Socialist Worker

New book remembers when women workers struck and won equal pay at Trico

One of the most successful strikes for equal pay was fought at a car components factory in 1976. Sadie Robinson welcomes a new book that revives this vital struggle

Issue No. 2618

Women strikers at Trico scored a victory on equal pay

Women strikers at Trico scored a victory on equal pay (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)


In 1976 a group of women workers struck for equal pay—and won. The 21-week walkout became the longest successful strike for equal pay in Britain. But many people have never heard of it.

Now a new book, Trico—a Victory to Remember, is determined that they do. “Women at Trico put up a fight and won,” it says. “Let that be the inspiration for future generations to follow.”

Trico was a car components factory in Brentford, west London. Workers there produced windscreen wiper arms and blades, wiper motors and washers, and other accessories.

Britain’s major car makers—including Ford, Vauxhall and Leyland—all relied on Trico. It had cornered most of the market.

The strike came months after the Equal Pay Act came into force. Yet women were still being paid less than men for the same work. And in disputes, equal pay tribunals overwhelmingly found in favour of the bosses, as they did with Trico.

Striker Monica Harvey told Socialist Worker at the time, “We 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 otherwise. A strong shop-floor organisation is worth a million Equal Pay Acts.”

Socialist Worker said, “The message is simple. Ignore the tribunals. The only way to be certain of winning is by strong and determined industrial action.”

Several generations of families often worked at the factory. And it was mixed. Striker Peggy Farmer remembers, “There were people from the Caribbean and Africa, Indian, Polish all sorts. Everyone got on.”

The factory employed over 1,000 men. Many worked the night shift and so got an extra premium payment. But they also earned around £6.50 a week more than women because they had a higher piecework rate.

When bosses announced they were “phasing out” the night shift in 1975, five men moved onto the day shift. And the difference in pay came to light.

Striker Eric Fudge explained, “We weren’t aware that the piecework rate was higher than the women’s. It was only when looking at the pay slips that someone noticed.

“Most of the women weren’t happy and I agreed with them.”

The workers’ AUEW union tried to negotiate for equal pay. But Trico argued that women weren’t doing the same work, because the men were more “flexible”. It suggested cutting men’s wages to the women’s rate.

Trico strikers on the picket line

Trico strikers on the picket line (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)


Another idea was to freeze men’s wages so that future rises for women would eventually level out pay. As the book argues, it was “absurd”.

Assembly

“Spontaneous stoppages” occurred in February 1976 on the washer assembly line. The authors note that, “Stewards restored order by explaining that negotiating procedures must be used first.”

Eventually the anger boiled over.

On 24 May 1976 the union called a lunchtime meeting, which heard that the firm had “no intention of implementing equal pay”.

But around 200 women stayed after the meeting closed. Women who had headed back to work returned, and the meeting resumed. It overwhelmingly backed an ­all-out strike.

“The women from now on were on strike—and 98 weren’t even members of a union,” says the book. “Dazed and incredulous, they began to wonder what their decision would mean.”

Around 15 men joined the strike immediately. But the vast majority remained inside. Some said it was nothing to do with them. Others had a sexist attitude towards the women.

The men who had kept working held a 24-hour strike on 2 June. But they voted by 60 percent against an all-out strike. The authors describe how some Nazis had tried to organise among them.

Over 1,000 workers stayed in the factory, while nearly 400 women struck. But the book explains that women were “the key workers. Without them, no production line could move. The factory was brought to a progressive standstill.”

The strike threw workers’ routine up into the air. “Compared to the factory existence, it was a new world,” say the authors.

They took turns to picket, successfully turning away lorries that came to deliver supplies or collect goods. They organised marches and travelled around Britain to speak at meetings. A strike committee was elected.

Support flooded in. Striker Sally Groves said, “There has never been this sort of solidarity before. It’s a small revolution for us.”

Bosses, the press and the cops worked together against the strikers.

Cops ignored scab lorries that had covered number plates, and positioned their cars in front of pickets’ vehicles to stop them following the scabs. One Sun reporter was chased off the picket line after the paper claimed the women were on “sex strike”.

Sneak

The union estimated that the strike was costing Trico more than £20,000 a day—more than £100,000 today. Bosses were reduced to trying to sneak out products and smuggle in supplies by car.

But this couldn’t overcome the impact of the strike. So they tried to break through picket lines.

On 1 July at 2am a convoy of nine lorries and several private cars arrived. Four pickets were on duty. Six lorry drivers turned around but three went in.

Pickets had to get more organised—and pull in more solidarity. The night picket grew and “became one of the best-known clubs in London,” says the book. Different groups supported it on different nights.

These included local factories, Brent Trades Council, Ealing North Labour Party, and the Gay Socialists. Sikh ­gurdwaras raised lots of money for strikers.

Support came from individuals too. The book describes how a man arrived “every night at 10.30pm, and again between 1am and 2.30am, with an urn of tea, sugar and milk”.

Workers who drove United Biscuits trucks would leave strikers packets of biscuits hidden behind cars.

Strikers scored a victory on 27 July after 70 pickets forced a scab convoy to turn back. But two days later a bigger battle came. Coachloads of cops descended and attacked pickets to get the lorries through.

Strikers identified scab haulage firms and urged workers to boycott them. And they urged workers to black—refuse to handle—wipers and blades that were being made elsewhere for Trico.

This was crucial. But the union leadership didn’t push hard for it. As Monica said, “When did our president, Hugh Scanlon, make a public appeal for the blacking of all wiper blades by the car industry?

“Had he and other members of the executive put their muscle behind the struggle, we would have won much sooner.”

The authors note that the boycotting of wipers wasn’t “robustly effective nationally” due to “the absence of any official instructions from the AUEW National Executive Committee”. It adds that official support for the strike was sometimes “on a knife-edge”.

Labour

And while some Labour MPs gave their backing, some felt Labour “in general gave the strike ‘little to no formal recognition as being significant’.”

Trico threw everything at the strikers. Bosses went to an equal pay tribunal in August, which found in their favour. They denied workers holiday pay and in September announced layoffs.

But by this point, the bosses’ Engineering Employers Federation was “running out of patience”. The fight was not going out of the women. The action showed no sign of ending.

Finally on 15 October, women heard that bosses had caved in, fully conceding their demands. They marched back to work on 18 October.

The book describes “a cheering mass of women and men clocking in with champagne, kisses and V-signs for victory”.

The strike challenged dominant attitudes about women and changed strikers’ ideas. Peggy Long told Women’s Voice, “I’ve learnt a lot, noticed a lot of things since I’ve been on strike.”

Bob Singh said, “It made me appreciate the strength of people being together. Women who were not political were able to do something historic.”

The story of Trico shows the best way to fight and win—and can encourage others in struggle. Striker Ann Fitzgerald said, “Women saw that if we can do it, they can do it. People thought, we won’t sit back anymore.”

Rhoda Williams added, “I was proud of what I did. You never know, when people read the book, it might inspire them to do something.”


If you enjoy Socialist Worker, please consider giving to our annual appeal to make sure we can maintain and develop our online and print versions of Socialist Worker. Go here for details and to donate.

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.