets, and said that in any case that they were simply using necessary force. In the event Grunwick was forced to hire buses to bring in its workers in order to protect them from the pickets. The resulting publicity to the cause of the Grunwick strikers did bring them some extra support. It inspired Royal Mail employees at the Cricklewood sorting office to decide to refuse to handle any mail from Grunwick, in defiance of the court injunction and the instructions of their union, whilst Arthur Scargill decided that he should now get involved, pledging the support of the National Union of Mineworkers for yet another day of action on the 11th July.

However by this time both APEX and the Trades Union Congress were becoming concerned that, whilst the footage of police battling pickets might be providing some valuable public entertainment during the evening news bulletins, it was not quite the image the modern trade union movement wanted to project. They asked the GSC to call off the day of action and support the protest march they had called for the same day. The strike committee refused, calling on trade unionists to support both.

The NUM sponsored day of action led by Arthur Scargill turned out to be a great success, attracting a crowd of some 20,000, overwhelming the police by sheer force of numbers, and succesfully blockading the plant and preventing Grunwick from busing in its workers. Unfortunately at about 11 am everybody left to join the official TUC march leaving only twenty-four pickets behind who were insufficient to prevent Grunwick from resuming normal operations. Indeed even as Scargill was marching through Willesden perhaps the most remarkable episode of the whole dispute had already taken place under his very nose.

The refusal of the Cricklewood post office workers to collect any outgoing mail had been threatening to drive the company into liquidation, since clearly the public would not use their film processing service if they failed to have their developed films returned. Once again the NAFF came to the rescue, deciding this time to organise their own postal delivery service. In the early hours of the morning of the 9th July they managed to sneak past the night pickets and removed 80,000 packages which were then taken in two large lorries to a barn in Gloucestershire. There a team of volunteers stuck on the necessary stamps and then drove off into the night and deposited the packages in mail boxes up and down the country. Carried out in conditions of absolute secrecy and repeated as and when necessary this operation ensured the survival of the company and was later described by Margaret Thatcher as "the best thing since Entebbe".

However the NAFF were soon able to suspend their clandestine postal service as on the 29th July Norman Stagg, Deputy General Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, met the Cricklewood postal workers and told them to end their unofficial action or they'd get thrown out of the union. (The UPW were facing the threat of being held in contempt of court for failing to heed the court injunction.)

The GSC turned up to lobby the Labour Party conference of 1977, where they received a standing ovation from the assembled delegates but the only practical help they recieved was a motion calling on the government to amend the law so as to force employers to co-operate with ACAS. Thus the strikers decided that what was needed was one more day of action, what they called a 'day of reckoning' to be held on the 7th November 1977. Some 8,000 people turned up in November but their attempt to blockade the plant failed, the main consequence being the arrest of 113 pickets with another 243 injured in the customary battle with the police.

The end of the dispute

The failure of the day of reckoning left the GSC facing the unavoidable conclusion that mass picketing was not going to work and so they returned to their original tactic calling on other trade unions to assist them by blocking off essential services to Grunwick. The trouble was that Grunwick had already demonstrated their ability to obtain court injuctions to put a stop to such actions and so the unions were unenthusiastic about getting involved. Frustrated about what they saw as the lack of support from the TUC Mrs Desai and three other strikers then began a hunger strike outside Congress House in protest against the failure of the Trade Union movement to provide them with the requested assistance. APEX tried in vain to persuade them that they would be better off protesting outside Grunwick. It was at this point that APEX itself finally lost patience with the Grunwick strikers, and suspended them from the union without strike pay.

Now abandoned by the union that they had been fighting for all these long months, the strikers struggled on for a few more months before finally admitting defeat and announced the abandonment of the strike on the 14th July 1978 after 670 days.

Grunwick never recognised the union, and none of the strikers were ever reinstated.

