Notoriously Militant

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Sheila Cohen has written an immensely readable and well-researched book on the history of the British Ford Motor Company, seen through the eyes of leading shop-floor and union officials and stewards, mainly from the PTA assembly plant.

The book encompasses the history of Ford Dagenham from 1931 until the last vehicle rolled off the line in 2002.

The book is suffused with the spirit of shop-floor activism and workers’ democracy, particularly celebrating the upsurge of 1968-74, when rank and file trade unionism was among the most advanced in the British labour movement.

The story is especially inspiring given Ford’s history of vicious anti-unionism.

A crucial early strand is the rebuilding of the shop-floor organisation following the disastrous defeats of the 1957 and 1962 strikes.

The 1957 “Bellringer” dispute followed the dismissal of more than 1,700 workers due to the rundown of production resulting from the 1956 Suez crisis.

After leading River Plant steward Henry Friedman and the convenor were suspended for taking time off to attend the Ford National Joint Negotiating Committee, AEU steward Johnny McLoughlin rang a bell to call a strike.

In the early 1960s, Ford workers’ day-to-day resistance to an aggressive management bent on unrelenting speed-up of the assembly line intensified, a process visible in the rise of unofficial stoppages. In 1961 only three days were free from some stoppage.

The constant pressure on the assembly line meant that the PTA was at the centre of this conflict. Of 32 disputes between May and mid-July 1962, 23 were ignited by speed-up, overtime and labour transfers, with only nine over wages.

In 1962 Ford workers suffered a major defeat as 17 leading militants were sacked.

However, during the 1960s, there was a resurgence of activism, as expressed in the iconic women sewing-machinists’ strike of 1968, and the great strikes of 1969 and 1971.

The 1969 strike against penalty clauses saw Ford workers fighting not only the company but also union officials and the Labour government. After a three-week strike, a new agreement still included a penalty clause, albeit weakened.

In 1971 a nine-week strike for parity with other car workers did produce a wage increase but still kept Ford workers at the bottom of the wages league.

Sheila Cohen describes the process of the gradual incorporation of the union officials, even the convenors and stewards, into the management structure.

She discusses the devastating competition of Japanese firms Honda and Toyota.

One gap in the analysis is the end of the 35-year boom in the mid-1970s and the resulting intensification of global competition. Governments and corporations became more aggressive as the economic downturn threatened the latter’s share of the world market.

The trade union bureaucracy, anxious not to rock the boat, held down workers’ aspirations in the interests of Labour and its “Social Contract”. Most workers became less confident.

But Ford workers seemed to buck the trend — there were important strikes in the late 1970s. And in the 1980s, when the Tories inflicted defeats on the trade unions, Ford workers carried on fighting.

It was in 1983 that the women sewing-machinists finally won their demand to be re-graded as skilled after a three-week strike.

However, the 1980s also witnessed the introduction of robots, part of the “post-Fordist” drive for increased productivity, resulting in the eventual rundown of Dagenham — from 28,583 in 1979 to 5,015 in 1992.

This book recaptures the lost treasure of past workers’ militancy, a memory that can inspire activists fighting to rebuild our movement today.