Struggles and strategies of South Asian women workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet
‘This timely and authoritative work is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the social history of industrial relations in Britain since the 1970s. It is rare to be able to describe a book by academic authors as a page turner but Striking Women is a case in point.’ - Professor Ben Rogaly, University of Sussex
Who were the women who fought back at Grunwick and Gate Gourmet? Striking Women gives a voice to the women involved as they discuss their lives, their work and their trade unions. This work focuses on South Asian women’s contributions to the struggle for workers’ rights in the UK. It is a fascinating insight into two key industrial disputes using interviews with women who participated in the disputes and rarely-seen archival material.
Striking Women is centred on two industrial disputes, the famous Grunwick strike (1976-78) and the Gate Gourmet dispute that erupted in 2005. Focusing on these two events, the book explores the nature of South Asian women’s contribution to the struggles for workers’ rights in the UK labour market. The authors examine histories of migration and settlement of two different groups of women of South Asian origin, and how this history, their gendered, classed and racialised inclusion in the labour market, the context of industrial relations in the UK in the two periods and the nature of the trade union movement shaped the trajectories and the outcomes of the two disputes.
This is the first account based on the voices of the women involved. Drawing on life/work history interviews with thirty-two women who participated in the two disputes, as well as interviews with trade union officials, archival material and employment tribunal proceedings, the authors explore the motivations, experiences and implications of these events for their political and social identities.
The two disputes also serve as a prism for examining particular continuities and changes in the industrial relations, trade union practices and their scope for action. This work challenges stereotypes of South Asian women as passive and confined to the domestic sphere, whilst exploring the ways in which their employment experience interacted with their domestic roles. Paying close attention to the events and contexts of their workplace struggles enables us to understand the centrality of work to their identities, the complex relationships between these women and their trade unions and some of the challenges that confront trade unions in their efforts to address issues posed by gender and ethnicity. This is the workers’ story.
‘This timely and authoritative work is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the social history of industrial relations in Britain since the 1970s. It is rare to be able to describe a book by academic authors as a page turner but Striking Women is a case in point. Revisiting the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes of the 1970s and 2000s, it brings south Asian women workers’ life history narratives right to the forefront, revealing complex and nuanced stories of struggles for justice in the workplace as well as struggles over how the two disputes are remembered, by whom and for what purposes. Interviewing research participants in Hindi and offering a well-informed history of south Asian migration to the UK that takes full account of the different class backgrounds, ages and migration histories of the women involved in the two disputes, the book brilliantly critiques earlier accounts of the Grunwick strike. Yet along the way the authors never lose sight of the wider contexts of deindustrialisation, neoliberalism, declining union membership, or the individualisation of workers’ rights. Nor do they pull any punches regarding the failure of trade unions to consistently support the striking women in the two disputes. The book provides intimate insights into the ways in which gender and ethnicity were used against women in both workplaces, for example through attempts to curtail their action by drawing on what were wrongly assumed to be community-policed boundaries of propriety. By continuing its critique into the period after the 2008 financial crisis Striking Women also offers an expertly-informed indictment of contemporary capitalist employment relations in conditions of austerity and the growth of the “gig economy”.’
Professor Ben Rogaly, University of Sussex
‘This is a compelling study of an often overlooked and stereotyped group of women workers. It gets to the heart of what the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikes meant to those involved, and challenges normative assumptions about both South Asian women and women workers. As one sacked Gate Gourmet worker made clear in an interview, “I am not going to sit at home with my hands folded in my lap, am I?” This and other women’s testimonies reveal not only the unjust and intolerable working practices which led them to strike, but also the hardships and complex decisions which followed. Using a feminist and intersectional analysis, the authors conclude that, whilst the trade union movement failed to fully support and keep faith with migrant women workers, the women saw themselves as acting in solidarity in a wider struggle for workers’ rights. Above all, this book succeeds by foregrounding women’s voices and dissecting top-down narratives.’
Professor Kim Knott, Lancaster University
‘Excerpts from the interviews … demonstrate how [the disputes] inculcated confidence and a sense of liberation in the workplace among South Asian working women. Contrary to studies that inevitably fixate on the event of Grunwick itself, this research is truly historical for its outstanding incorporation of the wider context. Striking Women provides an informative and accessible read for those passionate about the history and sociology of labour, gender and migration studies.’
– Amal Shahid, LSE Blog
‘The book will be welcomed by a wide range of people working on or studying issues of women’s rights, labour rights, and women’s organising. It adds to a wealth of labour studies literature on the Grunwick strike, but, crucially, it adopts a diﬀerent approach. Striking Women re-examines these two ‘moments’ in labour history, understanding them not as single events, but as the result of women’s experiences over many years: of their lives as migrant women and how this shaped their experiences of the labour market, as well as their organising responses to the discrimination they faced.’
– Fenella Porter, Gender & Development