Made in Dagenham, the film about a strike by women machinists has highlighted the struggle for equal pay. But with women today earning nearly a fifth less than men the battle begun in Dagenham in 1968 is still very far from being won.
The Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay was, at the time, one of the lesser-known events of 1968. Compared with the events of Paris in May, or the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, or the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russia in August, it was hardly world shattering. But it took place at exactly the right time to gain wider recognition, presaging as it did both the women’s liberation movement which erupted over the next two years, and the equal pay legislation which was steered through parliament in the last months of Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
The women worked for the giant Ford motor company in Dagenham on the fringes of East London, and their job was to stitch the seat covers and upholstery for the Zephyrs and Zodiacs coming off the production lines. It was skilled work, but they were paid below the rate of all the men in the factory, and this was their grievance. They had to pass a test on machines in C grade but despite this could only work on lower paid grades. It became a dispute over equal pay and they went out on strike in the summer of 68 for three weeks. They met government minister Barbara Castle and, rather than full equality, won 92% of C grade, which they were persuaded to accept. It would take another two decades for their claim to be paid in full.
Yet the Dagenham women became a symbol of the fight for equality. One of their leaders, Rose Boland, commented that ‘I think the Ford women have definitely shaken the women of the country’. She, like her colleagues, had to change her lifestyle in order to work round the strike, and hardly saw her husband and son in the three weeks: ‘they never knew whether I was in or out’.
This was not the first strike for equal pay. London women bus workers struck to win their demand back in 1918 as the First World War drew to a close. There were strikes during and after the Second World War. In 1946 a Royal Commission on Equal Pay reported but argued against equality for most women. Campaigns by teachers, local government workers and civil servants for equal pay continued and were eventually successful in the 1950s. But the Ford strike had a big effect on what was already a radicalising movement. Sheila Rowbotham wrote shortly afterwards that ‘The Fords strike sent a tremor of hope through the trade union movement. Women who had fought hopelessly at TUC meetings for equal pay took heart again.’
Following the strike, trade unionists set up an organisation with the incredibly unwieldy name of National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACWER) which held an equal pay demonstration in May 1969. The period opened up a high level of women’s struggle - two other famous strikes were those of the Leeds women garment workers in 1970 and the dispute of the London night cleaners, led by May Hobbs.
Barbara Castle pushed the Equal Pay Act through parliament but despite fine words it erred very much on the side of caution and as a consequence sold many women short. Under pressure to introduce equal pay in part because of the prospect of joining the European Common Market (where equal pay was enshrined in its founding Treaty of Rome), the definition adopted in Britain was extremely narrow. Job segregation between men and women meant that there was often no direct comparison between the different jobs, so women’s pay could remain lower. Castle also allowed a five-year introductory period that gave employers maximum time to find ways round the legislation an opportunity which they used to the full.
Women had to strike in many cases to win equal pay, and these strikes were frequent during the first half of the 1970s. The most famous was in 1976 at Trico, a factory in Brentford which made windscreen wipers. Many trade unionists and feminists supported the strikes. While many were successful, overall the pay gap only narrowed slightly. In 1984 the British government was taken to the European Court and had to amend the Equal pay Act to provide equal pay for work of equal value.
This wider definition helped narrow the pay gap further. But even today women earn nearly a fifth less than men. The situation for part time women is even worse, with many earning around two thirds that of men.
The battle begun in Dagenham in 1968 is still very far from being won.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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