The fight for equal pay

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In the first of a three-part series, Jane Hardy sets out the history of women’s struggle for equal pay, which is longer than you might think. In the next installments she will look at more recent battles.

Despite the huge expectations raised by the Equal Pay (1970) and Sex Discrimination (1975) Acts, four decades later the gains for women in the workplace are mixed. Between 1975 and 1995 only 2,000 cases under the equal pay legislation were taken to court. By the 21st century it became clear that discriminatory pay for women was alive and kicking. The restructuring of pay grades in local authorities in the name of equality had, in some cases, left women with worse pay than men. It was revealed that high profile public organisations such as the BBC had gross disparities in the pay of men and women doing the same job. This symbolised ongoing inequities and the limited gains of the legislation.

Equal Pay is important because of the material impacts on women’s pay and pensions, and because it speaks volumes about the way in which women’s work is (under) valued and the stubborn covert discrimination they continue to face. The recent victory for equal pay for council workers in Scotland shows that the demand for equal pay is a focus for making demands on unions and employers — and that taking action can win significant victories.

A long history

The demand for equal pay for women has a long history. In 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union raised this demand in its journal the Pioneer on the grounds that “the low wages of women are not so much the voluntary price she sets upon her labour, as the price which is fixed by male supremacy”. The growth of the suffrage movement and the explosion of trade unions among unskilled workers in the 1880s reignited the demand for equal pay. In 1888 Clementina Black, an English writer, feminist and pioneering trade unionist, closely connected with Marxist and Fabian socialists, moved the first equal pay resolution at the Trade Union Congress.

Both the First and Second World Wars were a fillip for the demands of equal pay for women. A successful tram and tube strike in 1918 resulted in the government establishing a special enquiry as to whether the principle of wage equality between men and women should be applied to all industries. However, during the Depression in some quarters women workers were blamed for unemployment among men and many trade unions consequently become hostile to the issue.
During the Second World War the momentum for equal pay was resumed with the Equal Pay Campaign Committee established in 1941. In 1943 there were extensive strikes by men and women in the engineering and aircraft factories of Scotland and the North East, whose demands included equal pay.

The 1950s: a bleak decade for women

A report was issued in October 1946 and the Equal Pay Campaign Committee organised publicity and public meetings to support its findings. However, the post-war period was not conducive to conceding equal rights at work to women. The Beveridge Report that laid the groundwork for the welfare state envisaged a traditional role for women and talked about “the vital work of mothers in ensuring the adequate continuation of the British Race and of British ideals in the world”.

Attempts to move women back to the home after their increased participation in the workforce were made easier by the TUC’s acquiescence in assenting to the Labour government’s closure of nurseries. They decided that equal pay was “inappropriate at the present time”, using the excuse of “the continuing need for counter-inflationary policies”. In fact the annual report of the TUC demonstrated complete ideological harmony with Beveridge when it claimed that, “There is little doubt in the minds of the General Council that the home is one of the most important spheres for a woman worker”.

1960s: breaking through

The Equal Pay Committee Campaign was persistent. It included the union that represented civil servants (National Association of Local Government Officers Association), the British Medical Association, the London County Council Staff Association and the Communist Party — among others. After mass public campaigning, including demonstrations and petitions, a scheme was established in 1955 to establish equal rates of pay for men and women doing the same job in the non-industrial civil service. In its wake women teachers were given equal pay in 1961.

By 1964 the Labour Party manifesto called for a charter for the rights of all employees to include the “the right to equal pay for equal work” and the TUC conference in 1965 followed with a similar resolution calling for the equal treatment and opportunity for women in industry. Labour’s election pledge was at least in part driven by it desire to join the European Economic Community that meant that it had to comply with the Treaty of Rome’s clause requiring members to adopt the principle of equal pay for women. French president De Gaulle’s intransigence and hostility successfully blocked the UK’s admittance.

However, if the government and TUC had wanted to kick this issue into the long grass they were thwarted by two factors. By the late 1960s the growing demands for a more liberal society were epitomised by progressive legislation such as the Abortion and Sexual Offences Acts of 1967 and the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. The National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights organised a large demonstration in London in 1969. Equal pay was a key demand of the embryonic Women’s Liberation Movement. But it was the strike by women sewing machinists in the Dagenham Ford plant that brought the issue of equal pay to centre stage.

The Ford Women Machinists’ Strike

On 29 May 1968 187 women machinists at Ford’s River Plant in Dagenham, Essex, walked out of their factory in protest against sex discrimination in grading. The strike lasted for three weeks and brought Ford’s entire production line to a standstill. It was resolved when Ford asked Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment in Harold Wilson’s Labour government, to intervene and persuade the women to return to work.

However, instead of having their demand for skill recognition met, the women were offered a 7 percent pay increase and the promise of equal pay legislation in the future. Castle made it clear that re-grading the women’s jobs as skilled at the same level as men’s was not on the table. Nevertheless, the strike was seen as a landmark in British industrial relations, widely associated with prompting the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

This watershed moment in the history of women and work is captured by the 2010 film Made in Dagenham. The social and political context was the explosion of questioning every aspect of women’s lives and the increasing participation of women in the labour force. Sheila Rowbotham argued that “The action of the Ford women and the discussion about equal pay gave the impetus to the emergence of the women’s movement in Britain.”

