23rd August 1976
The sweltering heat of the machines seemed to penetrate my body during the hottest summer on record. I scoffed in recollection of the imperial thought of hotter climates resulting in confused submissive minds. Even if my body felt faint there was a deafening roar to my heart and mind. In Grunswick I stood row after row with my comrades processing film. Day in day out we looked at the lives of others. The coloured photographs that we processed seemed to blur into existence with a brightness that appeared to mock our bleak dark reality. These happy moments and families pictured reminded us of the new worlds we imagined for ourselves with our arrival in Britain.
My ancestral homeland called to the very core of my being. The coarseness of my skin reminded me of the hardened earth of India. I would not melt into submission, rather the heat hardened my edges. I was a pioneer species dismissed as weeds that would instead bring forth the soil that provides sustenance and growth. The life that emerges will succeed to survive forming a stable society with deep roots on our shared earth. The motherland of my body shall not be raped by patriarchy and capitalism, but nurtured. The factory owners had welcomed us into the workforce with this image of hard-working and docile beetles scuttling about following orders.
I, a twice migrant didn’t fit into any narrative. The diaspora space left me floating, free to negotiate my own relationship with the world. My experience in Tanzania was not one of poverty and strife as you may assume. I was a professional in an urban world just like you. The expulsion from my Eden with a mere 90 days to pack my bags and leave was of biblical resonance. Many women in this god forsaken factory shared this journey of the fall of Eve. Therein came the eternal damnation that I deserved my fate. They made me believe there was no power vested in me. I was an empty frame cordoned off and chained by the market stalls of wealth and bloodstains. I had been acting in this cyclical fashion, each and every day I’d submitted to their normality. The red of my passport was a blood oath of loyalty between my worn hands and their dominant grip.
The London that was the metropole of the empire seemed to anthropomorphize into Big Ben, our childhood bully. The imperial buildings clawed at a Roman past mimicking the pillars of an ancient tradition. Britain traced its relevance to a system of civility against barbarianism. All that was missing was the toga wearing Roman elite themselves. Instead stood the very representation of this construct of modernity, the pompous city businessman soaking in the sweat of his slaves labour. A naval nation of old built on a nation of coal was for me a place of depravation and mould. This post war society seemed to leer over me with suspicion and contempt. My world felt stale, serious and cold in the poor conditions of this factory work. We worked in an atmosphere of fear and control by the managers of Grunswick. They were overlooking us in their glass cabinets like God, the ever watching eye.
I had first arrived in London taking any job I could. As a sewing machinist I wound the threads that helped to repair the desolate landscape of post-war Britain. The tapestry of London was not just of Blitz reconstruction, the imperial legacy and high culture but an all too real and apparent racism. Regardless, the shared experience of suffering and trauma brought the isolated powerless worker into a grander union. Every soot stained cobble with which London is paved were the building blocks of a labour movement against the managerial elite. The whispers of the once silenced passive voice passed through the vines intertwining and entangling everybody’s problems with it. The colonizer that had once tied our hands in slavery and labour was now being snarled and held accountable by the masses. We’d tear down the tapestry of the great British elite to sew our own narrative of intersectionality, workers’ rights and freedom.
As the long working day continued the shared experience of discrimination spoke to all the workers. The harsh croaking of our managers faded into irrelevance as I came to realize they needed us. This entire system only functioned by our presence. I stopped my work midway through, it seemed the entire factory halted to a stop. At 6.55pm I put on my coat to leave and was beckoned into the glass cage by the managers and dismissed. I walked. I, a mere cog in a great working machine had usurped my role and changed the course of history. Leading my fellow women out the doors I cried “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 fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager.”
Do not get me wrong, this was not an Indian mutiny. Trade unions were all once led by white men often maintaining the status quo. Yet as we, strikers in saris, picketed outside the Grunswick factory the entire nation shared our cause. The workers united will never be defeated. We were a collective body with all our limbs working in unison. With banners we stood, brave and bold. We were not naturally docile delicate flowers but warriors defending our rights against low wages, poor working conditions and institutionalized racism. The lions roar within me bit back. Finally the masses joined us, during this decade of industrial unrest, thousands of trade unionists stood alongside us. From across the labour movement our plight of female migrant workers seemed to speak the tale of every worker in Britain. The strike was not so much about pay but human dignity.
Bobbies attempting to bring some law and order stood in uniform like lines of production. Little did they know of the violence we had all experienced. We played little heed to their threats and warnings. It was almost laughable. Did they not know that we had been whipped, shipped and struck? A baton and shield were child’s toys in comparison. I was a tiny woman in a sari usually swathed in a bulky cardigan with my handbag on my shoulder confronted with a shield of bulking six foot high policemen. They knew my power then, they knew that my small frame was deceiving and that my voice was the sound of millions. They restrained and arrested us in this long conflict with over 500 arrests and police violence. Our battleground of the strikers against the police was a cause celebre of trade unionism placing it in time forevermore as the clash between the classes and the parties. So we beat on boats against the current to defend the freedoms of ordinary men and women to shape the Britain of the future.
Husna Maryam is a third year History student at King’s College, London
Image: Ceasefire Magazine