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Dagenham Ford sewing machinists remember historic strikes at UEL’s commemorative talk

PUBLISHED: 21:06 06 June 2018

Ford Dagenham sewing machinists Gwen Davis (centre left) and Eileen Pullen (centre right) discuss at the strikes at a commemorative talk at UEL. Picture: Alex Shaw

Ford Dagenham sewing machinists Gwen Davis (centre left) and Eileen Pullen (centre right) discuss at the strikes at a commemorative talk at UEL. Picture: Alex Shaw

Alex Shaw

The vote was clear: down tools, grab your handbags and walk out the door.

This was the decision sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory reached 50 years ago when they decided to stand up against the obstacles they faced in the workplace.

The move played a large role in forcing through the 1970 Equal Pay Act and has taken two of the original strikers around the world to lecture halls and red carpet premieres.

But Gwen Davis and Eileen Pullen say they never wanted to be famous, just to stand up for their rights.

Speaking today at a talk commemorating the historic walkouts at the University of East London (UEL), Stratford, the pair reflected that the strikers achieved everything they wanted, yet the struggle for equal rights continues.

“We were paid the same as a janitor,” Gwen told the Recorder. “We decided we had to do something about it.”

The 85-year-old, who now lives in Rush Green, Romford, joined the factory seven years before the first strike in 1968. Trained as a bespoke tailoress, she became a sewing machinist, stitching together car seat covers.

The work, said her old colleague Eileen Pullen, 87, took place in an “old aircraft hanger” riddled with asbestos.

Temperatures in the factory reached “sweltering” heats in the summer, she recalled, with workers passing round lime juice and salt tablets to stave off fainting.

For their careful work over long hours, the machinists were paid wages in the “unskilled” B grade, equivalent to 85 per cent of their male counterparts.

“We were hired as skilled workers, so why didn’t Ford want to pay us skilled wages?” said Gwen. “We had to show we were trained just to be on the factory floor.”

Time after time the woman asked their employer to recognise the skilled nature of their work — to no avail.

Frustrated at the lack of action, Gwen and Eileen — both members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) at the time — held a mass meeting with machinists voting to strike in a closed-shop agreement.

They did not win their aims until returning to the picket line in 1984, a nine-week protest held in the midst of a freezing winter.

The dispute has since been lodged in the public imagination with the film and musical Made In Dagenham.

But, with the gender pay gap an ongoing issue, the pair say women still need to fight to overcome obstacles in the workplace.

Eileen, from Rainham, put it simply: “You’ve got to stick together.”

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