In June 1968 women sewing machinists in the Ford car plant in Dagenham took a stand for equal pay in a strike that stopped production for three weeks. They succeeded in getting abolished their lower “women’s rate” of pay and precipitated wider action: there were other equal pay strikes that year and the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACCWER) was formed by women trade unionists, who organised a demonstration for equal pay in 1969. Without the Ford women, there would have been no
Equal Pay Act of 1970
Equal pay had been a confused aspiration for the trade union movement since the mid nineteenth century when women’s work was seen as a threat to male employment and bans on married women working were supported by trade unions.
When unemployment rose during the 1930s, increased female employment (from 27% of the total workforce in 1923 to 30% in 1939) fuelled the fear of a female threat and unions renewed their call for marriage bans or a wider gap between male and female wages. The idea of a male breadwinner bringing in a “family wage” institutionalised women’s low pay and influenced the labour movement. The welfare state was established around a conception of society in family units. Beverage said, “The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties...”
It was down to women’s organising to defy these attitudes and fight for a wage that would not allow women to be used as cheap labour to bring down wages as a whole.
The demand of the Ford women in 1968 was originally to re-grade their jobs from unskilled B grade to semi-skilled grade C. This demand was not won until another strike in 1984. Ironically, the Ford women had not been able to use the Equal Pay Act that they precipitated to win their re-grading, as they could not compare themselves to a man in their role; they could only claim that their skill level matched some men. The real cause of the pay gap between men and women was and remains women’s segregation into underpaid and devalued jobs. Just as the Ford women had to fight to prove their worth, fights in low-paid industries such as cleaning are happening and are necessary today.
This is the story of the Ford Sewing Machinists’ struggle for equal pay, with extracts from interviews (conducted by the TUC) with the women and trade unionists who took part.
The sewing machinists at Ford made the car seat covers. It was a skilled job. Assessors inspected them on the job. Sheila Douglas, one of the women involved in the dispute said, “I had to do 30 seat covers an hour, we were watched over and timed”. At Ford there was a skilled male rate, a semi-skilled male rate, an unskilled male rate and a women’s rate, which was only 87% of the unskilled male rate. With the obvious injustice of the ‘women’s rate’ and the devaluation of the skill they brought to the job, there was a strong feeling, as expressed by Violet Dawson, from the dispute, that, “We wanted C grade, we wanted equal pay”.
The women put up with harsh working conditions. The company expanded its premises at the River Plant in Dagenham into an asbestos air craft hanger with holes in the roof. Sheila Douglas recalled, “We used to stuff the seats with wadding. The building was two-thirds brick and above that asbestos. All these little holes used to get drafts in. We used to stuff holes in the ceiling with wadding to keep warm”. Machinists worked without guards on the needles and injuries were common. It was said that you weren’t accepted as a proper machinist until you’d been caught by the machine.
The wage was small. On grade B, women earned eight or nine pounds. Sheila Douglas admitted it “seemed like a lot of money, because... I’d been on piece work... if I didn’t work, I didn’t earn. When we went to Fords we was on time work so whatever you done you got some wage each week…” But the money was already spoken for. Sheila was “living at home, I had to give my mum money and she needed anything I could give up.” Vera Sime, a fellow striker, said, “I gave my sister half my wages. She looked after my children so we had half each, that’s how we worked it”. Violet agreed, “It went in the home didn’t it, and on the children”.
Grievances about the women’s rate and their devalued skill were raised through company procedures with no success. The company feared upsetting its entire grading structure and causing resentment amongst male workers. Bernie Passington, convenor for the T & G union who fought for the women at the car plant, said, “They got ignored. I went up with two stewardesses with thirteen pieces for a head rest and said to the company man, ‘Put them together’. He said, ‘Well, what are they?’ I said, ‘You should know. 13 pieces. Give them to a production girl and she knows what to do with them. That girl don’t put all those bits in a jig or anything. All she knows is she’s got to put all those bits together so at the end of it there’s a neat rolled head rest’. I said, ‘Who else does that? Nobody. ...She has to use her mind’. But you still couldn’t get anywhere with the company...”
Sheila recalled, “That’s how it was all sort of kicking off really. About the C grade and for equal rights it ended up. But originally it was for the C grade we were fighting”.
Bernie said, “And in the end, like any group of workers, if they’re going to take no notice, better do something what makes them take notice”.
Sheila Douglas remembered, “We had a meeting on the shop floor and we had a meeting in the employment exchange to vote whether we would strike or not. And that’s how it happened. I don’t think it was unanimous but it was more for than against obviously because we came out on strike.” The strike by the women sewing machinists brought production at the Ford motor company to a standstill.
The impact was huge, especially when the Ford Halewood Plant in Liverpool joined the action. Bernie said “It shook them to the core. And being women, the mighty Ford motor company got women in dispute… It was something new. It shut the place down, they were laying people off”.
