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The Ford sewing machinists equal pay strike of 1968


On 7 June 1968 women workers at Ford in Dagenham went on strike. This in itself seemed no big deal. The women were sewing machinists who made covers for car seats. The cause of their unrest was unequal pay.

As part of a Ford rearrangement, their job was being reclassified as Category B (‘less skilled’) instead of Category C (‘more skilled’). They also learnt that their pay would be 15 per cent less than that received by men on the B rate. Women machinists at Ford’s Halewood plant on Merseyside later joined the strike.

With no car seat covers, Ford found its assembly line stitched up, as all car production at Dagenham and Halewood was briefly halted. Into the industrial battlefield strode the recently appointed Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle. Her intervention brought an end to the strike after three weeks, with a deal that immediately increased their rate of pay to 8% below that of men. Another deal followed the following year, giving the women the same Category B rate as men. But the women’s sense of injustice at being labelled ‘less skilled’ endured, and was not resolved until fuller strike action in 1984.

The machinists’ strike inspired, the following year, the formation of the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (even the acronym was a mouthful: NJACCWER), which held an ‘equal pay demonstration’ attended by 1,000 people in Trafalgar Square on 18 May 1969. This triggered the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which for the first time in Britain set out to equalise the pay and employment conditions of men and women. The Act became law in 1975, making it illegal to pay women less for doing the same job as men.

Adapted from 1968: Those Were the Days by Brian Williams

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