University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Working with oral histories of the 1976 Grunwick strike

As part of their work on the second year core module ‘Working with the Past’, three University of Portsmouth History students – Katie Kinnes, Izzy Henman and Tom Lacey – collaborated with Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC). They summarised oral history interviews relating to the landmark Grunwick Strike of the 1970s. This will aid researchers using the MRC to find out more about the Strike, as well as helping Katie, Izzy and Tom gain valuable experience of work in an archives environment. This blog post arises from their work as they reflect upon what they did, the skills they gained and the Grunwick Strike itself.

Photograph of the Grunwick mural

Grunwick mural, 2017; source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/11561957@N06/

We chose to create a project around the Grunwick dispute and were given interviews of the people involved, held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC), and which needed summarising to make them easily useable by researchers. Before tackling the interviews, we did some research around the topic.

The Grunwick dispute was one of many strikes that occurred throughout the 1970s. It began in 1976 in the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, which was owned by George Ward. Mathew Lyons has estimated that out of the 490 employees, some 137 joined the trade union called APEX, therefore becoming part of the strike.[1] But what sparked the dispute?

The firing of a young woman named Devshi Bhudia led to many others walking out in protest, instigated by a Gujarati woman called Jayaben Desai. Many of the workers were of different ethnic origins, so this dispute became of public interest. Another significance of this dispute is that it was one of the first times the trade union movement supported immigrant workers.[2] This was important because the trade unions were predominantly led by white men, so Grunwick was special for gaining support from APEX.

Why were they striking? The workers were claiming their pay was insufficient and they had poor working conditions – for example, they had to get permission to use the toilet and overtime was made compulsory. Additionally, the female workers were being paid significantly less than men, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Once the strike began, the Union of Post Office Workers decided to boycott, refusing to deliver mail across the picket lines. The postmen who refused to deliver Grunwick’s mail were suspended for disrupting the postal service. The dispute continued for another two years, with the mass picketing coming to a head in the summer of 1977, with around 20,000 marchers. This gained a great deal of media coverage and increasing numbers of police using aggressive tactics to subdue the picketing lines – however this led to violence on many occasions.

There was much political involvement in this dispute, with three Labour ministers in particular who supported APEX joining the picket lines in the summer of 1977. These were Shirley Williams, Fred Mulley and Denis Howell. Although the strike was called off in July 1978, the strikers did not gain anything. Having said that, they were led to believe their demands would be met, as the Scarman Inquiry was set to reinstate the workers. However the report was rejected by George Ward, so the workers were not reinstated, and the union was not recognised. This led to them losing the support of other unions, so they did not have a leg to stand on, leaving them with no choice but to end the dispute.

However, even after researching the dispute, the idea of undertaking summaries for some interviews was still a daunting task as none of us had produced anything like this before. We began by trying to identify the intention behind the summaries. A problem we encountered during this stage was we had little knowledge of what exactly needed to be included to make it useful. To overcome this, we worked as a group to research what exactly makes a good summary, while talking to our contact at the MRC, James King, to make sure it was precisely what they wanted. It allowed us to conclude that the summary did not have to be an exact word-for-word copy of the interviews. Instead, we designed it to pull out key themes and points of interest, similar to the previous interviews already summarised.

When working through the transcripts we condensed it down to only using the parts we deemed to be significant and bullet pointing any useful information to go underneath. Again, similar to the example pieces that we were provided with, we used time stamps when marking any relevant information, as it would allow anybody reading the transcript the chance to quickly jump to the relevant part of the interview for them. However, another stumbling block we encountered was trying to determine who our summaries would be aimed at. After some deliberation and research, we arrived at a decision that it would work best if it was aimed at anyone looking to learn more about the individuals, while also being useful for anyone who wants to learn more about the event as a whole.

From this point we worked at summarising as many of the interviews as we could. Each interview we summarised only had one individual being interviewed making it easier for us to focus on what they were saying rather than trying to balance two interviewees. To do this in the most efficient way we went through the list of interviews provided to us by James at the MRC, and assigned one interview to each group member, enabling us to get through more interviews in a shorter space of time. If we thought a particular part was important, we made sure to listen to the entire sentence before beginning to summarise and transcribe it so we could understand context and avoid misunderstandings.

During the summarising process we also made sure to know as many of the relevant abbreviations and names to give us a better understanding of the significance of different points during each interview. But to ensure our summaries were up to the same standard and in a similar style we sent our interview to the other group members to have them double-check it. To better make sure it was up to the quality of our MRC contact, we each sent the transcript to them, giving us edits and any extra useful information we were yet to include.

If anyone is thinking of taking on a similar task: it takes longer than you think! After choosing the interviews we would be working on individually, we definitely underestimated the amount of time that it would take to complete a full one. A task we thought would take an hour took us multiple, so it was important that we began to set aside time to complete it. Initially, we thought we would be able to complete multiple interviews from the list that we’d been given, but this was an overestimation. Because of the time it took to complete them, we found the deadline fast approaching having only done one. Though I think this was also due to waiting for feedback on our work also, which was ultimately out of our control – a challenge of working in a team and relying on others who had other deadlines.

It also takes a lot of concentration to complete. It is especially difficult when the interviewees are sometimes a bit difficult to understand due to accents, etc, so this is also something to bear in mind. It may have been due to the age of those who had been interviewed and where they had come from, but this hadn’t been something that we had thought would be much of an issue, until we began to complete the summaries. This also added more time onto the task, as we’d have to watch parts a few different times to make sure we were getting the most out of it.

The task was definitely valuable in other things that it taught us. We improved our group collaboration skills and also learnt how to take important details out of a wider source in order to get the most out of the task. This was probably the most difficult thing for us. We had to decide on the audience – who would be reading these summaries, such as what kind of historians or researchers – then try and deduce what kind of things may be useful for them. We spoke as a group a few times and even consulted our outside contact at the MRC as to just what would be most beneficial to those who would go on to use our summaries. This had been an issue we’d had from the start of the process, so it was important to us to all be on the same page about what to note down. This is probably one of the most important aspects of summarising sources, so make sure you’re clear of how to make sure the audience gets the most out of the piece, otherwise it isn’t as valuable as an aid.

While this process has its difficulties, we learnt a lot of valuable skills and what kind of things to consider before undertaking a task such as this. Alongside just being a fulfilling experience, knowing that we would be helping researchers and a recognised archive institution with their work was important, and the skills we learnt will be of great use in the future.

Katie Kinnes, Izzy Henman and Tom Lacey

The MRC’s holdings relating to Grunwick – including the summary Katie, Izzy and Tom worked on – can be found here.

[1] Mathew Lyons, “The Grunwick Dispute Begins” History Today, Vol. 72, no. 8 (2022)

[2] Mathew Lyons, “The Grunwick Dispute Begins” History Today, Vol. 72, no. 8 (2022)

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2 Responses to Working with oral histories of the 1976 Grunwick strike

  1. Stephen Kelly October 7, 2023 at 10:11 am #

    I’m an oral historian, so well done. I also covered the dispute as a journalist with Tribune. You can find my reports in back numbers. Plus I also spoke in court for an arrested Labour MP

    • Fiona McCall October 12, 2023 at 5:01 pm #

      Thanks for your comments Stephen which I’m sure will be of interest to our readers wanting to find out more.

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