UEL hosts former Ford Dagenham workers on 50th anniversary of historic strike
The efforts of the strikers helped secure fair pay for women
Two former Ford Dagenham workers whose industrial action helped usher in the Equal Pay Act in 1970 took centre stage at the University of East London's Royal Docks School of Business and Law for a panel discussion to make the 50th anniversary of their historic strike.
Gwen Davis (centre left) and Eileen Pullen (centre right), retold the story of how they and a team of female machinists at the Ford Dagenham car factory walked out of their jobs in protest a decision by factory bosses to downgrade their jobs to 'unskilled', resulting in a lower salary compared to male counterparts.
Their struggle for pay parity was later turned into the highly successful film, Made in Dagenham.
The pair were joined on the panel by Elaine Yerby (second from left), a senior lecturer in human resource management at the School, and Dr Jana Javornik (far left), director of the Noon Centre for Equality and Diversity in Business.
The event was opened by Annette Cast (far right), Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Professional Services, who welcomed the two women to UEL.
The strike, led by Eileen and Gwen, as well as Vera Sime, Rose Boland, and Sheila Douglass, began on 7 June 1968 when female sewing machinists at the Ford Dagenham plant downed tools and walked out.
As part of a regrading exercise, they had been informed that their jobs had been downgraded, resulting in a pay cut and a lower salary compared to male colleagues in comparable roles.
The strikers were swiftly joined by the machinists at Ford's Halewood plant in Merseyside.
The strike ended after three weeks following an intervention by Barbara Castle MP, the then Secretary of State for Employment.
The strikers secured a deal which meant they increased their rate of pay to eight per cent below that of male colleagues, rising to the full rate the following year.
Asked how they felt walking out the first time, Eileen said, “We didn’t know we were making history. We’d joined the men on their strikes, but this was different. This was women leading their own strike.”
Gwen was asked about the support of the workers unions at the time. She explained, “We had the union behind us, but about half the union staff, the more senior ones, didn’t support us. But after three days they recognised it as an official strike.”
Eileen added, “We kept busy, going to Parliament twice, and few local union meetings. Some supported us, others didn’t, but we were getting the word out.”
Annette Cast also revealed her own contribution to the gender pay issue.
She said, “It’s crucial to women today to understand the history of women in work and equal pay, and we’re in a much better place today thanks to the efforts of Eileen, Gwen, and the others.
“And I’m particularly excited about the issue, as in 1988 I led the test case on equal pay on behalf of speech therapists.”
UEL’s event drew interest from a number of national print publications and broadcasters, with stories appearing in the Guardian, Bloomberg, Stylist magazine, The Newham Recorder, and on BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire show.