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‘I’m glad I did it’: Ford Dagenham workers recall strikes

PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 February 2018

Dora Challingsworth, 79, was a shop steward during the 1984 Ford workers strike. Picture: Ken Mears

Dora Challingsworth, 79, was a shop steward during the 1984 Ford workers strike. Picture: Ken Mears

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Five decades ago, women workers at Ford’s Dagenham factory went on strike.

Female sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham vote to return to work, ending their dispute. Picture: PA Archive/PA ImagesFemale sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham vote to return to work, ending their dispute. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

As celebrated on stage and the silver screen in Made in Dagenham, their struggle helped pass the Equal Pay Act 1970, which ruled men and women should be paid the same amount for equal work.

But strikers say West End glitz replaced a demand for recognition of their skills with a feel-good romp for equality.

Here, nearly two decades after the 1968 strike, workers had to down tools again for their happy ending.

“We didn’t fight for equal pay,” said Dora Challingsworth, 79, a shop steward in the 1984 strike.

Jim McDermott. Picture: Arnaud StephensonJim McDermott. Picture: Arnaud Stephenson

Instead, she said, the sewing machinists picked up their placards against a grading system that saw men on the factory floor as ‘skilled’, and so able to pocket higher rates, but women and cleaners as ‘unskilled’.

“When they said we got equal pay that time [after the 1968 strike], it wasn’t equal, you know,” said Dora.

“We still didn’t get what the men got.”

She added: “When we went out in ’84, that’s what we wanted and we weren’t going to settle for nothing less,” she said.

The Ford factory in Dagenham. Picture: PA Archive/PA ImagesThe Ford factory in Dagenham. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

The workers had tried going through the official channel – the grading grievance committee – with no luck, said 81-year-old Jim McDermott, a worker at the plant for more than two decades.

“It was nonsense,” he said.

“They tried to say it’s not a skilled, guilded trade. It’s not a trade like an electrician or a plumber.”

Without the women’s work stitching car seats, you couldn’t drive a finished vehicle out of the plant, he added.

An exhibition on women's stories from the days of Ford in Dagenham at Dagenham Library. Picture: Ken MearsAn exhibition on women's stories from the days of Ford in Dagenham at Dagenham Library. Picture: Ken Mears

“Try giving a man a sewing machine and ask him to build a wedding dress,” he said.

“Can he do it? Of course he can’t [...] because you haven’t got the skill, the dexterity.”

Dora, who joined the factory in 1970, said she and the other machinists were prepared to face down their employer after the walk out.

But added pressure came from the unions – the very men who should have supported them.

“The women had to make a stand against the union, and against the company,” she said.

“When we went to meetings up there, they’d say: ‘When it comes to women, they’re a bunch of bananas, they are’.”

The machinists carried on regardless.

“I didn’t care,” she admitted. “Whatever I had to say, I’d say it.”

After six weeks on the picket line, the company agreed to regrade the women.

“The thing was that they deserved it,” said Jim, of Goresbrook Road, Dagenham.

“Because they’d be mucked about for so long.”

For Cllr Sade Bright, cabinet member for equalities and cohesion, the strikers’ “determination and strength” is “a great symbol for Barking and Dagenham”.

“The Ford machinists are one example of a number of great women from this borough’s history who I hope inspire future generations, and particularly young women, to have a voice for the rights of all and to stand up for what is right,” she said.

“I hope their sense of fairness and equality is instilled in today’s generations of young women too.”

But Dora, of Goring Road, Dagenham, never wanted to make the news.

“I really enjoyed what I did and I’m glad I did it,” she said.

“You know, they say: ‘Oh, you’ve gone down in history’ and all this but we didn’t do it for that.”

The second strike had come “too many years later”, she said.

“It should have been brought up long before that, what we fought for.”

Ford did not respond directly to the Post’s questions on how the company viewed both strikes and their legacy.

Instead, spokesman Oliver Rowe said: “We are supporting a 2018 celebration of the landmark called Vote 100.

“The history of the machinists’ fight, and the recent Made in Dagenham film which we co-operated with, speak for themselves.”

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