Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/998/27461
'Made in Dagenham' Ford machinists pay strike 50 years on
Juliette Fogelman, East London Socialist Party
This year, 7 June marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the strike by women sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company's Dagenham plant in east London.
The strike by 187 women workers was one of the triggers for the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to pay men and women differently for the same job and was the inspiration for the 2010 film 'Made in Dagenham'.
In the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1964 general election they had proposed a charter of rights including: "the right to equal pay for equal work". However, Harold Wilson's Labour government had not taken any action on this until forced to, in part, by the 1968 strike in Dagenham.
The Labour MP Shirley Summerskill acknowledged the role of the strike when speaking at the second reading debate of the Equal Pay bill: "We must acknowledge in this debate a group of women who played a very significant part in the history of the struggle for equal pay.
"I refer to that small group of women machinists at Ford who went on strike for their beliefs and their rights... those women had to take really forceful action to achieve this principle."
Due to the importance of the strike in women's struggle for equal pay it can be easy to forget that the strike was also about how the strikers' work was classified.
Companies like Ford were making huge profits, but still did what they could to keep wages low. There were often separate lower pay grades for women workers, especially in the private sector.
In 1967 there was a regrading exercise at Ford which introduced a new 'grading structure' for production and craft jobs. Sewing machinists - which included the largest group of women production workers - were graded as a 'B', less skilled production jobs, and they were paid 15% less than men who were graded as B.
The women machinists at Ford, who had to be a machinist for two years and take a test before being able to get a job in the plant, were furious as they felt that their jobs should be classified as 'C grade' - more skilled production jobs. However, management refused to alter the grade.
Gwen Davis was one of leading strikers and said, when interviewed for a project by the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch in 2016: "We always put in a wage claim for all the extra money and the grading which is what we were fighting for - the grading to be the same as the men and of course Ford wouldn't acknowledge us, they kept saying, 'B grade is semi-skilled. Women are semi-skilled.'"
Not all trade union officials at this time, unions that now make up Unite the Union, were supportive of women receiving equal pay to men. It's reported that the shop steward for the women workers, Lil O'Callaghan, had to originally push the union convenor Bernie Passingham into supporting the cause.
However, he did then fully back them. Another striker interviewed for the Queen's Theatre project, Theresa Taylor, explained that Bernie "gave us the courage to get up and say, 'come on, get up!'... It was Lil and Bernie that got us all going."
This shows the importance of being backed by your union but also that sometimes they need to be pushed by their rank-and-file members.
In 1968, before the anti-trade union laws, a legal postal ballot was not required and neither was two-weeks notice. So the women held a meeting, stuck their hands up to vote to strike and then downed tools!
Restricting workers from being able to vote on action in this collective way has removed the strength and confidence that can be gained from seeing workers all around you putting their hands up for industrial action.
The workers were on strike for three weeks and their cause gained momentum as other women workers could identify with their cause. There was solidarity action by men but it was complicated.
For years companies had been using divisive tactics to try and justify paying women less, so among some male workers there was the idea these women were only working for 'pin money'. But they weren't!
The women workers and their families needed the wages to get by. However, the Dagenham strikers were united and determined.
Even though it was the first time they'd gone out just for themselves, they had gone out many times when the male workers were on strike. They were also later joined on strike by women workers at Halewood plant in Merseyside which added to the pressure on Ford.
Eventually car production at Ford ceased as without the car seats that the women machinists produced, no cars could be made. This caused the dispute to become a national news story.
Ford was losing over £1 million a day but instead of just conceding and paying the women the few extra pence they were asking for, management did what they often do - blame the workers!
Bill Batty, the Ford group's managing director hinted that the strike could eventually put 40,000 jobs at risk. And he did lay off 9,000 Dagenham workers - although they were all later reinstated.
To stop further unrest the Labour government's secretary of state for employment and productivity, Barbara Castle, stepped in and met with eight of the women strikers.
A deal was agreed that the women would immediately get a pay rise to 92% of the male workers' rate for grade B jobs and then get the full rate the year after. It was also agreed that a court of inquiry would look into their regrading to see if it should be a grade B or C.
The strikers went back to work having shown that collective action is powerful and two years later the 1970 Equal Pay Act was passed. However, this was not the end of the story as the court of inquiry did not find in the women machinists' favour and their jobs remained at B grade.
If a strike forces concessions but does not win everything the strikers want then workers can always take further industrial action. This is exactly what the women machinists did in 1984 and this time, after nine weeks of strike action, they won a regrading of their jobs to grade C.
Today unions may not be as combative as they were in 1968, in part due to the various anti-trade union laws that have been introduced in the intervening years by the Tories and left in place by Labour.
