I’ve just spent a wonderfully entertaining afternoon in the presence of Vera Sime, Eileen Pullen, Gwen Davies and Sheila Douglas — the women who inspired the 2010 film Made in Dagenham (of which they remarked, the basic story was there, but it was dressed up a bit). The Business School at the University of Hertfordshire organised the ‘Reflections on the Dagenham Story’ event, the clear highlight of which was a questions and answers section with the four women. Feisty, witty, inspiring are just some of the words that spring to mind when listening to these women. On Monday night, they were presented with a Women of the Year Award.
I was particularly interested in attending because I’m fascinated by life stories and oral testimony, and because my research has touched on equal pay in the Irish context. In 1968, the female machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham walked out. I had always been under the impression that the women were demanding equal pay. However, it quickly became apparent today that that was a secondary issue for them. What they actually wanted was to be graded correctly — at Grade C. As they explained, the man sweeping the floor around them got the same rate of pay because they were at the same grade. The women could have swept the floors, but that man wouldn’t have been able to work the machines. The women simply wanted formal recognition that they were skilled workers: two years’ experience was the minimum requirement for all applicants. To add insult to injury, they later discovered that four male machinists who worked alongside them were at the coveted Grade C.
Management, to repeat the term used by one of the women, were ‘dumbstruck’ by the strike. Very few women in the factory encouraged them to return to work, although support was more mixed from their male colleagues. Sheila’s father who also worked at the factory came out in support of the women, encouraging his daughter to do what she thought was right.
The strike eventually ended when a pay increase was negotiated, although Shelia said she would have been happier if they had achieved the C grade. Minister Barbara Castle was instrumental in ending the dispute. The women were adamant that her gender was important, and that it was unlikely they would have secured what they did otherwise. It’s an interesting observation, especially when one considers the arguments made for increasing female representation in parliament.
After the strike ended, life in the factory went back to normal. There were no recriminations from management, and the strike was almost forgotten until the film came out. The women actually spoke quite highly of the Dagenham Ford Plant, which gave employment to a staggering 50,000 people in the 1960s. The cleanliness, the women remarked, often left a lot to be desired, but there was an enjoyable atmosphere and a strong sense of community. Asked if they realised the significance of what they were doing at the time, they shook their heads.
The event was rounded off by Professor Ursula Huws of the Business School who prefaced her talk with the assessment:
This equal pay act has rather failed.
The gap did close significantly in the 1970s because of the government’s wage freeze policies, implemented in the context of an internationally strained economic climate that had resulted from the oil crisis of 1973. The government’s guidelines on pay meant that men did not see their annual income increase as it would normally, thus amounting to a pay cut, while many lower paid women benefited from increases larger than they had ever previously experienced. This was not sustained. Today, the gap isn’t as significant but, as research highlighted by Prof Huws shows, this is because men’s wages have come down, rather than women’s increasing. Furthermore, the overall picture makes the situation appear better than it is: it takes into account women who haven’t yet had children. In 2012, the median earning of female full-time employees in the UK was £12 an hour, compared to £13.27 for men. When broken down by age, the biggest gap exists between 40 and 59 year olds. Today, to maintain a household requires a man’s full-time wages and a woman’s part-time wages. Single parent families thus find themselves in an extremely difficult position.
Asked by one member of the audience if they thought we’d achieved equality, the women had answered with a chorus of ‘No’. Their advice? Keep together and fight. This was a theme picked up by Professor Huws. Today, workers are too easily divided — a consequence, the audience agreed, of a shift from collectivism to individualism. A sense of community spirit no longer exists in the way that it did in the 1960s. ’I'm glad I’m not working anymore’, Shelia quipped. As entertaining as today’s talk was, there was a deeply depressing undertone to the discussion.