SASKIA MURPHY looks ahead to a play on the Grunwick dispute, which challenged the way women and immigrant workers are treated in the workplace
ON August 20 1976 a group of workers in a film-processing factory in Willesden, north-west London, walked out in protest at their unfair working conditions, low pay and the “bullying tactics” used by management.
Led by mostly east African Asian women, the Grunwick strike became one of the longest and most important industrial disputes in British history and changed the way trade unions thought about race and new immigrant communities coming to Britain in the 1970s.
The women became known as the “strikers in saris” and their fight for fair treatment was supported by thousands of trade unionists and campaigners as more than 20,000 people joined them on one of the mass pickets.
But We Are the Lions, Mr Manger! — Townsend Theatre Productions’s story of the Grunwick dispute — is not just about groundbreaking solidarity.
It is also the story of a remarkable woman, Jayaben Desai. The 4’10” tall mother-of-two defi- antly led the first walk-out in protest against the humiliation she and other female employees felt at the Grunwick factory.
As she left, the manager shouted at Desai and her colleagues to “stop chattering like monkeys in a zoo,” and she replied: “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 finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off.
“We are the lions, Mr Manager!”
Desai became the leader of the Grunwick strike and not only stood up for workers’ rights with selfless dedication but, with her steadfast resolve, she turned the dispute into a national movement for human rights, inspiring future generations and challenging the way people perceived Asian women.
Now, seeking to relive the strikers’ inspirational fight for freedom, equality and human dignity, Desai’s story is being brought to life for the very first time.
Supported by Arts Council England and Unite the Union the play, written by Neil Gore, will tell the story of the Grunwick dispute through a mixture of stirring song, poetry, movement and dance and it will utilise Townsend Productions’s trademark cast of two characters playing multiple roles.
Gore, who appears in the play alongside Medhavi Patel as Desai, says: “In our work we aim to focus on the lives and contributions of inspirational and vital figures from our social history, often forgotten, who campaigned vigorously to improve the quality of life for everyone.
“Jayaben Desai is one such figure. She tirelessly fought on behalf of immigrant workers against exploitative employment practice and fearlessly faced all the elements of Establishment authority.
“She alerted many in the trade union movement to the issues of vulnerability of immigrant workers and highlighted the fight to maintain basic trade union rights. Her resolve and courage should be remembered and celebrated.
“Grunwick raised many wide-ranging questions about trade unionism, rights in the workplace and dignity at work — themes that still resonate and are relevant today.”