The Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike: 45 years on

A show of hands by female sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in Dagenham indicates they wish to end

A show of hands by female sewing machinists at the Ford Plant in Dagenham indicates they wish to end the strike and return to work. Pic: Press Association Archive. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images - yellow image

Today marks 45 years since 187 female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant walked out of their jobs and made social history.

That strike starting on June 7, 1968, became a landmark labour-relations dispute in the UK and led to the first legislation passed in the world to end pay discrimination between men and women.

The women, whose job it was to stitch together the seats for Ford’s vehicles, had been informed that their jobs would be downgraded from category C – a skilled role – to category B – unskilled.

Not only that, the memo also notified them they would be paid 15 per cent less than men working in category B.

Up against the mighty Ford corporation and with no previous experience of collective action, they walked out of the factory one day to protest the changes.

For three weeks they held their ground, demonstrating with banners outside the factory, and their cause attracted national attention.

Without any machinists, there were no car seats being made, which meant no cars, and Ford’s production line slowed, stalled and completely stopped.

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Eventually, with the involvement of Barbara Castle, then employment secretary in Harold Wilson’s government, a deal was struck.

The women would return to work and would see their pay increased to eight per cent below that of men.

Not quite what they had sought, but each one of them returned to work.

The following year the women rose to the full category B and achieved equal pay.

Two years later came the Equal Pay Act – the first of its kind to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in the workplace.

But it wasn’t until some 16 years later, after a further six-week strike, that the women were regraded into category C and their work was finally recognised for the skill it required.

The Ford women’s strike inspired the 2010 film Made in Dagenham starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson.