The man behind the Dagenham strikers

IT IS said that behind every great man there is a woman – but in 1968 the opposite was true when Fred Blake stood with the Ford women strikers and brought the biggest factory in Europe to its knees.

They picketed together, 187 angry machinists (who had just been reclassified as unskilled workers) with their beehive hairdos and mini skirts…and Fred, their union official.

More than 40 years later, film producer Stephen Woolley was driving home when he tuned into the radio and found himself in the company of those strikers, who marched on Westminster and changed history.

He listened in fits of laughter as Effin’ Eileen and Ginger Lil’ recounted the story of their accidental stumble into politics and feminism.

And the story became the movie Made In Dagenham, starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson, which is released next week.

Fred, who is played by Hoskins, recalls how Eileen Pullen and Lily Grisley were more than a match for any man.

“They frightened anybody who stood in their way, including the politicians,” he said. “They were tough ladies – and they were fighting for their rights.

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“Women today have those women to thank. If they hadn’t shown the courage to fight, well then their daughters and granddaughters who are working now wouldn’t have the legal right to be treated the same as male colleagues.”

The strike by the women machinists at the Ford car plant in Dagenham was to demand pay equal to that of male workers.

It was a revolt that finally led to the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

Stephen Woolley, who produced Made In Dagenham, loved the strikers’ personalities and says they still see the funny side of it all.

Even the famous faux-pas which occurred when the women unfurled a banner outside the Houses of Parliament saying: “We Want Sex”. It should have read: “We Want Sex Equality” but the last word was not unfurled properly.

“All these motorists were driving by and honking at the women and they were all thinking ‘this is great, everyone is really supporting us’,” said Stephen. “It was only later they realised what had happened.

“It’s another one of the strikers’ stories which is just so fantastically funny.

“They are all so matter of fact about what they had done. None of them were political or feminist; they just wanted a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

“They certainly had no idea of the huge significance of what they were about to achieve.”

But the women did manage to sway the decision-makers, including Employment Minister, Barbara Castle (played by Miranda Richardson).

After three weeks, the women settled for a deal that brought them to within eight per cent of male pay.

Now 91 and living quietly in Kent, Fred added: “I was always a feminist – possibly one of the first. So, when the women walked out to fight their cause, I was so proud of them.

“But I don’t want anyone to think that these women were ever led by a man – because that was never the case.”

l Made In Dagenham will be released on Friday, October 1.