But the recent victory by striking workers - mainly women - at Avenue School in East London against academisation shows that organising and taking determined industrial action can still gain huge victories!
Fighting for equal pay today
Tessa Warrington, Leicester Socialist Party
"The gender pay gap for full-time workers is entirely in favour of men for all occupations". This is the first line of a report from the Office for National Statistics on the results of the governments' gender pay gap survey, released earlier this year.
Since 1970 and the passing of the Equal Pay Act into law, it has been illegal to pay women less than men for the same job, but in practise it still happens.
Recent high profile cases of women actors in Hollywood and at the BBC have highlighted the issue of unequal pay with their male co-stars, but these merely reflect women with a platform representing a problem in all workplaces.
The survey figures, covering 10,000 sizeable employers, show an average gap of 9.8% but stretching to as much as 70% in some individual workplaces.
Last year the World Economic Forum announced that it will take 217 years before women earn the same as men, a whopping 47 years longer than predicted the previous year. It is clear that the situation is getting worse for working class women, not better.
One million public sector jobs have been axed and wages frozen since 2008. This has traditionally been a majority female workforce due to benefits such as flexitime and part-year working, which support women with children staying in employment.
Women now being forced into private sector jobs are more likely to encounter zero-hour contracts and low pay.
The gender pay gap is not only about achieving like-for-like pay for men and women in the same positions but also about the ability of women to access higher paid roles. Women from wealthy backgrounds can afford a good education and childcare but the vast majority of women are working class and they rely upon the state.
In this way, working class women have much more in common with working class men that they do with female representatives of the super-rich. That is why we look to trade union action and workers' solidarity to change things today, just as the Ford Dagenham workers did 50 years ago.
The strikes in McDonald's and TGI Friday's as well as the upcoming pay ballot of civil servants by the PCS union show the potential for building a mass movement against low pay.
But the Socialist Party doesn't just fight for women's equality with working class men who also suffer exploitation and attacks from the bosses. We fight to shake off the shackles of inequality created by capitalism completely - not to settle for second best but fight for a socialist world.
Review: Made in Dagenham Fantastic introduction to the trade union movement
When it was released in 2010, Made In Dagenham had cinema audiences laughing and crying. It managed to brilliantly capture the strength and humour of working class women. As Mary Finch describes in this review to mark the 50th anniversary of the events portrayed in the film, it also provides valuable lessons for the fightback.
Mary Finch, East London Socialist Party
'Made in Dagenham' is a fantastic introduction to the trade union movement. It's an exciting depiction of the strike at Dagenham Ford factory in 1968.
The all-women machinists downed their tools and walked out when management refused to negotiate over their pay. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and it's inspiring to watch working class women characters transform into political leaders and ultimately win against a vicious employer.
It doesn't shy away from the more complicated issues that surrounded the strike - the role of men, for example, is depicted with impressive nuance.
The shop steward who leads much of the negotiations with the union is a man - more than just supporting the strike, he actively encourages it and pushes the women to label their pay a feminist issue at a stage when they aren't yet confident to.
The film doesn't hide from the misogyny of some working class men - the central character Rita finds her husband patronising at best, and angry at worst, about her involvement in the strike. But it also answers the more difficult question of how it can be overcome - solidarity is forged through struggle.
It's abundantly clear that those men who are brought around to the cause of equal pay do so because they're workers who understand that the machinists are attacking a common enemy - the bosses.
Rita reminds her husband that the women machinists always supported the men on strike because struggle isn't drawn along gendered lines, but along class ones.
The bosses who paid women less than men may have started to do so out of sexism, but they refused to raise their wages because it would impact for their profits. Ford wouldn't be the only one to suffer - women workers everywhere could be given the confidence to demand equal pay.
The trade union bureaucracy who attempted to sell out the strike aren't let off the hook, either. In a blatantly cowardly attempt to avoid leading struggle and hold back the progress of women workers, a union bureaucrat falsely uses Karl Marx to try to justify ending the strike.
The leading shop steward quotes back at him: "Didn't Marx also say that the progress of any given society can be measured by the position of the female sex? Or was that a different Marx?"
It's a shame that all the central characters of the film are young, glamorised versions of the actual Dagenham machinists, who were overwhelmingly middle-aged.
It's an indicator of the new kind of sexism women face, and how far we have left to go. But an education in the struggles of our predecessors, like those in Dagenham, is the best way to kick off new movements!
In The Socialist 6 June 2018:
Labour and the unions
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
'Made in Dagenham' strike 50 years on
Socialist Party reports and campaigns