|last month's unveiling ceremony|
FOUR decades after an initially unremarkable local dispute over working conditions in a small north-west London factory exploded into one of longest, bitterest and most influential industrial showdowns in British industrial history, the so called ‘lions of Grunwick’ have been immortalised in major new public artworks.
Led mainly by Asian women, the iconic Grunwick dispute of 1976-78 challenged not just stereotypes but also the ethos of the predominantly white, male trade union movement of the day and, in the process, inspired a generation to speak out against injustice.
Amongst the tens of thousands who flocked to the cause of the Grunwick strikers and their inspirational leader, Jayaben Desai, were postal workers from the then Cricklewood branch of the UPW (Union of Post Office Workers).
Twice their refusal to deliver or collect mail cut the jugular of the mail-order photo processing operation after its fervently anti-union owner sacked his striking workforce after they refused to drop their demand for trade union representation.
Quickly becoming a cause celebre of trade unionism and labour relations law, at its height the dispute was reported nightly on the national television news, with footage of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group (SPG) making mass arrests and violently confronting the “strikers in saris”, as they were dubbed by the media of the day, further enflaming tensions.
Former Cricklewood branch chair Colum Moloney still vividly recalls the brutal treatment dished out to those on the Grunwick picket line – a precursor in many ways to the horrific scenes that unfolded in the subsequent Miners’ Strike
“The SPG were animals – more like an army than anything,” he told The Voice last autumn in an interview marking the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick dispute.
A year on, Colum has just represented the Cricklewood postal workers who did so much to provide moral and industrial support to the Grunwick strikers at the unveiling of two large murals in Willesden that unapologetically portray the heroic stand of the predominantly female workforce who unwittingly found themselves centre stage in a wider schism in British society that directly preceded the 1979 general election and intensified under the Thatcher government.
Describing the murals as a long overdue “tribute to the strikers and all those who supported a just cause,” Colum stressed he was proud to represent his erstwhile colleagues at an event which illustrated the extent to which the ultimate moral victory is now seen to lie with the Grunwick strikers – despite their ultimate defeat in the dispute itself.
The celebratory murals, which were developed by over 80 local residents through a series of community workshops with local artist Anna Ferrie, sit at two locations with direct associations with the dispute.
One adorns a wall directly adjacent to the former Grunwick factory site in Chapter Road, while the second, larger, mural is at the railway bridge in Dudden Hill Lane near Dollis Hill tube station where many of those supporting the strikers from across London and beyond disembarked en-route to the picket line.
One of the most astonishing things about the Grunwick dispute is how a showdown that was so bitter and controversial in the late 1970s is seen as a cause for mainstream celebration of the spirit of struggle today – to the extent that the Grunwick 40 commemoration project, of which the murals are the permanent legacy, was part funded by a £24,800 Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
“Maybe the further back in time it is the less controversial Grunwick has become,” observes CWU retired member and Brent Trades Council chair Pete Firmin who regularly supported the strikers on the picket line.
“For me the ultimate legacy of Grunwick is the way in which it was a turning point in terms of the unions relating to migrant workers and black workers,” he added.
“It’s great to have a memorial to the strike, the strikers and their supporters so close to the site of the old Grunwick factories. It’s a wonderful reminder of an important piece of local and labour movement history. A job well done by artist Anna Ferrie together with all those who participated in community workshops to help design the mural.”