The film Made in Dagenham portrays the 1968 strike of women workers at Ford. Dora Challingsworth and Sheila Douglass spoke to Sabby Sagall and Sheila McGregor about their experiences during the strikes
when history was made in
dagenham On 7 June 1968, 187 women sewing-machinists at Ford Dagenham in east London struck against sex discrimination in job grading. The women had been placed in the unskilled B grade although they did the same level of work—making car seat-covers—as men placed in the semi-skilled C grade. The women, moreover, were paid 85 percent of the male rate. Confronted by Ford’s refusal to upgrade them, they walked out and stayed out for three weeks. They were joined by the 195 women at Ford’s Halewood plant in Merseyside. The women had no previous experience of collective struggle on their own issue and, on the face of it, were quite unprepared to take on the mighty Ford multinational corporation which, in 1968, had an annual budget greater than that of India. But the strike brought Ford’s entire car production to a standstill. The women faced two initial problems: it was always difficult for one section to win support from other sections on a “narrow” grading issue—Ford had introduced the new grading structure precisely in order to divide the workers. Also, as women, winning support from their male colleagues, who saw them as working for “pin money”, was a real problem. For the strike to succeed it needed support from at least one or two of the unions with members among the women. But the official union leaders adopted contradictory and ambivalent positions. The trade union side of
We didn’t think we were that important at the time. All we were was a handful of women who thought we deserved a better standard of pay.
Dora Challingsworth (left) and Sheila Douglass (right)
Ford’s National Joint Negotiating Committee were hostile, regarding negotiations and strike decisions as their preserve. The AEF engineering union executive supported it as a strike for equal pay but refused to fight over the grading grievance. The National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB), of which 135 of the Dagenham women were members, prevaricated, although Fred Blake, the NUVB local district official, now aged 91, played an honourable role in the strike. The Transport and General Workers’ Union refused to back the strike. However, the women stood firm, their resolve strengthening by the day. Such was the impact of the action that in the middle of it the strike committee was invited to tea by Barbara Castle, employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. And the women’s confidence had grown so much that during the meeting shop steward Rosie Boland raised the issue of equal pay for the first time. In the end, the Ford women won 92 percent of the men’s rate, though it took another 16 years and another strike lasting seven weeks to win the regrading. The women’s strike took place in the wake of serious defeats for the unions at Ford, in 1957 and 1962, when 17 stewards were sacked. It therefore represented the resurgence of rank and file trade unionism in one of the most ruthlessly anti-union firms in the world. It also laid the groundwork for the important all-
out strikes of 1969 and 1971. There are many unsung heroines and heroes in the story—the women themselves, but also their rank and file leaders: the two stewards, Rosie Boland and Lil O’Callaghan, and the male convenors Henry Friedman and his deputy Bernard Passingham, who greatly encouraged the women. Sadly, the two women have passed away. But insofar as the Made in Dagenham film revives their memory, it is doing an important job. The strike gave a huge impetus to the women’s movement. In the years that followed, women’s trade union membership soared and the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970. The strike also gave rise to the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights. The Ford women’s strike was one of the most important since the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888. It was the spark that lit a flame that burns to this day. Their struggle remains an inspiration to millions of women fighting discrimination and poor working conditions. Sabby Sagall
18 | Socialist Review | OCTOBER 2010