George Ward: Grunwick owner whose strike battle set the scene for Thatcher's union reforms

 

As boss of a North London photographic company in the mid-1970s George Ward played a central role in a key episode in Margaret Thatcher's developing belief that the power of Britain's trade unions had to be curbed. The strike at his firm dragged on for two long and bitter years, encompassing violence on the picket lines, huge political controversy and high-level legal proceedings before ending in defeat for the unions.

Ward had the strong support of Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, who hailed him as a champion of freedom in the dispute at his Grunwick film processing laboratories. He refused to yield in the long-running trial of strength with the workers, eventually prevailing and helping confirm Thatcher in her belief that union power could be broken.

The episode hugely embarrassed the Callaghan Labour government. There was an amount of public sympathy for the strikers, many of whom were Asian women who became known as "strikers in saris". But it was another matter when nightly television reports showed ugly clashes between thousands of pickets, who included miners bussed in by Arthur Scargill, and riot police in paramilitary gear. There were more than 500 arrests and many injuries "when policemen's helmets started flying", as a reporter at the time put it.

Callaghan hurriedly sought a way out, commissioning a senior judge, Lord Scarman, to produce a report, but legal proceedings dragged on before the strikers eventually gave up the fight. Ward declared he was standing up for the right to work and the importance of freedom. He insisted that he was not anti-union – but he also insisted that "the dominant factors behind this dispute are Marxist-inspired."

George Ward was born into an Anglo-Indian family in New Delhi in 1933. The son of a well-off accountant, he was fascinated by horse racing all his life, and had youthful ambitions of becoming a jockey. But the family fell on hard times after his father's death and, almost penniless, moved to England.

Ward worked as a postboy before winning a scholarship to a London polytechnic, where he qualified as an accountant. He spent three years in Rio de Janeiro before returning to become a partner in an accountancy firm.

He and two business associates founded Grunwick Laboratories at a time when developing holiday snaps was big business. He was particularly proprietorial about the firm, having invested his savings in it and working long hours to build it up.

In 1976 a male worker was sacked on the grounds that he was working too slowly. Other workers protested, joining the trade union Apex, and when around 150 went on strike all were sacked. Picketing began and the two-year dispute was under way.

Conditions in the plant were said to be harsh, though Scarman's report did not bear out allegations that it was essentially a sweatshop. Ward contested accusations that he exploited immigrant labour, declaring: "I myself am an immigrant." He lauded those employees who remained at work, saying they had "heroically withstood the bully-boy tactics of the extremists."

Some Labour ministers and MPs supported the strikers while Conservatives were divided among moderates who favoured a compromise solution and others who saw it as an important trial of wills. Keith Joseph, who became a leading Thatcherite, called it "a make-or-break point for British democracy", saying that unless the unions lost, Grunwick would represent "all our tomorrows". The left-wing journalist Paul Foot concurred, describing the dispute as "a central battleground between the classes and between the parties".

Those who continued to work were ferried in coaches fitted with grilles to ward off the milk bottles and other missiles. Pickets were also bussed to the site, which the media called "the Ascot of the left". Some postal workers refused to handle Grunwick mail. Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary, was barracked by crowds of angry pickets when he went to the site to insist that the heavy police presence was necessary.

The Trades Union Congress, which initially supported the strike, grewuncomfortable with the clashes and displays of militancy, which it reckoned had got out of hand and was costing the movement support. The TUC general secretary, Len Murray, would latersay: "There were calls for us to blacklist Grunwick's post forever, to drive the company out of business, and even turn off Mr Ward's gas, water and electricity - all very illegal and very unacceptable to the majority of moderate British people."

Legal proceedings dragged on, with Ward winning some battles and losing others, until eventually the House of Lords upheld his right not to recognise the union. Support then drained away.

The Grunwick company prospered and expanded after the strike, though the rapid developments in modernphotographic technology, particularly in digital cameras, eventually hadan effect and it closed in 2011. Wardran into trouble with the Conservatives in 1988 when the Hendon branch,which he chaired, was suspended by the Party. He denied allegations that he had signed up relatives and employees as members in advance of an important meeting.

He was a prominent sponsor of horse racing, with a number of major races bearing the names of his various companies, but he felt he was denied access to the establishment. On his death Edward Gillespie, managing director at Cheltenham race course, said: "George was a great man but unfortunately he never quite achieved what he wanted to in racing because he was never allowed into the inner chambers, and that was a big disappointment to him.

"George was only allowed to get so far because of who he was, because of his background, his relationship with government, his disappointment with Margaret Thatcher. The ranks sometimes closed against him, and it was very sad."

George Ward, businessman: born New Delhi, India 2 April 1933; married 1965 Loretto Hanley (one son, one daughter); died 23 April 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Newly Qualified Teachers

£90 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are currently looking fo...

Year 3/4 Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Job Share Year 3/4 Teacher...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments