45 years since the Ford Dagenham strike: women workers still fighting for decent pay

Linda Taaffe, National Shop Stewards Network

The marvellous victory of the women factory workers in the machine shop at Ford Dagenham rings as loudly today as it did 45 years ago.

In 1968 capitalism was still in the post-war upswing period. Cars rolled off the production line day and night like there was no tomorrow.

Multinationals piled up gargantuan profits while still screwing down wages, never conceding a penny – unless they met a force that threatened to eat into their precious dividends.

Through the trade unions, workers everywhere forged ahead to gain better pay, pensions, holiday and sick pay.

They used every conceivable argument and method to push up pay and win better conditions, like a 35-hour week, and unsociable hours’ payments.

Striking for equal pay

It was against this background that 187 machinists walked out claiming that their job, turning out 55 seat cushions an hour, labouring with heavy machinery and unwieldy materials, was just as skilled as that of male paint-sprayers.

In a re-grading exercise they demanded the same semi-skilled rate for the job – equal pay.

Their National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) argued the case for them, but to no avail. They then agreed the next step must be a strike.

No legal ballot, no seven days notification and all that palaver. They set a date and bravely all walked out together.

Solidarity action by male car workers escalated the pressure. Then women at the Halewood plant in Merseyside joined in.

Ford was losing £1.25 million a day rather than concede five pence (old money) an hour to a handful of women workers.

But, as the action struck a chord with workers everywhere and was gaining greater momentum, including the support of Labour government minister Barbara Castle, in the end this mighty employer caved in.

The strike has been rightly heralded as a landmark in the struggle of women and a contributing factor to the Labour government’s introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Yet like all battles fought by the working class, each achievement is not necessarily the same for everyone.

Equal pay battles had to be waged again and again. According to a recent TUC study women in their 50s working full time still get one fifth less than men – earning £12 an hour compared to £14.69 for men.

In Cameron’s austerity Britain women workers may have equal pay with men (mostly), but the struggle now has to focus on defending those equal-pay rates.

At Whipps Cross hospital in East London 35 domestics on the lowest grades, and mostly African women, have launched a campaign through the local Unison branch to stop their private employers cutting a half-hour off their working day. This would mean suffering two and a half hour’s pay deduction in their weekly wage packet – and with no reduction in workload!

While super-rich privatising bosses Rentokil wave off 30 minutes as trivial, one worker pointed out that over a year all those half hours add up to enough to pay their council tax bill! For part-timers this reduction is actually one sixth of their total wage!

The shining example of the Ford women could be usefully re-examined by all women workers and particularly those in struggle.

International Women’s Day presents us with this opportunity. Those east-end workers of yesteryear showed that trade union action, coupled with solidarity action, could break the most powerful bosses.

The Ford women took 29 days on strike to get a result. The Whipps Cross domestics can win today. The terrain may be harder. The anti-trade union laws stultify and restrict effectiveness.

But, the union branch is giving a fighting lead. The mostly male porters are with them. Public support is widespread.

The slogans on their placards proclaim: “Not a minute off the day. Not a penny off the pay.” There is no alternative but to fight.

The domestics have decided to ballot for action. The struggle continues. The tradition of the Ford women lives on.

The Rape Is No Joke campaign is organising a week of action 4-10 March. Meetings, comedy nights and protests will be taking place around the country, including this event in London on International Women’s Day.

See rapeisnojoke.com for details of what’s happening near you, to get involved and to download the week of action campaign pack to help you make plans.

Women: fighting austerity, fighting for equality

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