I was struggling to think of something interesting to tell about the place where I lived when I was twelve. Dagenham was not the sort of place you would write home about. It was a little village on the banks of the Thames until the 1930s when Henry Ford built one of his huge car factories, and Dagenham became a huge housing estate to accommodate the thousands of workers employed there. It became motor city with its own dock, foundries and production lines. When they opened the foundry in the evening, the fiery red glow lit up the sky for miles around. Everyone was dependent on Ford for their livelihood. My father,grandfather, uncles,aunts and cousins all worked for Ford.
But I digress! There I was, wracking my brains, and listening to the radio. The tune was a golden oldie, Desmond Decker and The Aces singing ” The Israelites” and suddenly I was back there in the summer of 1968. London was swinging and Dagenham was in the headlines .
The mighty Ford Motor Company was being crippled by thirty female workers protesting against sexual discrimination, demanding equal pay. They were furious and walked out after discovering that men doing the same work – making car seats for Cortinas and Zephyrs – were being paid 15% more. As a result of their action substantial portions of the assembly, stamping and body plants at the factory had been closed and 9000 workers had been laid off.
Emotions ran high in Dagenham that summer! Nearly the entire male workforce had been laid off, including the fathers and husbands of the strikers. The ‘girls’ were reviled by men and women alike as financial hardship began to bite. They were only working for ‘pin money’ after all.
Sitting here in 2014 you might wonder what the fuss was about. Of course they should have had equal pay and the right to go on strike until they got it! But 1968 was a different world. In those days women only worked if they couldn’t get a man to marry them and support them. They were supposed to stay at home, have children and look after their men. Women who worked were either widows, spinsters or ‘unmarried mothers’ all to be despised or pitied. A man might let his wife work to earn a little pocket money, but would never admit that they needed the money- he was the breadwinner after all.
Finally, Ford capitulated, (the dispute was estimated to have lost the company export orders worth £117m in today’s money) and a meeting between eight strike leaders and Barbara Castle, who was then employment secretary, brokered a deal to end their three-week strike. The women agreed to return to work and the 1970 Equal Pay Act was conceived.
I owe those brave women a lot. Their determination to do something about prejudice and discrimination against women had a profound influence on my generation. I have benefited from the legislation and changes in attitude that they fought hard for, and have added my own efforts at times. I am proud that it was the women from my home town who struck a blow which reverberated around the western world. It made multinational giants and governments change their policies and slowly put laws in place to address the exploitation of women.
You may say that even after over forty years we still have a way to go, but everything had to start somewhere. Keep up the fight Sisters!
In 2010 they made UK feature film about those events : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_in_Dagenham
A soundtrack for the film was released, with the following tracks:
Check it out for some real nostalgia!
(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me – Sandie Shaw
Get Ready – The Temptations
Israelites – Desmond Dekker & The Aces
It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World – James Brown
Days – The Kinks
Can I Get a Witness – Dusty Springfield
All or Nothing – Small Faces
The Boat That I Row – Lulu
It’s Getting Better – Mama Cass
A Groovy Kind of Love – The Mindbenders
Wooly Bully – Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs
Sunday Will Never Be The Same – Spanky and Our Gang
Green Tambourine – Lemon Pipers
Paper Sun – Traffic
Friday on My Mind – The Easybeats
With a Girl Like You – The Troggs
You Can Get It If You Really Want – Desmond Dekker
Made In Dagenham – Sandie Shaw
The title song was written by David Arnold and Billy Bragg just for the film.