The 1968 Ford women's strike was a landmark on the way to equal pay. Sabby Sagall recalls the dispute and its effects.
On 7 June 1968 women sewing-machinists at Dagenham took on the mighty Ford Company over sex discrimination in job grading. The strike had a huge impact, forcing Ford’s to its knees and feeding the growing calls for women’s equality in the workplace and beyond.
The 2010 film of the dispute, Made in Dagenham, has now been adapted into a stage musical starring Gemma Arterton as the worker who leads the strike.
Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass and other women who were involved in the 1968 strike were invited to a performance of the musical. They drew parallels between their own struggle and the battles we face in austerity Britain.
Gwen told Socialist Review, “The musical was brilliant, very funny. Women today need a strong union. I hope the show can inspire women to fight for equality.” Sheila Douglass said, “The musical really got the point home. I hope young women today would feel able to keep up the fight.”
The Ford’s women had been placed in the unskilled B grade, the same as that of men sweeping the factory floors, although their work — making seat covers — was at the same skill level as men in the semi-skilled (and better paid) C grade. In addition, the women were paid 85 percent of the male rate.
The women demanded to be upgraded but Ford rejected their claim. They walked out and stayed out for three weeks, soon joined by women at Ford’s Halewood plant in Merseyside.
The women lacked experience of collective struggle, and seemed at first like a puny David taking on the mighty Goliath of the Ford multinational corporation, a company which, in 1968, had a budget greater than that of India. But the women brought Ford’s entire production to a standstill.
Two initial problems confronted the women. Ford had introduced a complicated grading structure in order to divide the workforce, and winning support from other sections was always going to be hard. Secondly, they needed the support of their male colleagues, many of whom saw them as working for “pin money”.
They also needed the support of at least two out of the three unions represented among the women. But the union leaders adopted ambivalent positions. The unions were hostile to the women’s action, viewing negotiations and strike decisions as their preserve.
The National Union of Vehicle Builders, of which 135 of the Dagenham women were members, prevaricated. The AEF engineering union executive supported the action as a strike for equal pay but refused to fight over grading. The Transport and General Workers Union refused to back the strike. But the women stood their ground, their determination strengthening by the day.
The strike committee was invited to tea by Barbara Castle, employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Such was the rise in their confidence that during the meeting shop steward Rosie Boland raised for the first time the issue of equal pay.
In the end it was a partial victory; the women won 92 percent of the men’s rate, though it took 16 years and another strike of seven weeks to win the regrading. And the women did not achieve pay parity with male workers until 28 years later.
The women’s strike took place in the wake of serious defeats for the Ford unions, in 1957 and 1962, when the company succeeded in sacking 17 stewards. It represented a crucial resurgence of rank and file trade unionism in one a ruthlessly anti-union firm. Moreover, it laid the groundwork for the all-out strikes by Ford workers in 1969 and 1971.
Made in Dagenham the musical does a good job of satirising Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson and the “left” union leaders Hugh Scanlon of the AEF and Jack Jones of the TGWU.
The employment rate of women had increased from 45.9 percent in 1955 to 51 percent in 1965, but women were still considered secondary workers and their wages thought to be for inessential extras such as holidays.
The strike was followed by walkouts for equal pay across the country and forced trade unions to support this issue. In the years that followed, women’s trade union membership soared. In 1968, 2.3 million women workers were unionised, in 1969 it rose to 2.5 million (29 percent of all women workers) and by 1976 it was 3.5 million.
The strike gave rise to the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights which held an equal pay demonstration in Trafalgar Square in May 1969. In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was introduced, followed by the Sex Discrimination Act.
In 1974 the working women’s charter was launched with ten demands, including equal pay, equal access to education, free contraception, readily available abortion, and more women in positions of power in public life.
Yet progress on many of these demands has been slow. In 2013 the Office for National Statistics reported that the gender pay gap, now at 19.7 percent, had widened for the first time since 2008 — in large part a result of cuts in the public sector, where many women work.
Richard Bean, writer of the musical, told Socialist Review, “If the Dagenham women are now literally ‘sung’ heroes of the ongoing equal pay struggle there are other unsung heroes, such as the women at the Rolls Royce plant in Hillington Glasgow who went on strike during the Second World War — an incredibly brave thing to do.
“Equal pay remains a goal, and the struggle continues. It may be that we, as a society, need to look at the complexity of the issue more, since simply changing the law doesn’t seem to have had much impact.”
The Ford women’s strike takes its place in history as one of the most important since the Matchwomen’s strike of 1888.