50 years ago women working at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike. It is often thought that the strike was over equal pay (or rather a lack thereof). In fact, the strike was actually in protest at the unfair grading system that was in place. Nonetheless the three-week strike played an important part of the equal pay story. One of the direct outcomes was an increase to the women's pay and a step towards equal pay for men and women within the same grade. The strike is also widely credited as having been a significant catalyst for the subsequent passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
Why were these women striking?
The women working at the Ford plant were machinists who stitched car seat covers. Standards were high. In order to work as a machinist, each woman was required to undertake two years of training and had to pass tests to prove her competence. Despite this, the machinists' work was classed by Ford as "unskilled", or grade B. The grading system determined the level of pay to which employees were entitled. Other grade B jobs included floor sweepers, janitors and cleaners. Men whose jobs required equivalent training were classed as "semi-skilled" grade C workers. Despite repeated requests over several years, the machinists' roles were not re-classified.
Within the grade B classification women faced further discrimination: female grade B workers were paid roughly 85% of the amount paid to male grade B workers.
What did they achieve?
On 7 June 1968 one hundred and eighty seven machinists walked out of the Ford plant in Dagenham and refused to continue working without proper, fair classification. On the same day, machinists at the Halewood Ford plant also walked out.
Without seat covers the cars could not be completed and production had to be halted when the covers ran out. When the plant closed some men were laid off and Ford was faced with the prospect of far greater losses.
The strike lasted for 3 weeks. On 28 June 1968 some of the machinists attended a meeting with Barbara Castle, the Employment Secretary, following which an agreement was reached. The women were promised an increase to 92% of the men's grade B rate. Whilst rightly regarded as an important victory for the Ford women, it is remarkable that the machinists were still not granted the fair grading they had been fighting for, nor equal pay with the men in the same grade.
In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was finally passed. This made it illegal for an employer to discriminate on the grounds of sex.
Further progress has been slow. Less than 20 years later many of the same machinists were striking again because their work was still not being graded fairly. In 1984 the machinists were finally given the recognition they deserved when the classification of their work was changed to "semi-skilled" grade C, in line with men with equivalent training.
Sadly, even now, equality in the workplace seems a distant dream. There is a significant gender pay gap across most industries, largely due to the continuing lack of opportunities for women to take on senior roles. Despite legal protections women are still being paid unequally. It is clear that more must be done to correct this injustice and many women have been left with no option but to take legal action against their employers. The fight for real equality is far from over.
7 June 2018