June 7th in (Feminist) History

ford2Today, in a little bit more recent history, was the Ford Sewing Machinists Strike of 1968. At the Ford’s Dagenham plant in London, there were four levels of pay; a skilled male rate, a semi-skilled male rate, an unskilled male rate… and the woman’s rate, which was the lowest. Already the women were frustrated, having tried in vain to get their pay raised to Category C (the skilled rate), only to be told they would be graded in Category B (for less-skilled production jobs). They were furious, especially since it meant they would be paid 15% less than the rate earned by men in the same category as them. So on this day in 1968, lead by Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass, the women walked out. Considering that the women were responsible for making car seat covers, their strike– which was followed by the machinists at Ford’s Halewood Body and Assembly Plant in Liverpool– caused production to grind to a halt.

Their strike was met with support, but also with anger, especially from men who sent angry letters and lectured them, asking them why they were bothering when they ‘only worked for pin money’. But the women’s goal was to get themselves re-graded from Category B, to Category C, and they held strong to their strike. Eventually the government interceded, in the form of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, who helped negotiate a deal in which the women’s pay instead was brought up to only 8% below that of the men, with the provision that it would rise to the full Category B pay the next year. It ended the strike after 3 weeks, though it did not earn them their true goal. (The women were only finally re-graded into Category C in 1984, after another six-week strike.)

Their strike is sent to be the spark that lead to the United Kingdom’s Equal Pay Act of 1970. Following the example of the Ford strikers, women in trade founded the National Joint Action Committee for Women’s Equal Rights, and eventually held a demonstration for equal pay in 1969. This eventually lead to the passing of the Equal Pay Act, during which MP Shirley Summerskill cited the Ford Sewing Machinists as having a significant role in the struggle for equal pay.

At the time, none of the women believed they would have that much of an impact. As Sheila Douglass later said, “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.”

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