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24th September 2012, 11:43am
New exhibition shows South Asian women's prominent role on the picket lines
The Grunwick strike - image copyright TUC Collection, London Metropolitan University The vanguard role of South Asian women in some of the British trade union movement’s most significant battles is recognised in a new exhibition launched on the eve of Black History Month.

The project, called Striking Women, charts South Asian women’s involvement in industrial disputes spanning the Grunwick strike of the late 1970s to the Gate Gourmet walk-out which hit headlines in 2005.

It reveals that far from being docile, apolitical, limited by their domesticity and wholly determined by their culture (as they are often stereotyped), in reality women of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins have frequently been at the centre of major industrial disputes in the UK over the past half century.

The exhibition was launched at Brent Library, Wembley, on Saturday 22nd September where it runs until 7th October. It will later be travelling to schools and community venues across London, Leicester and Manchester.

The resource has been developed by Dr Sundari Anitha from the University of Lincoln and Professor Ruth Pearson from the University of Leeds as a follow-up to a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Through photographs, personal testimonies of the strikers, posters and other contemporary sources, the exhibition puts the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes in the wider context of South Asian women’s activism in the workplace. It illustrates how migrant South Asian women in the UK have contributed to the pursuit of dignity and equality for all workers.

Dr. Anitha, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: "This story isn't just about the history of one group of people, it's about the history of workers’ rights in Britain. The struggles these women faced are the same struggles many millions of people of different backgrounds have faced to secure fair pay and conditions over the decades.”

This year is an important milestone for trade unionists around the world, marking the centenary of the Bread and Roses strikes of 1912. This dispute, which was led primarily by immigrant, female textile workers demanding better wages and working conditions from their employers in Massachusetts, USA, became a symbol of workers’ solidarity transcending gender and cultural lines. The rose emblem is still adopted by trade union movements and their sympathisers across the globe.

The Striking Women exhibition builds on a previous research project led by Professor Ruth Pearson, with Dr Sundari Anitha and Professor Linda McDowell (University of Oxford) from 2008 to 2009. This work included interviews with five of the original Grunwick strikers and archival research on contemporary sources on Grunwick. The researchers also spoke to 26 Gate Gourmet strikers, attended tribunals and studied legal documents related to their case.

Brent is a fitting venue for the launch of the Striking Women exhibition as the borough was the location of the Grunwick dispute, which flared in 1976 when the protests of workers at a photo-processing laboratory became a cause celebre for the British trade union movement. Grunwick is widely acknowledged as a watershed in British industrial relations, when trade unions traditionally associated with working class men united behind female, ethnic minority workers.

“The Grunwick strike came during the heyday of industrial action. The main grievances were around poor working conditions, particularly managerial control. It started with a walk-out triggered by the imposition of overtime at very short notice. After a period of time, it became a demand for union recognition,” said Dr. Anitha.

Almost 30 years later, South Asian women again found themselves on the picket lines in an industrial dispute of national proportions. Heathrow workers, including ground staff, baggage handlers and bus drivers, united in protest at the sacking of hundreds of catering staff, most of them Asian women, at Gate Gourmet, the company which supplied British Airways’ in-flight meals. Although many of the sacked workers were reinstated or accepted redundancy settlements, supported by the Transport and General Workers Union, to this day a minority are still campaigning to have their claim of unfair dismissal accepted.

The project, 'Striking Women: South Asian workers' struggles in the UK labour market - from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet', is funded with a grant of £64,500 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The travelling exhibition will be available for schools or community groups across the UK from November. Organisations interested in arranging a visit should contact Dr Sundari Anitha on:

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