Described as ‘One of the greatest Labour struggles in the UK’, Grunwick was a landmark dispute for the trade union movement. At this time many companies were ‘closed shops’, places of work where you had to belong to a trade union. The Grunwick photo processing laboratories, on the other hand, would not recognise trade unions and consequently the working conditions and the pay, especially for the Asian women who worked there, were appalling.
In the hot summer of 1976 about a third of the staff went on strike over the conditions in the factory. The union APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff, since 1989 part of the GMB union) was contacted and the strikers signed up. They were sacked. The struggle began.
The Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service, ACAS, tried to resolve the dispute, but without success, and in October that year the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for sympathetic strike action by other unions. As a consequence the Post Office workers refused to deliver Grunwick’s mail, a vital part of their business process. In reply they were sued under the Post Office Act 1953, for wilfully delaying mail.
Another tactic employed by the unions was the mass picket. In order to pressurise those continuing to work, and others attending the factory, as many pickets as possible were gathered. These were from other factories, students, political activists and other trade unions. No doubt hangers on from elsewhere took the opportunity to join in, too.
After a year the scene outside the gates turned to violence. Bus loads of miners were brought in from Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent to join the protest. I was working in the paint shop at Ford Motor Company in Southampton; it was a closed shop so we were all union members. I remember bus loads of workers from the factory went to London for a day out at Grunwick, paid by their union for taking a day off to go. One day in November 1977 around 8000 people picketed the gates at Grunwick, nearly 250 were injured and over 100 were arrested in the ensuing disturbances.
The government held an inquiry and APEX said they would honour any recommendation. The manager of Grunwick said only a court would make him change his mind. The ensuing enquiry and report by Lord Scarman was of no help to the striking workers, they were not reinstated and Grunwick continued not to recognise the union. On 14 July 1978 the strike was called off.
Mass picketing was one effective trade union tactic of the time, another was the ‘flying picket’. This was a group of pickets that were highly mobile and, if a factory had works at many locations they would arrive at any of them without warning. Pickets did not necessarily have to be part of the striking union, or indeed of any union, they were gathered from sympathetic groups who were happy to join in. These consisted of students, members of other trade unions and often the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Sometimes the flying pickets were described as ‘rent-a-mob’.
The power of the trade unions would be severely curtailed by the Conservative government in the 1980s, but not before more large scale industrial disputes rocked the country.