Neil Gore

The writer of a new play about the Grunwick strike on the human story behind a landmark industrial dispute

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In all the work  we produce, our aim is to focus on the lives and contributions of often forgotten inspirational and vital figures from British social history. We have created plays about the stories, campaigns and fights of some of the bravest, who were willing to put their reputations and careers in jeopardy, sometimes putting their lives at risk, to fight for positive change and justice. We have created plays about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Shrewsbury 24, the International Brigade that fought fascism in Spain, the Chartists, and Robert Tressell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Our latest touring play We Are The Lions Mr Manager has as its backdrop the long-running dispute at the Grunwick Photographic Processing Laboratories in the late 1970s, and at its centre the inspirational strike leader, Jayaben Desai. Her rebellion, a reaction to the low pay and bullying tactics that the workforce of largely women of South Asian origin endured, kickstarted the Grunwick strike, which lasted nearly two years.

The fight for fair treatment by the “strikers in saris”, wrongly thought to be too lowly to treat well and too meek to protest, started when six workers walked out. Then it became 137. Then it was supported by thousands of trade unionists and campaigners, and, at its peak, more than 20,000 people joined them on the picket line. It remains one of the most important industrial disputes in British history and went some way to change the way trade unions thought about race and new immigrant communities coming to Britain in the 1970s.

Although she always worried about her English, Desai gave her boss one of the all-time great parting shots

For Desai herself, the dispute proved to be a very steep learning curve: an opportunity to exhibit her determination to fight on behalf of immigrant workers against exploitative employment practice; to fearlessly face all the elements of establishment authority; alert the trade union movement to the issues of the vulnerability of immigrant workers, and highlight the fight to maintain basic trade union rights.

Although she always worried about her English, Desai gave her boss one of the all-time great parting shots after he chastised her and her colleagues for “chattering like monkeys”.

“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 can dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager!”

The parallels to fair treatment in the workplace today resonate clearly with audiences as we take the play around the country, and many point to current issues of zero-hours contracts, low pay and lack of worker solidarity leading to feelings of powerlessness and acceptance of poor treatment and insecurity. Many raise attitudes to immigration connected to issues of work and employment that are reminiscent of four decades ago.

However, recently we also discovered that Jayaben Desai’s story is also an inspiration to those who wish to fight back. We toured the play to the North East recently and came across the rousing campaign by teaching assistants, a predominantly female workforce, who faced dismissal by Durham County Council on existing terms, to be re-engaged on less favourable terms and conditions, which would have resulted in pay cuts of up to 23 per cent, a loss of nearly £4,000 a year for some. Similar to Desai’s experience, this has presented them with a steep learning curve and an opportunity to come together to pressurise the Labour-led local authority into a rethink and press a seemingly unwilling union to actively support them. And while they may not be militant, they have decades of experience in education of organising, and they have held meetings, demos, marches, produced merchandise, used social media, posted songs on YouTube, written poetry, emailed other assistants across the country and as a result have attracted fantastic support nation wide, while facing repeated warnings from school authorities and unions alike to watch themselves.

Teaching assistant Bridget Yuill said: “Durham teaching assistants have changed forever… We are different people, more open, more active, less timid… We have built a solidarity that is going down in history… We speak out in support of other campaigns like against NHS cuts. We will not stop once our campaign is successful – and it will be. Having been awakened, we will not stop.”

This is the very stuff of Desai 40 years before, so it is hardly surprising that, on discovering the story of  the brave Grunwick strikers, they have named themselves the Lions of Durham as recognition and appreciation of their achievements. Inspired by the struggle, teaching assistant Lisa Turnbull has become a poet. At a recent performance of the play in Stanhope, County Durham, she recited her poem Lion.

A Lion steps forth with a powerful stride
A Lion stands firm loyal to its pride
A Lion shows bravery when faced with a test
A Lion keeps going and rarely takes rest
A Lion is powerful
A Lion is strong
A Lion stands up for what’s right and not wrong
A Lion is honest
A Lion is true
A Lion’s unique
That Lion is you!

We Are The Lions, Mr Manager! is at Harrogate Theatre 5-10 Feb, Marsden Mechanics, 13 Feb, Lantern Theatre 1-3 March, before touring in Hull, Barnsley and Scarborough. For full tour dates see here

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