However iconic this strike, it was neither the starting nor finish point of the demand for equal pay. Some of the main activists considered that the dispute was not the success claimed by union officials and Castle. One activist argued:
“I mean Ford’s had really won, if we’re being honest…because we never got our grading. We hadn’t got what we wanted… All they had given us was a rise. And not an equal pay rise, not equality.”

In 1978 one of the shop stewards Lil O’Callaghan reflected that, “We mucked it up. We should have left it open to fight another battle on another day.”

The notion that the strike was an unequivocal success was further undermined by the fact that the sewing machinists had to wait until 1984 to have their work re-graded.

Trico: a landmark equal pay struggle

Although many thought that the Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1970 would secure equal pay as a right and be the “crowning glory” of women’s campaigns, the Trico case demonstrates that there were many battles ahead. A recent book, Trico: A Victory to Remember by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt demonstrates how this 21-week strike for equal pay was the most significant struggle for women’s rights arising from the expectations created by the Equal Pay Act.

The five year gap between the passing of the bill (1970) and its implementation (1975) gave employers plenty of time to rearrange the labour process to circumvent the spirit of the act. The tribunal convened to review cases brought under the EPA turned out to be a labyrinth of complexity and showed a strong pro-employer bias.

Trico was a factory that produced windscreen wipers in North London. It was a completely mixed workforce — drawing on women from English, Irish, African-Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese, French and Polish descent. As in many workplaces segregation on the basis of gender was a major source of cost-saving. Women worked the day shift and men exclusively worked the night shift, which attracted a third additional pay. The tinder for the dispute was when the company downsized, with five men redeployed onto the same line as women workers but retained on their higher pay.

The company justified the greater reward to men because of their alleged “flexibility” — a classic avoidance tactic on the part of firms — and said that they had no intention of implementing equal pay. In the face of this intransigence by a proposal for an all-out strike by the women was carried overwhelmingly — including 98 women who were not even members of the union. On 24 May 1976 400 women workers at Trico walked out, demanding equal pay for equal work.
When the strike was made official by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers they were joined by 150 men, mainly skilled toolmakers. Shockingly the vote for all-out strike action in favour of the women by other male workers was defeated by 60 to 40 percent.

Management were not prepared for the tenacity of the women strikers and thought the dispute would be short-lived. They ratcheted up the stakes by bringing in scab lorries and workers to unload lorries at night with the protection of the police. The strike committee responded by organising a list of “flying pickets”, which included local trade unions and women’s movement groups, who could be called on in the event of an emergency. The women strikers tracked down the scab firms and turned up to confront the directors. The threat of being boycotted meant that many of these scab firms pulled out.

Eventually the employers decided to take the dispute to a tribunal. However, because of its poor record and pro-employer bias the union and strikers refused to attend. They were vindicated when the tribunal ruled in the employers’ favour. Despite this win, the employers had no strategy for ending the dispute in the face of the persistence of the strike with growing solidarity from the labour movement. In October 1976 the company caved in and fully conceded all the demands — in particular a common operational rate regardless of sex which gave the women an average increase of about 20 percent.

The Morning Star described the scene on the Monday that they returned to work:

“There was singing, chanting and hugging in the rain as the women and men that had joined their marathon strike lined up outside… They returned to work in style after 21 weeks in which against them were stacked strike-breaking convoys aided by the police, employers’ threats of redundancy, and the court machinery of the Equal Pay Act.”

It is worth quoting the words of Monica Harvey, one of the strikers, who described what victory meant to her:

“Our equal pay strike is over. We went back to work on Monday having won a complete victory. What a bloody mockery this makes of the decision of the equal pay tribunal. They said we had no case but we’ve shown them otherwise. We refused to be pressurised by the decision and our refusal to go back to work until we won showed that strength and spirit is what really matters. A strong shop floor organisation is the way to win. It is worth a million Equal Pay Acts. We now have the same piece rate as the men. Together with a £2.30 wage increase, this gives us a total rise of £8.70. The financial support given to us by workers in factories and workplaces all over the country was great in keeping us going. This support amounted to hundreds and thousands of pounds, all given by brothers and sisters who committed themselves to our victory. Our full-time officials have been great…[they] refused to give even the time of day to the various pathetic offers made by management during the strike.”

This was a stunning victory and the longest successful strike for equal pay in British history. Had all the men on the shop floor come out then the company would have been forced to settle sooner. It was the first time that a trade union had boycotted a tribunal and gone on to negotiate a settlement despite the tribunal’s decision ruling against them. It was also the first time that a strike, of mainly women workers, had had to confront American-style picket-busting convoys of lorries and scab labour.

Jane Hardy is the author of Poland’s New Capitalism (Pluto 2009)