Fiesty leader of UK 'strikers in saris' dies

Desai is best known for her bold leadership of the famous Grunwick dispute in Willesden, London, in the late 1970s.

She died just before Christmas after several months of illness.

She led Indian-origin migrant workers in protests and demonstrations – the group came to be known as 'strikers in saris'.

Desai led a walkout of the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in the summer of 1976 in an attempt to convince managers to recognise a unionised workforce.

Desai's defiant two-year campaign gained national recognition.

Desai was born in Gujarat, from where she moved first to Tanzania, and then, in 1969, to Britain.

Like her, most of the workers at Grunwick were East African Asians recently arrived in Britain, many of them women, who were employed as cheap labour.

There was no union allowed at Grunwick, where the white management controlled the workers through threats, insults and harassment.

On 20 August 1976, following yet another rude instruction to do overtime, Desai, together with her son, Sunil, walked out.

Her famous parting words to the manager were: "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 finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr manager."

Outside she joined up with four other workers who had also left earlier that day in protest at conditions at Grunwick.

Together the six workers joined the APEX union, and with support from local black political groups and local union backing they started picketing the factory.

Soon there were 137 workers on strike, protesting about the conditions at Grunwick and calling for union recognition.

Desai became a national figure on TV speaking to hundreds of miners, postal workers, car workers and others in front of the Grunwick factory.

Jack Dromey MP, who was secretary of the Brent Trades Council during the dispute and a close associate of Desai, told The Guardian: "She was 4ft 11 tall, but an absolute lioness.

A quite remarkable woman with an absolutely extraordinary turn of phrase."

He recalled how Desai stood before a meeting of more than 80 "husbands, fathers and brothers" of women who worked at Grunwick after it was alleged they had been discouraged from joining the picket lines.

Dromey said: "I will never forget how she said: 'We, the women, are determined to make a stand and nobody will get in the way of that, including from within our own families’."

"Desai's attempt to achieve union recognition for the Grunwick workers was ultimately unsuccessful, but the strike proved a seminal moment in the British labour movement, drawing attention to the overlooked plight of female migrant workers – and generating admiration for Desai's tenacity," The Guardian said in its obituary.

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