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Suffragettes 100: Dagenham sewing machinists strike 50 years ago wasn’t all ‘petticoats’

PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:38 07 February 2018

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

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

PA/Press Association Images

The minor industrial action at the giant Ford motor works in Dagenham didn’t grab the local newspaper headlines at first, just another dispute that I covered in 1968 as a young reporter on the old Romford Times newspaper that summer.

What made it different as the weeks following was that this minor stoppage by women machinists in the seat cover workshop brought the whole plant to a standstill, affecting workers across east London and Essex and eventually other Ford plants up and down the country.

National newspapers dubbed it “the petticoat strike”, but it took a more serious turn with the women’s delegation to Whitehall to see Barbara Castle, the employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s government.

Letters to the editor came in from both sides. The machinists started their case for equal grading with the men for doing the same skilled work, though equal pay wasn’t to come just yet.

But some angry readers — mostly male — deplored a minority bringing Ford to a standstill with thousands of wage-owners having to be laid off.

We also received calls at the newspaper from the strike committee and from readers.

It was the main topic in the market place and local pubs, opinion divided among our readers from those sympathetic with the women’s regrading claim and those who felt the machinists were lucky to have a second job in the family.

The women weren’t seen as the main breadwinner. A job at Ford was the extra income in their household “for life’s luxuries” like running a car or holidays in Benidorm — that’s how society saw it back then.

The women were paid 15 per cent less than the men, we reported, but they got a deal brokered by Barbara Caste increasing it to eight per cent below men’s rates — it was a start.

The strike ended after three weeks. But it didn’t end there.

The dispute was no longer in the local headlines, but that Dagenham workshop stoppage sparked a national campaign that was to lead to the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Full equality was still often decades away in some industries—but the mark 50 years ago had been set.

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