Shelly Asquith: 50 years since the Ford women’s strike, the fight for liberation goes on

Today marks fifty years since the start of one of the most pivotal industrial actions by women workers in UK labour history. Sewing machinists working for Ford Motor Company, in the Transport and General Workers’ Union (which later merged to form Unite), walked out in a dispute over pay grades, starting a strike that is credited with paving the way for the Equal Pay Act.

The women whose work made the upholstery in Ford motors were demanding an upgrading for their technical work as sewing machinists. They called for it to be recognised as skilled (as much of the work done by men was), and to therefore be paid accordingly. In 1967, Ford re-graded workers and introduced a new pay structure which paid women 15 per cent less than men on the same grade. After campaigning for years, they finally moved to strike action. The strike demanded machinists be graded ‘C’ as skilled work, as opposed to ‘B’ for semi-skilled; it wasn’t about equalisation of pay, although it did recognise a gender bias in the grading process.

Before restrictive anti-union laws were introduced, workers simply raised their hands to approve a strike. And so, with 187 pairs of hands in the air, the strike was called at the Dagenham plant in Essex, and the machines were left empty. The walk-out lasted four weeks and brought the production line to a standstill, denting Ford’s huge profits. They risked their livelihoods, and came under some pressure from male colleagues. Ford was the most significant employer in the area, and large parts of surrounding communities relied on its jobs. It wasn’t only the Essex women who walked out though – shortly after, women workers in the Halewood plant in Liverpool went on strike too.

While they failed to secure the re-grading they desired, they were offered a significant 7 per cent pay increase – which took them from 85 percent of what men on a grade ‘B’ were paid to 92 per cent – as well as a promise of legislative change later on. Barbara Castle, the then Labour Secretary of State for Employment, met with the women and convinced them to go back to work with the pledge of a government inquiry into pay. What followed were protests over unequal pay in 1969 and the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which removed lower rates of pay for women. It is hard not to wonder how soon the women would have secured their demand and more had Castle not made such a move with the strikers. The context of strikes in France, where millions had occupied their workplaces – including large numbers of car parts manufacturers – must have played a part in Castle and Ford’s thinking.

Years later, the Ford women later won their demand of being re-graded to ‘C’, in 1984 and after a further six week-long strike. This is quite a year for anniversaries: 150 years since the formation of the Trades Union Congress, and 100 years since some women got the vote. This year also marks another anniversary, one less documented in labour movement history. It is 100 years since thousands of women transport workers went on strike for equal pay in a wildcat (unofficial) action during World War I. Women across the country had taken over many of the jobs on buses, trams and tubes which men had worked for higher pay. They demanded a bonus of five shillings, which they won, and later the ‘same money’ as men.

Across the country, women workers are taking action every day, and still we are waiting for a true end to the gender pay gap and sexism in the workplace. Too often, the feminism that some women badge themselves with is far removed from the type of women who worked at Ford, or who today hold down low-paid or insecure work. They talk of women in the boardrooms, but we won’t achieve socialism by simply ensuring the boss class is half, or even 100 per cent, women.

Demands for more women in positions of capitalist power are individualist – they don’t benefit ‘the many’. The rights we have achieved have not been handed to us by a few kindly sister CEOs at the top, but through the coming together of working class women collectively and in struggle. Let that be the lesson of the Ford women’s strike, the fight for suffrage and the other actions taken by those who came before us. Forget the glass ceiling: it’s time we smashed the doors and windows too. Liberation won’t be handed to us – we have got to fight for it.

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