If you’ve been listening to the Radio Four’s series, 1968, a selection of old radio news broadcasts from each day of that year, you will know that it has got quite exciting (as exciting as Radio Four gets), covering events and France over the last two months.
June also featured the women machinist strikers at Ford Dagenham. In June 1968 these women struck against sex discrimination in their job grading. We heard a news reporter trying to interview women on the picket line, and a wonderful exchange ensued, reminding us of the powerful feeling workers can get from deciding to strike. For these women, there was no turning back, no putting up with being patronised by anyone, least of all the press and knowing that the power to change things and get better wages, was in their hands.
“Are you going to go back?” asks the reporter.
“Because we’ve got nothing out of it yet.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“We’re not going back.”
BBC man again: “Can you tell us what you’ve decided this morning?”
“Because it always gets distorted. We’ve just got contempt for the press.”
“Well just how strong are you?”
“How long can you stay out?”
“As long as we want to. We’re 100% solid.”
“Are we 100%?” asks one woman. You can picture her looking at her sister comrades for confirmation. “Yes, we are!” she says, answering her own question.
The intimidated reporter then turns to one of the men at the plant, who tells the reporter, “We [i.e. men] are the bread winners, women shouldn’t go on strike”.
Of course it takes some time for male workers to learn one of the cardinal lessons of solidarity — if the workers are disunited, men against women, they will be defeated. And small wonder such attitudes existed when writers like Huw Benyon were, in his book Working for Ford, talking about the women workers, as “girls”.
Of course they were not “girls”, they were grown up women. They weren’t working for “pin money”, they were working to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families.
But not all the men were backward. One is interviewed saying, “They should get the same, equal rights as men”. And when asked “What would happen if you get laid off because of the strike?’ said, “I’d blame the company not the women.” Good for you!
The purpose of 1968 is not to give you much background information about the events covered. Each snippet is lugubriously introduced by a man with an “absolutely super” BBC voice. But that’s in keeping with this evocative, fascinating and sometimes inspiring programme.