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What it was really like to be a part of the Ford Dagenham strike

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Fifty years ago today, 187 women walked out of the Ford Dagenham plant in protest at unequal pay and recognition for their work. Here Gwen Davis tells Stylist exactly what happened.

When I went to work on 7 June 1968, I had no idea that I’d be going on strike with 177 other women. I had been working as a sewing machinist making car seats at Ford for five years, and every year during the wage claim our union workers had put in a request for us to be classed as skilled workers. They’d been doing this for years before I’d even started my job, and every year Ford had said no. The work grades were A (unskilled), B (part-skilled) and C (fully skilled). We were graded as B, despite being employed to do skilled work; even the sweeper working around my machine was on the same grading as me. It wasn’t fair, especially as you had to have at least two years experience working as a skilled machinist to get the job.

But Ford didn’t want to give us the grade, because they would have to pay us more. We were really annoyed about it. They kept saying ‘you are not skilled workers’, but if they needed extra seats made at the end of a working day they would hire men to work night shifts, doing the same job as us, but on a C grade. When we heard about that we just thought no, we’ve got to do something. 

Striking women are interviewed outside the Union office in Rainham

On 7 June we had a meeting with our union rep in the plant’s car park just before lunchtime and he suggested that if we wanted to fight for our cause, we would have to walk out. It was the only way to make Ford listen to us. None of us were against the strike because we all wanted the grade. And we were really prepared for it – after all, we’d been asking for this for years.

The union worker told us to go back into the plant, pick up our handbags, lock up our lockers and walk out. We were told not to talk to anybody. Everyone was so shocked – our supervisors were saying, ‘where are you going?’ and we just replied, ‘we’re going home!’

People didn’t expect it at first. They thought we’d get fed up and come back to work but we said no, we’re going to stay out as long as we need to. I think they were all just surprised that women were going out and fighting for themselves.

The day after we walked out we all went to the union office for a meeting, and we had at least one a week after that so the union could tell us how far they’d got with getting us what we wanted. At least one of us would go to the union every day, and we would all keep in touch by phoning the friends we sat near to in the factory – even though we’d only just got phones! Everyone discussed their own problems and everyone helped each other; if someone was very short of money due to the strike, someone else would make them a hot meal. They were all very generous people. I was fortunate because my husband was an engineer and he was still working, although we had three children under the age of seven so we had to rely on my savings a bit, which was hard.

The first week of our strike didn’t affect most of the men working in the factory. But in the second week, some of them were laid off when the factory ran out of seats – then the attitude changed and some of them got nasty. A lot of women went down to the factory during the strike to see what was going on, and men would shout at them to go back to work. They got quite mouthy, because they were worried about their jobs. Other women lived on the same street as men who had been laid off due to us, or would go to the same pubs as them, and it was awkward. Even in the union there were men against us – some were on our side, but some were on Ford’s side. Fortunately none of the men I knew at the time worked with me or lived near me, and despite all of this, none of us ever wanted to stop striking. 

“No resumption without grade C”

Due to the lack of seats, the factory couldn’t sell any cars. We’d been shocked that Ford hadn’t come to us earlier to offer us any extra money, but that woke them up. Then Ford America sent a representative over to threaten the whole plant with closure, and they had to start taking it very seriously. They got in touch with Barbara Castle, because she was the employment secretary and it was her job to get us back in work.

Two coachloads of women, about 50 of us, went down to Whitehall to lobby, and eight women had a meeting with her. I stayed at home to look after my children. Barbara was very much on our side, and said she would speak to Ford, parliament and Harold Wilson [the prime minister at the time]. That’s when they came up with the deal, and the Equal Pay Act two years later - although Wilson said the country couldn’t afford to pay women the same as men. And it still can’t, can it?

We were a bit upset with the pay rise because it was only a percentage of what we’d asked for [the women were paid at 92% of the men’s salary, up from 85% before], and we still weren’t being recognised as skilled workers, which is what we were employed as.

Then the day we went back to work there wasn’t a word said to us - no ‘welcome back’ or ‘we’re pleased to see you’. Our supervisors gave us our work and that was that. It was like we’d never been out of the plant; it was just back to normal.

Despite that, I think most of us were pleased to go back to work – we’d never been on strike before, and we all enjoyed our jobs. There was usually a lovely, friendly atmosphere, and we would all chat with our friends during our breaks. It was nice and cheerful and we had lots of parties outside the plant. There were women who had worked there 40 years, and generations of families who had been at the factory for 100 years.

Barbara Castle (right) with some of the strikers

So we didn’t mind going back as long as we had something, and we didn’t want to put the men out for too long. Lots of the women were married to men who worked at the plant too, and their families were getting very short of money. We didn’t work just for pin money – our salaries were serious to us, especially with children to support and mortgages to pay.

It took another 16 years after that before we finally got the C grade, after striking again in 1984. Ford didn’t give it to us easily though, we had to really fight for it. Then women in the factory began doing ‘men’s’ jobs, becoming mechanics and engineers, and they were so pleased. It was wonderful, because women were finally being recognised as being able to do anything, and they were showing Ford that they were capable of doing any job that a man could do. And that’s what the fight was for – to be treated equally.

Women are still fighting now; it’s just a different fight. The gender pay gap [9.8%] in this country is disgusting. My advice for a woman who finds out she’s earning less than a man is that she’s got to fight, she’s got to take this further. Just talking to a friend is not going to help – there are strong groups protesting right now, like #MeToo, and it’s up to women to keep fighting for what they believe in.

Images: Getty

Gwen Davis and Eileen Pullen also spoke at a panel discussion hosted by the Royal Docks School of Business and Law and the University of East London, to mark the 50th anniversary.

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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