It was a pivotal moment in the modern history of the trade union movement.
And now Townsend Theatre Productions brings the story Jayaben Desai to the stage in a powerful new show.
As the inspirational leader of the 1976-78 Grunwick Film Processing Factory Strike, Mrs Desai was unafraid to take on those in positions of power for what she believed in.
And it’s what she said to her boss as they walked out, that gives the play its title: ‘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.’
She was recently amongst the women who have had the biggest impact on women’s lives over the past 70 years as part of the Radio 4 Women’s Hour Power List.
She brought the issue of workplace exploitation and racism to the fore and challenged the perception of Asian women being inherently passive and docile,
The play’s writer Neil Gore says: ‘It’s a watershed moment in where the trade unions were in the ’70s. It’s one of those stories like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, that’s very close to their hearts, even though in many ways it was a defeat for the trade unions. It changed their attitudes to immigrant workers because at the time, before that, more generally, trade unions were anti-immigrant labour, it was thought to be cheap labour coming in and taking jobs – the same arguments you still hear today.’
Mrs Desai was born in Gujarat, India, but moved to Tanzania in 1965 with her husband. When they were expelled from there they came to Britain, where she took up low-paid work, first as a sewing machinist, then processing film in the Grunwick factory
‘She was never afraid to stand up and say what she thought,’ says Neil, ‘so when she came to Britain in 1968 in the footsteps of her husband, to beat the immigration act that was about to come in, they had to start again. They had nothing. Her husband got work at the Rank organisation.
‘She didn’t really have to work, but she wanted to, she wanted to contribute, so she worked at Grunwick,’
As Neil explains, Grunwick was a business made on the back of cheap immigrant labour, allowing owner George Ward to undercut rivals.
‘They were made to sign contracts that enforced overtime, so it was compulsory, and the hours were long. They’d work 12-14 hour shifts without break and they wouldn’t be told if they were doing the overtime often until late in the afternoon.
‘There were times when the women had to put their hands up to go to the toilet.
‘Some of the trade union leaders of the time were calling it Dickensian, and in some respects it was, but it was also a brand-new, clean, modernised 1970s factory – this was the future.’
But the staff were not unionised, and Ward, while he would claim not to mind individuals being in unions, wouldn’t allow them in his company.
‘There was this one manager who was a racist, sexist bully. One day, Jayaben said: “I’ve had enough.” And that’s where it all began.’
With Ward backed by the right-wing National Association for Freedom (NAFF), what originally began as a small, local strike, soon gained national attention, with the ‘strikers in saris’ fighting for human rights and dignity.
‘At one point 20,000 came out in support of the strikers to picket – all of these miners from Yorkshire and Scotland and all over.
‘But the trade union leaders got cold feet, its hard to know what was going on behind closed doors, but the Labour Party were struggling. Grunwick became such an inconvenience for them and I think they put the pressure on the TUC to back out of supporting them and left them stranded. It caused massive ructions within the trade union movement as well.
‘So NAFF got their way and Thatcher got her way in ’79, and the rest as they say is history.’
But Neil promises this isn’t a bleak history lesson. It combines Townsend Production’s trademark cast of two playing multiple roles, in a grand theatrical style with wit and panache.
‘We try and present these stories in as fun a way as possible, we use a lot of songs, so there’s plenty of enjoyment – it’s not a dry history lesson.
‘As a narrative, we focussed it around Jayaben and her story – you see it through her experiences as much as possible, you understand where she’s coming from and why. You hear her story and those of the women she worked with.’
We Are The Lions, Mr Manager
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Tuesday, November 7