Striking Women is a well-researched reexamination of two strikes in the United Kingdom (UK) that saw the mobilization of migrant South Asian women workers against highly exploitative and racially structured low-paying jobs, which have been overcrowded by a predominantly female labour force. One of these strikes, the Grunwick strike of 1976-77, is well-documented and is, in fact, eulogized by the British trade union movement as a struggle that marked the ‘successful’ incorporation of the issues of ‘black’ and women workers within the British labour movement. The second strike is that of workers employed by the airline catering enterprise, Gate Gourmet. This strike of 2005 and the resulting lengthy industrial dispute is far less documented by the labour movement, largely due to the schism that soon emerged between the strikers and their union on the question of a ‘settlement’ offered by the management.
The authors, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson, identify their endeavour as the recounting of the workers’ story and not the union’s story. The book is hence based on a close examination of the lived experience of the women workers who struck work, with the authors consciously adopting a methodology that is far from event-specific. Going beyond the strikers’ memories of the specific incident and modalities of the strike, Anitha and Pearson also focus on the broader history of who the strikers were, and these women’s larger work/life histories. Migration histories of these women, their evolving family and community structures, and the gendered inequalities within migrant families as well in workplaces are emphasized as the authors work with detailed information captured in extensive semi-structured interviews in Hindi. The purpose of such methodology, the authors claim, is to better understand the triggers for strike action against increasingly oppressive managerial controls, and to expose the intersecting dynamics of the situation these migrant workers faced as women employed in low paying jobs and juggling familial responsibilities in changing work regimes. The authors explore at length the worker’s story, i.e., the motivation for resistance which went beyond just the frictions on the production line, the experiences of workers before and during the prolonged dispute, as well as the repercussions of the said events on the strikers’ political and social identities. Overall, it is the intersection of the workers’ class, ethnic and gendered identities as well as migration experiences that is emphasized by the authors when comprehending the workers’ resistance. The authors’ intersectionality framework of analysis is, thus, a crucial aspect of their methodology and assessment.
Striking Women also reveals a lot about the dynamics between trade unions and their members in a scenario characterized by increasing hostility towards immigrants and collective labour. The changing political and economic realities for labour between the period of the 1970s and 2000s are an important background within which union action and the disappointment of the women strikers is contextualized. The changes are evident in terms of more restrictive union legislation, the retreat of the British labour movement from 1980s onwards, and the orientation of policy discourses on immigrant South Asian women towards culturally essentialist representation and stereotyping that project these women as passive, apolitical victims of their communities.
The authors argue that the changing policy discourses reflect a marked ‘religiosisation of identities’, and the corresponding erasure of the fact that these women are workers, industrial activists and basically more than just oppressed figures of victimhood. Consequently, Anitha and Pearson use the life/work histories of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers to expose the problems with an overemphasis on the cultural aspects of gender relations, cultural constructions of migrant identities, and the resulting engagement of policy-makers with minority ethnic women solely in terms of them being ‘vectors of the integration of their community’ into British society instead of active ‘participants in the labour market in their own right’.
In terms of the background of the industrial world, the book takes into account subcontracting and outsourcing that developed by 1990s, as well as five major trade union legislations between 1979 and 1990—all of which undermined collective action that had been used by unions. The Labour government that came to power in 1997 is rightly projected as continuing with the trend; a consequence of its ‘New Labour’ politics which propagated moderation of class politics, questioned the notion of a unified working class and its revolutionary potential in order to wrest electoral gains.
Apart from discriminatory immigration laws that kicked in from the late 1960s against blacks and South Asians from commonwealth countries seeking to enter the UK, the authors highlight the impact of the anti-union conservatism of Thatcher’s regime and the challenges posed by post-Fordist manufacturing for the workforce concentrated in the lower rungs of the labour market.We find some insightful discussion of important trends within the restructured post-Fordist labour market, as well as an indication of some of the larger repercussions of ‘New Labour’ politics. In this regard, it is particularly noteworthy how the authors identify the sync between the paradigm of deregulated employment relations and the legal framework that increasingly regulates individual rights of workers while systematically undermining workers’ collective rights. For instance, the rise of individualized mechanisms of dispute resolution via Employment Tribunals, the growing emphasis on racial equality rights and rights to parental leave entitlements are contrasted with strict controls over unions’ internal governance, the crackdown on secondary solidarity action, etc.
Another significant and interesting aspect of this close study of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers are particular moments in the authors’ narrative wherein the marked variation in the experiences of the workers surface. The variations are evident in spite of the visible commonalities of experiences that Anitha and Pearson emphasize. We see this in terms of some women workers eventually finding better jobs and thus accessing better housing in contrast to others who have been unable to or took much longer to move up the UK labour market. The variation is also telling in terms of the few instances pointed out of differences in class or economic status of the women when they initially joined the labour market, and the resulting differences in their life histories. For instance, we have the somewhat contrasting work/life histories of Kulvinder, Harjot and Leena on the one hand, and that of Naliniben on the other. Whilst the former appear to have moved into better jobs with more benefits, Naliniben spoke bitterly of the stagnation in status and wages both before and after her experience with the Grunwick strike. Having said this, the book does not adequately explore these differences of class position/economic status. We do not get a comprehensive picture of the evolving class process within each group of South Asian women migrants and their consequent positioning today vis-à-vis the larger working class and its politics.
Thus, although differences in the strikers’ experiences are brought out by Anitha and Pearson, one cannot help but notice a certain limitation in their methodological approach. Recollection of memories is a process that involves traction with the present. In other words, the present intersecting situations play a crucial role in shaping the workers’ views of their past struggles. In this regard, the authors’ efforts to trace the worker’s story appears to miss out on adequate engagement with the contemporary frame or current positioning of their interviewees as they look back and trace their work/life histories and experience with striking. We are given little sense of how the earlier migrants are currently positioned in the ongoing migration inflow, and in the UK job market vis-à-vis other impoverished South Asian women moving into the UK. For example, one wonders how the changed class position or upward mobility of some of the interviewees has manifested itself in the context of the growing ranks of the ‘precariat’. Have the changed circumstances of erstwhile strikers made them party to the exploitation of new generations of migrant workers and sceptical of unionization and working-class solidarity? Are we, in the effort to trace the worker’s story, inclined to isolate the experiences and recollections of resistance of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers from the experiences of other sections of the working class?
Maya John is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Jesus & Mary College, New Delhi.
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