Dora Challingsworth (left) and Sheila Douglass (right)
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 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.
What do you remember about the June 1968 strike?
Sheila: We were annoyed about the way that some people had been getting C grade for doing what we did. Why weren’t we sufficiently skilled to get C grade? We had two or three votes and convenors had been down to the company management to put our case but they weren’t interested. Then we had a vote to come out on strike. We were determined to show we weren’t being treated properly.
That was the feeling among most of the women?
S: Yes, I would say 98 percent of us. You always get one or two who don’t want to do something – either for themselves or anyone else – but yes, it was unanimous really.
Did you get support from the official unions?
S: Not at first. We had to wait for that. But eventually we did, and that’s when we started to get a little bit of strike pay.
Why didn’t the official union support you to start with?
S: They probably thought we weren’t worth it. We were only a handful of women, so our dues to them were nothing. We were only 187 women; that was like a drop in the ocean to the union.
Dora: Bernard Passingham, the deputy convenor at the time [see interview overleaf] had other areas he always concentrated on, not the women. I always have a go at him about that! But Lil O’Callaghan took it up and she was a good steward.
S: Bernard became our convenor and I must admit after a while he was doing a damn good job.
D: What I can gather from Bernard is it wasn’t just the company – the union was against it as well. They couldn’t solve their pay claim because the women wanted grading. Bernard told me that Jack Jones [later general secretary of the TGWU] was there and he said, “What can we give these women to get them back to work?” and then someone said, “Let’s get them equal pay,” not the grading. That’s how we got the equal pay. There were grading grievances everywhere at Ford’s so regrading the women would have cost Ford more than giving the women equal pay.
What was the attitude of your male workmates?
S: Well I didn’t know many men anyway, I can only go by my father. He worked across the yard from me. When we went on strike he said, “You’ve got to fight for what you want, Sheila. If you want anything no one’s going to give it to you. You do what you want to do.” So he was out of work as well as me.
When did you come to think that equal pay was also an important issue?
S: I didn’t want to go back to work! I wanted to stay out to get my C grade. I’ve always been on my own, I earn my own living, and I thought getting C grade would make a great deal of difference if and when I retired. But a lot of the women were married and their husbands and maybe other family members were working at Ford’s. They were struggling, and so eventually we got sevenpence more an hour for all women in Ford, but we never got our C grade.
Could you say something about the atmosphere of the strike? Did you feel confident of winning at the beginning?
S: It wasn’t a confident feeling when we came out, no way. But I presume we all felt that we deserved C grade, and we were determined that we weren’t going to go back for less. If you see any bits on television where the girls are talking coming out of the gates they’re saying to reporters, “We’ll stay out forever!” or as long as it takes. So they were determined.
You were taking on the mighty Ford empire and making history.
S: But we didn’t think we were that important at the time, let’s be honest. All we were was a handful of women who thought we deserved a better standard of pay. So we thought we’d try our luck and see what happens. It’s not as if we hadn’t been out on strike before. We were always in and out for this department or that. It was a known fact that Ford workers were strikers.
But you closed down the whole of Ford’s!
S: Yes, but we didn’t think of that at the time. We didn’t think that we could do that. We just thought we were coming out to try and gain C grade for ourselves and that’s how it started off and it gradually got worse and worse. Because naturally you can’t put a car on sale if it’s not got a seat in. That’s when we realised that we were more important than we thought.
We hadn’t really thought that far ahead, so when it happened it was a bit of a surprise. Well, it was to me! People just took it because it had gone from C grade by then to equal pay – or equal rights. That’s when it really struck home that what we had done was, you know, a bit naughty really.
Did the question of equal pay become as important as the grading issue?
S: I must be honest, not in my mind. I thought we should get C grade, so the equal pay wasn’t that important. I don’t mind it being there but I still felt we should be trying to fight for C grade.
For you the C grade was more important, but for lots of people outside Ford’s equal pay was more important.
D: I understand what you’re saying, but the women wanted to be recognised for their skills. To get the job you needed the skills to do it, but you were classed as unskilled.
