In 1968 Rose Boland, the leading steward in the Ford machinists’ strike was interviewed for Socialist Worker by Sabby Sagall. Here he recalls the importance of the dispute and we reprint an edited version of the interview.
Some 850 women sewing-machinsts at Ford Dagenham in east London struck against sex discrimination in their job grading on 7 June 1968.
The strike gave a huge impetus to the women’s movement and gave rise to the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights.
In the years that followed, women’s trade union membership soared.
The Ford women had been placed in the unskilled B grade although they did the same work – making car seat-covers – as men placed in the semi-skilled C grade. The women, moreover, were paid 87 percent of the male rate.
The strikers were soon joined by the women at Ford’s Halewood in Merseyside.
The three week strike brought Ford’s entire car production to a standstill.
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 Rose Boland raised the issue of equal pay for the first time.
The Ford women won 92 percent of the men’s rate, though it took another 16 years to win the regrading.
The strike ignited a 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.
Do you see the struggle for C grade as a struggle against sex discrimination?
I do. Definitely.
To what extent are the women prepared to fight for recognition of their skills? Will they go on strike to achieve equal pay?
I don’t think the women will go out for the 100 percent equal pay in the C grade just yet. We’re concerned with proving that we are skilled workers.
When we go into the Ford company, we have to pass a test on three machines. If we don’t pass then we don’t get a job. So why shouldn’t they recognise us as skilled workers?
It’s up to the girls to decide what to do. Last week they were really ready for another fight, but only for grade C, not for equal pay.
Personally I think if a woman does the same type of work as a man she should be entitled to equal pay.
Barbara Castle herself gets equal pay.
She does, and I don’t see why she should hold it from us for seven years. I think the nurses should get equal pay, the same as male nurses get. They do the same work, there’s no difference.
Why do you think women are discriminated against?
I think because the management employ them as cheap labour.
They say a woman loses more time than a man, she has time off to have children – but myself I can’t see this because I think a woman works as regularly as a man.
The strike committee seemed very active in leading the struggle. How did this come about and what was your relationship with the official union?
Our union made the strike official. Wherever our officials went, so our girls went. We just used to get the coaches out and say to the girls, “Any of you can go tomorrow.”
During the three weeks we were on strike all the girls worked hard and they always stuck together. In fact, I don’t think I saw my husband or son during the whole three weeks.
When Barbara Castle said that we could have a public court of inquiry I knew there was no chance of C grade, so I just said to the management, “Women in other car firms get 92 percent, how about us?”
She said to the Ford management, “Are you prepared?” They said, “No, 90 percent.” I said, “92 percent or else no talk.” So she said, “If you’re prepared to talk then I’ll see that you get 92 percent.”
Well, we took it back to the girls. We said, “We’ll give them a chance. We’ll see what they’re going to offer.”
On the Monday, they came up with the 92 percent and we accepted it pending the court of inquiry.
Do you think there was government pressure on the court of inquiry not to grant recognition of your skills?
I wouldn’t say there was government pressure, but it may have had something to do with Ford.
Let’s face it, if the women had got C grade, which we are still fighting for, it would have broken Ford’s wage structure.
There are so many men fighting for upgrading that if Ford gave it to us, they would have to give it right through the firm.
And the men know that if Ford turn round to us and say, “Right, you’ve got C grade”, well, they’re going to have a better chance to fight.
Do you feel you are giving a lead to the millions of other underprivileged women?
Yes. Boots at Nottingham for instance – they started something last week. They’re out for more pay. I think the Ford women have definitely shaken the women of the country.
From your experience with the government, do you feel the Labour Party is still the party of the working class?
I don’t think the working class has got any party at all to stick up for it. Let’s face it, the Labour government that we looked forward to, they’ve just let us down.
You take the ordinary housewife – when she goes shopping and sees the way prices have gone up.
We can work for a living, but you take the old age pensioners – they’ve got to go to the same shops as we have to, so when are the prices going to stop rising?
They keep saying, “We’ll have to freeze wages.” It’s all right for Barbara Castle with her £7,000 a year [£84,000 in today’s money]. Well, let her take a cut.
Do you think the working class should vote Conservative in the next election or try and create a new alternative?
No, I don’t think they should vote Conservative. I think they ought to try something different. Let’s have this lot out and try another lot.