May 1st isn’t only about celebrating spring and fertility by dancing with ribbons around a pole. It’s International Workers Day, or Labour Day, in some countries. Today people all over the world are commemorating the achievements of union-based movements and protesting for better workers rights.
I managed to catch a story-telling recently of one of the most iconic trade union struggles in UK history. “We Are The Lions, Mr Manager” is a theatre production telling the story of Jayaben Desai, a leading trade union activist who worked at the Grunwick photo-processing factory in North West London. Grunwick management hired many Asian women as factory-workers, who suffered unfair wages and exploitative working conditions. Jayaben organised the women to form a union and fight for change. She is known for her famous words, spoken to her bullying manager in 1976:
“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. 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.”
Jayaben died in 2010, aged 77 (more about her story is here). The play tells the story of the fight for workers rights at Grunwick, as well as telling the story of her move from India to Tanzania to the UK and how she was inspired by the struggle for Indian Independence.
Medhavi Patel as Jayaben Desai
Seeing a Gujarati woman onstage, in a sari with a Gujarati style chedo (the pleated sari fold coming down the front) was a big thing itself for me, as a Gujarati woman. The last time this had happened was when watching special Gujarati comedy plays, mostly with soap-opera plot-lines, with my parents as a child. Yet here was a Gujarati woman playing Jayaben Desai, a shining light in the history of powerful movement builders. Her story had been an inspiration to me in my work for years. Seeing her come to life on stage with powerful speeches, tender stories and rousing songs, and a bhajan…..she brought together different parts of me – Gujarati, woman, singer, activist, story-teller, organiser.
Her story particularly touches three areas of enquiry which are alive in me and which I support clients to grapple with in today’s movements for change in the UK and internationally.
Jayaben is famously known to say ‘A person like me, I am never scared of anybody”. The play shows just how often she dug into a reserve of fire and fearlessness and how in doing so, inspired others. She crossed barriers of organizational hierarchy, racism and gender (when facing the factory management and dealing with the husbands of her colleagues) to try and stop what she felt was a gross injustice. Her unwavering drive to align her actions with her values, together with her genius way with words, inspired so many others at Grunwick and in the wider Trade Union movement nationally to stand alongside her.
She recites a Gujarati poem in the play: ‘Lado, lado ane lado. Dhiraj dhaari ne lado. Himath rakhi ne lado’. ‘Fight, fight and keep fighting. Fight with a deep patience. Fight with strength’.
What does courage look like in our movements for change today? Do we have different ideas of what courage is? Who or what inspires us? What does courage look like in me, today and every day?
Audience participation with Jayaben leading us in chants
A key part of the Grunwick story is the solidarity offered to the strikers by workers in other sectors; most notably postal workers, who could block mail and hamper business for the factory which worked by mail-order. They did this until legal orders were served against them.
Some more conservative parts of the Trade Union movement did not support Grunwick, but many thousands of workers did. They did because they wanted to achieve better working conditions at Grunwick for the workers there and also because they saw the strategic significance of this fight for the wider collective bargaining movement. We saw another story of high-profile cross-movement solidarity, between miners and LGBT rights groups, in the film Pride.
What does solidarity look like between different groups and movements today? How can we offer solidarity and seek it when needed? How do we respect the leadership of those worst most affected by the issue at hand? How do we build trust?
Risk, sacrifice and generosity
Jayaben lost her job due to her organising role. She spent nearly two years struggling for workers’ rights at Grunwick, much of which was spent on the picket line outside the factory, whatever the weather. She sacrificed a lot personally due to hope for change and many others did around her too. Today change-making has been increasingly professionalised in high-paying union, charity and NGO jobs. Many folks making the loudest noise about social justice are paid handsome salaries and enjoy very comfortable lives.
What would we be willing to give up to help bring about transformation? How attached are we to security and comfort? Are we prepared to share power and resources with those who are more marginalised?
Some conditions improved in the factory as a result of the struggle, but Jayaben didn’t see the widespread change she dreamt of. Trade Union membership in the UK declined since a peak in 1979 (though they are rising again more recently) and collective bargaining rights were systematically weakened in the 1980s onwards. You can read more here.
The Grunwick strikers had tens of thousands of workers striking and marching in solidarity with them. Jayaben said ‘”We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” A beautiful thought, given the hostile environment that migrants in the UK continue to face.
The mural commemorating Jayaben Desai and Grunwick strikers outside Dollis Green station in London