Dora, you were involved in the 1984 strike – how did that develop?
D: They kept putting in wage claims which would be thrown out. That happened for two years. By this time they’d closed down different departments and Bernard Passingham had hardly any men, so he had us, and he stuck in a bit more. The union didn’t want to be bothered with it. What, go on strike for women? Ron Todd [the TGWU leader] came down to take a meeting with the women and they booed him out of the plant. Every time he went to speak they booed him, because he was coming in to tell them, “Forget it this time and we’ll put it in again in two years time.”
It took a seven-week strike. The company didn’t want to give in because a lot of people were sitting out there waiting to come in for their grade. You’d hear them saying, “I hope the women get it, because it’s our turn to go in.” But the women were more determined as well in 1984. They didn’t get it the first time round. You’re not going to be second time losers, are you?
How did you organise the strikes? Did you picket and visit other workers to get support?
D: No, they just did it themselves. The stewards at the time were more for the women then, even Bernard, as I said. They had to get people to do evaluations on different jobs. In the end that panel came up with we could have gone in E grade – way past a C grade. They said we could fight on longer and go up to an E grade. That’s how badly we had been treated.
During the 1968 strike I seem to remember Rosie Boland, another shop steward, and Bernard went up to Halewood to persuade the Halewood women to come out as well.
S: I don’t think they had any problem getting the women out, it’s just that the men up there were really against them.
D: In the 1984 strike we just made a phone call [to Halewood] and told them we were coming out and that was it: they were there. “Are you getting your bags now?” they said. We said yes and that was it. They were good up there. We couldn’t have done it on our own – that’s why our friends in Halewood should be involved in all this. Where are they now?
Did you feel inspired in 1984 by the memory of the 1968 strike?
D: Yes, because they weren’t treated properly at all. Although they came back with equal pay that is not what they went out for. They were let down. The women were in quite good spirits for the 1984 strike. They were determined and they weren’t going to go back with anything less. I went down on the picket and they used to get the lorry drivers in to break up the wooden palettes they put work on so they could be used on the fire on the picket line. The coal people were out on strike at the time too and they had pickets out, we had pickets out and we used to have a right laugh. A lot of the office staff used to come down and give us bottles of whisky to keep warm on the picket line.
But no one tried to cross the picket line?
D: No. Ford’s tried to fetch work in on the railway. They got it in, actually. But the men in the paint, trim and assembly plant wouldn’t use it. So they did try.
So there was solidarity from the men?
D: Yes. We did get that in 1984. You had a lot of moaners – “Why don’t you women get back to work?” – but the majority did back us. The men could have used that work and had they used that trainload we could have been out for months.
Why did the men back you in 1984 in a way they didn’t in 1968?
D: They recognised our skills. And I got to know the other stewards as well and so I did a lot of talking with them and it was only fair that they backed us. We backed them in other things and came out with no argument.
Dora, were you a steward then?
D: I was ill treated by a foreman and that’s the reason I went in as a steward. I went out for a hysterectomy and I came back and he put me on the end of this line where you’ve got to bend up and down. So I went to see the doctor and he said I’d got to come off that job. But the foreman phoned the doctor up and got him to change his mind to say I could do that job. After I was a steward I got that foreman transferred. It wasn’t only about me. He could have treated other women like it, and it’s not on.
S: But it’s because we were women and he thought he could get away with it.
D: You had to be really strong. If you’re right you’re right. If you’re wrong you’ve got to back away. It was funny because we had a man senior steward first who we voted in and he said, “If you do it with me, Dora, I’ll do it,” so I said OK. He bloody died in about a year and it was all left to me! But you couldn’t do it without the women – there’s your backing. The company knew that. If anything was wrong in H-building I’d only have to ask and they would stop. That’s where you’re strong because you all stick together.
S: You’ve got to be all behind one another because otherwise it’s pointless, isn’t it?
