Jayaben Desai died age 77 in 2010.
She was born in Gujarat, India and later moved to London. Like many other women in the 1970’s, she was employed as cheap labour in a factory, the Grunwick factory.
The workers were allowed no trade union and many were paid very little for working very long hours. In August, 1976, after being asked to do yet more overtime, Jayaben walked out of the factory with her son. Her parting words to her manager were:
‘What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. There are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who will dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off!
We are those lions Mr Manager!’
Soon there were 137 workers from the factory on strike, protesting about conditions and calling for union recognition.
This was the first time a trade union gave its full support to a strike led by non-white workers.
After nearly 15 months on strike without any gains, Jayaben went on hunger strike outside the offices of the TUC to try to force them to take militant action in their support. This didn’t happen and union backing ebbed away.
The strike however was not lost but heralded a new age of industrial action, Tory MPs calling it a ‘make or break for democracy’ .
Jayaben Desai will be remembered as an inspirational WOC and a leader in the fight for workers rights in the UK.