Out in the Streets: The Road to Grunwick

Today Chapter Road, NW2, is unremarkable. To avoid the road parallel – Willesden Green’s repetitive High Road of fried chicken shops, bookmakers and estate agents, the ambler can deviate and walk along the pavements outside the late Nineteenth Century terraces. To step away from chaos means that Chapter Road, as an alternative route, becomes a somewhat scenic source of calm.[1]

 

At the northern end of the street, the roundel of Dollis Hill is a node of the underground network, signifying the connection to the West End and its arenas of public consumption. Aside from a brief role in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime as the protagonist’s home address, the road in recent years has not been assigned a part in any blockbuster story.[2] Yet, the thoroughfare enjoyed nearly two years of fame in Britain, when, in 1976 the street began its starring role. Workers at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories downed their tools and led by Jayben Desai they moved to the street outside, Chapter Road.[3] Viewed as a turning point in the history of the labour movement as the moment when the TUC recognised the rights of women and minority workers as being equal to those of white working class men; the strike saw workers walk out over poor pay and working conditions in August 1976 and not returning until July 1978.[4]

 

Meaningful and positive change in the workplace can only be created through mass organisation of workers, ordinary people taking action and placing themselves at the centre of their own struggles. Like following Chapter Road as a detour away from the High Road, there can be no shortcuts. Sometimes, the only way to address problems – as was so often the case in the latter half of the Twentieth Century – is to down tools, to a chorus of ‘everybody out’ and move out to the streets.

 

Defend Workers' Right To Organise. Support Grunwick Strikers Poster © V&A Museum Number E.143-2011

Defend Workers’ Right To Organise. Support Grunwick Strikers Poster © V&A Museum Number E.143-2011

 

This may be seen as a romanticised view of the protester; one stood with a banner outside their workplace, voicing their discontent. Still, it provides a way to explore the urban environment around the picket line. The performative nature of protest has been highly documented and explored within movements themselves, from the Paris student protests of 1968 to the recent use of umbrellas in the Hong Kong.[5] Yet, what lies underneath striker’s feet has, in scholarly writings, not been a concern of those writing about protest. Studies of the Greenham Common peace camp have referred to the importance of the common itself, however, whereas Greenham was an organic compound adapted by the peace camp, Chapter Road is different.[6] It is a tarmacked product of the state.

 

Whereas the objects created within the space; banners, pin badges and placards are adhering to the rules of their creators – in the 1970s an official picket had to display these items in order to be verified by the TUC, the street was not created by the union or the pickets.[7] It is not a tool, nor part of the apparatus of trade union machinery written about in one of the many union handbooks of the time. Instead, it is a piece of infrastructure that must be manipulated by those making a stand.

 

(c) Dan Jones; Brent Museum (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/grunwick-strike-178381)

(c) Dan Jones; Brent Museum (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/grunwick-strike-178381)

 

We are all appropriators of space, be that securing our own boundaries of ‘personal space’ to the names and uses we attach to rooms in our homes. Yet, the non-verbal communication that occurs between protester and street is one which shifts the static nature of the road into a rapid response unit. Eric Hobsbawm speculated that the ability to traverse on foot would be a key factor in the ‘ideal city for riot and insurrection’. He wrote of the intermingling of authorities with the concentration of the poor, and for the duration of the Grunwick dispute, it is exactly what happened on Chapter Road.

 

Chapter Road 11th July 1977 © Andrew Wiard (http://reportphotos.photoshelter.com/image/I0000SYHRGz5BBqo)

Chapter Road 11th July 1977 © Andrew Wiard (http://reportphotos.photoshelter.com/image/I0000SYHRGz5BBqo)

 

One way of viewing ‘the striker’ within an urban environment is to look at the way skateboarders experience and understand the city through their activity. As with protesters, these users of the city have often been viewed as outsiders – a subculture which Ian Borden has commented on extensively in his work.[8] They alter an environment to work for them. To use Henri Lefebrve’s phrasing, they adopt a ‘rhythmanalysis’ which provides the space-time rhythm for using the city as their playground.[9] Borden writes about rhythmanalysis being dependant on the materials of the city itself, for skateboarders prefer to journey in modern cities.[10] Unlike skateboarders, the rhythmanalysis of the common protester is one which cannot choose their environment, preferences are not possible. Chapter Road was not built with the idea that it would one day become a space for worker disruption, which makes this example of disruption of infrastructure difficult to theorise, as the gains from changing the road are not as easily visible as they are with the leisure practise of skateboarding.

