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.
One of the disputes that triggered the walkout involved a 19-year-old male employee, but Grunwick became known for the way in which predominantly Asian and female workers stood up to their employers. The dispute by the women – who became known in the press as "strikers in saris" – lasted more than two years, and Desai's defiant campaign gained national recognition.
After storming out of the processing plants in north London, Desai and her co-workers joined the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (Apex). However they were joined on picket lines by workers from across the labour movement, who coalesced around the Grunwick dispute in solidarity.
As momentum built, there were frequent confrontations between hundreds of trade unionists and police.
Desai's attempt to achieve union recognition for the Grunwick workers was ultimately unsuccessful, ending in a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress, which she accused of betrayal, in 1978.
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.
Desai, who died just before Christmas after several months of illness, was known for her force of character, eloquence and courage. A photograph of her confronting a row of police officers, a handbag dangling from her arm, became one of the iconic images of the 1970s.
Originally from India, she had arrived in Britain eight years previously, after migrating to Tanzania. Perhaps her best-known statement was issued in confrontation with a manager at Grunwick, who she told: "What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."
The metaphor was revisited tonight by Jack Dromey MP, who was secretary of the Brent Trades Council during the dispute and a close comrade of Desai. "She was 4ft 11 tall, but an absolute lioness," he said. "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. "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 own husband, who survives her along with their two sons, is known to be intensely proud of his wife. Her commitment to the cause of women in the trade union movement was unrelenting, even in her old age.
Professor Ruth Pearson from Leeds University, who conducted a research initiative into Asian female strikers, and was in touch with Desai as recently as last year, recalled her support for women dismissed by Gate Gourmet, the airline catering firm with a processing plant near Heathrow.
"At one of the benefits for the workers sacked by Gate Gourmet in 2005, she sent a congratulatory message and a cheque from herself as the strike leader of the Grunwick dispute," Pearson said. "She recognised that because of the actions taken by herself and her co-strikers Asian women today are able to join trade unions, to take industrial action."
Desai's last known public statement came in January this year, in an interview with the Guardian. "I am proud of what I did," she said. "They wanted to break us down, but we did not break."
Mrs Desai and Sons of Malcolm's Sukant Chandan.
This was a film shoot on a youth-led film project that I co-project managed:
We are laughing as I had to bend down to a more reasonable height alongside Mrs Desai for the pic