Grunwick could be all our tomorrows

Contrary what is sometimes asserted at no point did Grunwick ever sack anyone for joining a union; this was a dispute about union recognition not membership. George Ward simply asserted that his company had the right not to recognise a trade union, whilst his workforce (or at least a substantial part of it) asserted their right to be so represented, and decided to withdraw their labour until such time as the company gave in to their demand. Given that these respective claims were mutually exclusive, there was no middle ground in the dispute, it was simply a question of who would win and which set of rights would prevail.

The problem the Grunwick strikers always faced is that they were never able to persuade more than about a quarter of the workforce to join the strike. They were thus unable to stop Grunwick from doing business and so their chances of success were always somewhat minimal and were entirely dependant on outside intervention. Whether the rest of the workforce maintained a principled objection to being represented by a union or were simply too fearful or apathetic to take any action on the issue is not known.

The Labour government of the time appeared to be anxious to be seen to be standing up to 'union extremism' and keen to find a negotiated settlement of some kind. Their solution was to commission Lord Scarman to investigate the dispute. Scarman duly reported that although Grunwick was operating within the law, it was not abiding by what he believed to be the spirit of the law and recommended that the company reinstate the strikers and recognise the union. Naturally Grunwick took no notice of Scarman's views on the subject.

Oddly enough the established Trade Union movement appeared to be embarrassed and confused by the whole episode. They were frustrated by Grunwick's refusal to play by what they had come to believe were 'the rules', but they were also frustrated by the actions of the Grunwick Strike Committee who consistently refused to obey their union's instructions. At the time the established Trade Unions were uniformly white and male and were amongst the most racist and sexist institutions in the United Kingdom, whilst the Grunwick workforce was largely female and of Asian origin and had thus been largely ignored. The Grunwick dispute appears to have been instrumental in forcing the British Trade Union movement to wake up to the fact that there large sections of the British workforce which they had entirely ignored up until that point in time.

To the emerging new British Right, the proponents of what later become known as Thatcherism, Grunwick was an important and symbolic victory. They saw the dispute, in the words of Keith Joseph, as a "litmus test" of the country's ability to 'stand up' to the unions. They learnt the lesson (ironically provided by a Labour government) that with sufficient organisation and determination it was possible to defeat the tactic of the mass picket, whilst the actions of the NAFF showed how a combination of the law and imagination could be used to defeat the threat of secondary action. Thus Grunwick became a blueprint of how a future Conservative government might take on and defeat the unions.

Brent TUC is currently organising a commemorative event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Grunwick industrial dispute.

Grunwicks versus ACAS

During the course of the dispute APEX applied for recognition under the Employment Protection Act 1975. under the provisions of that act the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was required to conduct a survey of the workforce, and if it found that a majority of the relevant workers favoured union recognition, it had the power to effectively instruct the employer to recognise that union.

Grunwick however sought to frustrate this process by simply refusing to supply ACAS with the names and addresses of its employees. Thus whilst ACAS was able to send out questionnaires to the strikers, it wasn't able to ascertain the views of the rest of the workforce. Nevertheless ACAS decided to issue a report based on the responses it had received, which were naturally in favour recognition of the union. Grunwick countered with the results of its own survey that showed a majority of those at work were opposed to union representation and claimed that the ACAS report was void because they had not surveyed the whole workforce.

The case went to the House of Lords who decided that the obligation on ACAS to "ascertain the opinion of the workers" was absolute and could not be set aside simply because of practical difficulties. It declared that the report was indeed void because they had failed to consult the whole workforce, and thus APEX's claim for recognition failed.

All of which simply showed that the Employment Protection Act 1975 was a badly drafted piece of legislation.

See: Grunwick Processing Laboratories Ltd v ACAS & anor 1978 ICR 232


  • The Grunwick dispute archive
  • 1977: Home Secretary jeered on picket line
  • Migration Histories: Grunwick Dispute
  • The Grunwick Dispute OpenDocument

    Further reading

    • Jack Dromey, Grunwick; the workers' story (London, 1978).
    • George Ward, Fort Grunwick (London, 1977).

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