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.”

Latest Barking and Dagenham Stories


Murder and mistaken identity muddy the line between good and evil in an NHS worker’s debut novel.

The NR F1 Podcast reviews the 2018 Formula 1 season – with Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes top of the pile, plus some exiting developments awaiting in 2019.

Yesterday, 13:01

Three teenagers have been stabbed in a street fight in Dagenham in the early hours of this morning.

Yesterday, 09:00

Politicians and community leaders shared their views on challenging disorder, racism and crime at an event in Dagenham.

Yesterday, 08:00

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Post readers this week.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

First-half goals from Snodgrass and Antonio settle matters for Hammers

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Barking made the long trip back from Bury St Edmunds empty-handed after a slender defeat on Saturday.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

FA Trophy: Ebbsfleet United 0 Dagenham & Redbridge 1


The Exchange in Ilford has added a state-of-the-art, Savannah-themed play area, with hand painted animal sculptures, to its brand new family zone, designed by American creative agency Playtime

Are you aged over 25 and an unpaid carer? If you want to return to employment but need practical help and support to get there, Working for Carers can help.

Everest Estates stress-free service guarantees a fixed income for your East London or Essex property every month, even if no one is currently living there. Here they talk about the scheme and explain how it can help you dodge common letting headaches.

Newsletter Sign Up

Barking and Dagenham Post twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read news

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists

Education Promo

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Barking and Dagenham Post
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now