In late July 1989 two Leicester-based trade union militants discovered that the company they worked for had accepted a contract to supply goods to South Africa. Ross Galbraith and Gary Sherriff refused to work on the contract and were sacked. Their sacking led to a year-long campaign raising the case for workers’ sanctions against apartheid South Africa. During this time Ross and Gary built a strong working relationship with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the Non-Stop Picket that continued long after the end of their campaign.
Ross and Gary worked together at a local company, Granby Plastics, in the north of Leicester. When they discovered that Granby Plastics had accepted an order to supply Nyloil (a plastic substitute for metal) to a South African company that they suspected had links to the South African Defence Force, Ross and Gary knew they had to take action. They went to see Kerry Ball, the owner of Granby Plastics, and explained that they did not want to work on the South African order. Two days later they were sacked for taking the stand they did.
The action that Ross and Gary took did not come out of nowhere. They were both active members of their union, the TGWU; and, Ross was a long-standing member of the executive committee of the Leicester & District Trades Union Council (LDTUC). Ross and Gary had also both been working with a group of independent, non-aligned radicals in Leicester for a number of years on various campaigns, including building support for the striking BTR Sarmcol workers in South Africa.
Despite their history of radical activism and building solidarity with South African workers, neither Ross nor Gary had a history of active involvement in the local Leicester Anti-Apartheid Group. They had, however, had some contact over the years with City Group and the Non-Stop Picket – LDTUC had sponsored the Non-Stop Picket since early 1987, and Ross, in his capacity as Branch Secretary of the TGWU, had written to City Group in June 1987 supporting their campaign for the release from detention of the South African trade union leader Moses Mayekiso. In his letter, he congratulated City Group on the longevity of the Non-Stop Picket, and demonstrated his sympathy for workers taking independent action against apartheid.
It is a remarkable achievement that it is still continuing after over 400 days and despite the increasing police harassment…There are several cases in Leicester of workers refusing to have any contact with South Africa and South African products including a member of my own branch. This sort of action has to be both supported and encouraged. (Ross Galbraith letter 30 June 1987)
When Ross and Gary launched their campaign, City Group was one of the first local anti-apartheid groups to sponsor it. When the campaign called a demonstration in Leicester in October 1987, City Group sent a contingent of supporters along. Ross and Gary were, however, determined to run their campaign independently and they successfully managed to keep the support of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement despite their working relationship with City Group. They attended several rallies on the Non-Stop Picket, including the large protest against the last white-only election in South Africa in September 1989. In 1992 they worked with City Group’s ‘Springbok Reception Committee’ to protest the Springbok’s boycott-busting rugby match at Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road stadium. This on-going working relationship demonstrates how City Group became a pole of attraction for people in Britain who wanted to take militant direct action against apartheid. Their influence spread far beyond the Non-Stop Picket’s location in Trafalgar Square precisely because they became a key node in national and international networks of anti-apartheid direct action.
Throughout their campaign, Ross and Gary travelled the country speaking at Labour Party branches, local anti-apartheid groups and trade unions making the case for rank and file workers to take direct action to disrupt British trade with South Africa. Taking inspiration from the continuity of the Non-Stop Picket, they and their supporters tried to maintain a daily campaign stall in Leicester city centre, educating the public about apartheid and seeking to inspire others to take action against apartheid in whatever way they could. By taking independent action in their workplace, in a provincial city, Ross and Gary made the links between Britain and apartheid South Africa local and contestable.