 

A strike and its pickets are a challenge to the everyday functions of a street. Images from 1977 show thousands of people flooding the road, evidence that the fortified boundary between pedestrian and transport – the kerb – had been breached. The road no longer belonged to cars but to the protester. Rebecca Solnit has commented on this factor of protest, stating that the protest marches are not a journey but an arrival.[11] What does this mean when applied to Chapter Road? Where the streets were so narrow that the protesters were often at a standstill. This meant that the space-time rhythm is disrupted, creating further complications which reflect discontent, the street can itself became an object of risk.

 

(c) Peter Johns: Guardian Newspapers (http://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2010/jan/20/grunwick-strike-women#img-1)

(c) Peter Johns: Guardian Newspapers (http://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2010/jan/20/grunwick-strike-women#img-1)

 

Later images of Grunwick show that the disappearance of the boundary between transport and man, with buses unable to move through the crowds, is something which the authorities attempted to resolve. The provision of policemen to construct a border between pavement and road meant that the bobbies became the boundary, a physical barrier on the street. This replication of boundary with people and not a material structure, created from the common portland cement concrete, highlights not only how strong the power of the crowd is, but, also how it is a force which must be counteracted with another human presence. The images demonstrate a clear line between the perception of anarchy and order, the black and white images emphasise the uniforms of those employed to act on the orders given to them. The lack of co-ordination of the strikers allows them to be viewed as a disordered rabble, as many contemporary newspaper accounts did.

 

Photographer Peter Johns. Image © Guardian Newspapers (http://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2010/jan/20/grunwick-strike-women)

Photographer Peter Johns. Image © Guardian Newspapers (http://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2010/jan/20/grunwick-strike-women)

 

The design of street space that was seen on Chapter Road, the overnight transformation from a back road to the main arena of production, created a platform for protest and pickets. Although there is no sign of the conflict that occupied the street for two years, the road still exists. Although it may have been resurfaced since Desai and her fellow workers stood outside on the picket line, it remains as the key object of the conflict and is one which shall not be removed. This article may have only provided suggestions into the creation of a new way of thinking about the conflict, and space. Further analysis could involve a deeper reading of Lefebrve or a material analysis of the composition of the road itself. This is a path that is yet to be trod. Not only on the road to Grunwick, but all roads which protesters feet grace. It is a journey which may be revisited here again later in the year.

Georgia Newmarch

 

References

 

[1] Brent Council, Willesden Green, http://brent.gov.uk/media/387396/Willesden%20Green.pdf [accessed 8/12/14].

[2] Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, (Random House: London, 2003), 211.

[3] Striking Women: Striking Out. The Grunwick Dispute, http://www.striking-women.org/module/striking-out/grunwick-dispute [accessed 8/12/14].

[4] Grunwick Strike 1976-1978, http://www.wcml.org.uk/contents/protests-politics-and-campaigning-for-change/grunwick/ [accessed 8/12/14].

[5] For example, see Hank Johnston, Culture, Social Movements and Protest, (Ashgate: London, 2009).

[6] See David Cortright, Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2008).

[7] Trade Unions Congress, Industrial Relations Act 1972.

[8] See Ian Borden, Skateboarding, Space and The City: Architecture and the Body, (oxford: Berg, 2001).

[9] Henri Lefebrve, Writings on Cities, (Wiley Blackwell: London, 2005),57.

[10] Borden, Skateboarding, 196.

[11] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, (Verso Books: London, 2001), 219.

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