'Striking Out' tells the story of two groups of South Asian women workers who came to Britain, following very different migration journeys. They took part in struggles for workers’ rights at Grunwick (1976-1978) and at Gate Gourmet (2005).
They came to the UK between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Once here, they worked hard to build a better life for their children. Like many women, they did a double shift, juggling the responsibilities they had in their homes - cooking, caring for children, cleaning - with paid work. However, because they were recent migrants and women, the only jobs that they could find were low paid, low status manual work. They responded to the poor conditions at work by getting together to fight for their rights.
The first of the two struggles began in the long hot summer of 1976 at Grunwick photo–processing laboratories in Brent, North London where many South Asian women were employed. A small group of workers walked out in protest at their bad working conditions and the way the management treated them. This sparked off a bitter dispute that was to last for two years.
The majority of these workers were women who had initially migrated from India to East Africa and then to the UK and were angry at being treated so badly. They began to demand the right to join a trade union, although their boss did not allow unions in his establishment. Their struggle, which lasted over two years, caught the attention of workers all over the UK and was supported by other trade union members as well as thousands of ordinary men and women.
In the end, the strike was defeated and the women were sacked and did not win the right for union membership at Grunwick. But this strike is remembered as a crucial moment in British history, as the moment when the trade unions recognised the rights of women and minority workers as equal to those of white working class men.
Some 30 years later — at an airline catering company in Heathrow called Gate Gourmet — another group of South Asian women took part in another industrial dispute. They too were fighting to defend their working conditions and wages in the face of changes that had been brought about after British Airways subcontracted its catering services to Gate Gourmet. As trade union members, the workers did initially receive support from their union, but over time many of them found that they had to organise on their own to stand up for their rights.
These two groups of women lived through a period when the world of work was rapidly changing for women in the UK and when women struggled for, and won, many rights like the right to equal pay, maternity leave and maternity pay. They joined trade unions, and took part in struggles against poor pay and conditions at their workplace, and in defence of their dignity and respect.
Through their actions, these women shaped British history.