D: The company and the union were against the women. I told the union they were rubbish. One time we went up to the union headquarters at Transport House because no one was taking any notice of us. So I went up there and sat there and was told Ron Todd was busy and I said I don’t care, I’m not going anywhere. In the end he sees me and he says, “I’m not having this. You just come up here unannounced and I’ve got to see you.” And I said, “Well, Ron, if you don’t like it then you’d better get your people underneath you to do their job.” All men obviously. But it was great after that. Once we were at a conference and Ron had had his knees done and he was on crutches. So I said, “Whatever’s up with you?” and he said, “I’ve had my knees done,” and I said, “Well, you should have stopped begging, shouldn’t you?”
Listening to you talk you really feel the power of women workers who were well organised. Do you have any advice to people today, given the situation we’re facing?
D: We went to a school a while ago and we were talking to school children, and what I say to them is if they’re going to join a union they must have a branch, go every month and hear different stories of people and what they get up to in work. You get more idea of what’s going on in the world, because where else do you find that? I don’t want to sell the unions because they’re not always all that good, but it’s somewhere to go. Otherwise get into politics and sort yourself out. Today you don’t get big factories, you don’t get lots of women who all work together, but they need to come together. How else do you do that?
Do you think women today who still suffer discrimination and sexism at work should look back to the examples of 1968 and 1984 for inspiration?
S: Yes. I still think there are lots of women who are not getting their just deserts. There’s a law, but who takes notice of the law? Why is it there if people don’t take any notice of it? Women are having to fight again to get their just deserts. It’s 40-odd years ago when this came in and why is it still not working?
What do you think of the new film, Made in Dagenham?
D: It’s good that they do mention that the women came out originally for recognition of their skill. People keep saying they came out for equal pay, which isn’t what they came out for.
S: The film was a fair imitation. You have to give it a bit of poetic licence to make it interesting, like when they ripped their tops off, the ladies, because it’s a sweatshop. But that never happened!
D: Like Effing Eileen. We had so many Eileens and she was always swearing so that was her name. When Henry Ford came in she made a hat, she wrote “Bollocks” on it, and sat on the front machine. The foreladies were saying, “Eileen, take that hat off!” and she wouldn’t. She sat there and he walked past her. Sometimes, it was a laugh.
“It was time to dig in” – Bernard Passingham
Did the strike come out of the blue?
The dispute slowly built up. And like most of the battles with women once they make up their mind, they move. In other words they got fed up with being put off and they decided there was only one way – to take action.
I know that you and Henry Friedman, the convenor when you were deputy convenor, gave the women a lot of encouragement. How important was that?
Let me put it this way. Here we had a couple of hundred women pretty raw to the question of disputes and it was a question of guidance to make sure they weren’t going to go off the track and run wild. So we gave advice, and I think we gave advice correctly, that it was time to dig in, and dig in they did.
But the initiative came from the women?
What was the attitude of the male workers at Ford’s?
By and large they accepted the fact that women could go on strike. No one had a go, it was just accepted by the men. The women made their decision – if the men had gone on strike they wouldn’t harass the women, and vice versa.
Were you surprised when Rosie Boland raised the question of equal pay during that famous tea party with Barbara Castle?
No, the question of equal pay had always been there as far as the trade union was concerned. They’re working for Ford’s, they’re doing the job, they should be getting the same money as the men. Obviously, among some of the women, there was an argument that men should be earning the money because they’ve got a family and so on, but it wasn’t general.
What sort of impact did the strike have on the wider movement – in particular on other women workers?
I felt it had a great deal of influence. Here we had women fighting for their right to equal pay. As a result of the women’s strike obviously other companies started paying equal pay to avoid disputes.
Would you encourage women workers to see the new film to derive some inspiration from the Ford sewing-machinists all those years ago?
Yes I would, because I think they would learn from it.
Bernard Passingham was deputy convenor at Ford Dagenham during the 1968 strike and also a member of the TGWU executive committee.
Made in Dagenham is reviewed in this month’s Socialist Review. Do you have any memories of the Ford women’s strikes? Are you in contact with any of the women who took action in Halewood? If so, please contact Socialist Review.
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