Sheila: “It wasn’t the done thing at the time.”
Violet: “It frightened them.”
Sheila: “We didn’t think we were that strong.”
Violet: “We didn’t think we could bring Ford to a standstill.”
Sheila: “It was a surprise to us as well as everybody else. We didn’t think we were going to fetch the whole Ford Empire to its knees, as you might say, but that’s what happened eventually. And it was all down to us, us ladies. And we were ladies, whatever anybody else may say.”
Bernie recalled how they faced opposition from some within the T & G, “Some of our national officials weren’t all that agreed with what we were doing. They didn’t think it was right.” The women strikers received angry letters from the public and faced opposition in the home: while Sheila’s father and Vera’s husband supported the strike, Violet’s husband opposed it. Sheila: “You did get a lot of people saying ‘What are you doing this for? You only come to work for pin money, women’.”
With Ford production stopped, the dispute was of national significance and Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, intervened. A meeting between ministers, the union and the company agreed that the company would raise wages to 100% of grade B rate over two years. The union were satisfied with this abolition of the women’s rate, and felt that the re-grading was too much to ask from the company.
But the women were not satisfied. Sheila: “There was a meeting at the labour exchange. It was put to the vote we’d get an extra 7 pence an hour on our wages and would we accept this? The union recommended we accept. Some of us argued that we came out for C grade. I voted against, but I was in a minority, so we came back to work for an extra 7 pence an hour”.
Sheila: “The union worked it that some now and again got C grade. But the whole of the women never got C grade until they came out in 1984. I was really annoyed that what we came out for originally was swept under the carpet. I suppose you could say that we started off equal pay but it wasn’t equal pay really.”
The strike had illustrated the widespread injustice in the employment market between male and female rates of pay. To tackle these abuses, The Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. This legislation armed employees with the right to go to an industrial tribunal for equal pay with men in the same employment — but only if they were doing “like work” or if their job had been rated as equivalent but was paid at a different rate. The 1970 legislation did not give the Ford women the tools to fight for the re-grading that they originally demanded, as the only people they were doing “like work” to was themselves.
By 1984, women at the Ford car plant still experienced harsh conditions, with no guards on the needles and damage to hearing by machinery noise. All the women were in the union, as there was a strong woman rep who backed them up.
In 1983, the “Equal Value Amendment Regulations” passed as an amendment to the Equal Pay Act. The European Court of Justice had found that UK legislation was not sufficient to provide for equal work for equal value for all employees. The new legislation gave women the right to go to an employment tribunal on a new ground: that they felt their work was of equal value to men in the same organisation. The women at Ford used this to challenge Ford’s discriminatory job evaluation scheme, but the employment tribunal ruled against them and turned down their appeal in 1984. With their renewed hopes once again unfulfilled by the law, the women at Ford took strike action in December 1984.
There was a meeting in the canteen to decide on the action. Geraldine Dear, a woman involved in the 1984 action recalled, “We shocked management. They thought we’d all walk out of that canteen and walk back into work.”
Management tried to undermine their strike by smuggling their work out through back fences, which the women organised to prevent. The women’s action was helped by solidarity from their male colleagues. Dora said, “They had train loads (of work) coming in. But the men wouldn’t do it. Give ‘em their due. They did stand by us.” Geraldine admitted, “We did feel awful. A lot of men were very upset. They had families as well and they got laid off. But we had to stick up for what we thought was right.”
The women organised pickets. Another striker, Pamela Brown, said, “We mainly did nights.” Geraldine added, “My husband worked for British Rail so he knew what it was all about. I had him to look after my little one during the night.” They set up a big tent, sang and listened to the radio through the night. They had a chant: “Ford sewing machinists are like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed shit.” The women stayed out for nine weeks.
Their strike stopped production and, with nobody working, delayed the year’s pay claim. Trade unions wanted a quick resolution. The women found themselves against both the unions and management.
They were brought into arbitration through ACAS, who set up a panel to examine the grading system at Ford. All the male C grade jobs were evaluated and compared to the sewing jobs. They looked at the many inbuilt discriminatory features of the job evaluation scheme, which awarded points for features of men’s jobs, while not recognising features of women’s jobs. The panel ruled that women’s speed and dexterity was unequalled in the company and that it had been significantly undervalued. Their ability to fix their own sewing machines and piece new designs together without training was finally acknowledged. The panel ruled that the sewing machinists’ job should be graded as grade C.
Management had the audacity to call the women to a meeting and announce that they were awarding the new grade almost like a gift. The women felt that this was an insult to the two strikes and almost twenty year wait they had endured to win this. Their job had not changed. They had simply received acknowledgement of their worth, which they had known all along.