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Made in Dagenham

Mary Davis - Interview clips transcripts

Clip 1: What was the historical background to the1968 strike?

MARY DAVIS: Well there was a very, very long struggle, really from the nineteenth century onwards, for equal pay for women. Women got paid a fraction of the male rate, in all branches of the industry. But also the fact of the matter is that women worked in what could be called segregated areas of employment. They worked in the cleaning, catering, cooking, sewing kind of industries which were always, always paid...but even when they did the same work as men they still got a fraction of the male rate.

The TUC in its wisdom in 1948 adopted the following statement which I'm just going to read because it shows what the attitude was. And of course this was only twenty years before the Ford strike. It says ‘There is little doubt in the minds of the General Council, that's the General Council of the TUC, ‘that the home is one of the most important spheres for a woman worker and that it would be doing a great injury to the life of the nation if women were persuaded or forced to neglect their domestic duties to enter industry, particularly where there are young children to cater for.' So that, I think, summarises the attitude to women workers.

The women never stopped campaigning, never, despite the fact that governments and trade unions let them down, time after time.

Clip 2: How did the work of the women at Ford's compare to that of men?

MARY DAVIS: Now, if you look at the Ford women, and most women in the private sector, they did not do similar work to men. The work that the women were doing at Ford's...they were machinists. It was highly skilled work, putting together parts of the seat covers for Ford cars but it was the grading at which they were put on, that was the key thing. They were always on very much lower rates of pay. In fact the largest single group of women workers at Ford's were machinists. They had to pass a test to become machinists, and quite a stringent one at that, and they earned 92% of the lowest grade of male workers. There were four grades of male workers: The skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. They earned 92% of the unskilled workers.

Why they argued. And you can see some of the own testimonies in the interviews that the TUC captured, it was just unbelievable, they couldn't believe it that their skill was completely unrecognised. Not only unrecognised, it was made worse by these management consultants downgrading them. It wasn't unusual, by the way. What was unusual about all of this, I suppose, was that what they were doing was comparing themselves to male workers. They were saying even though we do something quite different, the work that we do is equal in skill. They said, for example, if the work is quiet on the machining front they can turn their hands, as they did, to fitting car doors. And then they say, well actually could the men do that? If the work is quiet on the car door front, could they come and machine car seats? No they can't.

So they took industrial action and that really then ensured that the whole plant came to a halt. Because what it proved was just those women sewing car seats could bring a huge great giant like Ford's and it's industrial output to a standstill.

Clip 3: What was the influence of the Women's Liberation movement on the Ford strikers?

MARY DAVIS: I would say that they weren't influenced by the women's liberation movement. I think at that stage, and I'm kind of reluctant to say this, but there were class divisions. Very strong class divisions and apart from the National Joint Action Committee for Women's Equal Rights, which was a kind of cross class thing, by that time the Women's Liberation Movement was almost going into a separatist phase, not fully, but it was certainly there and I think it was unaware of the significance of the Ford strike. It's only now that I think women who would have called themselves feminists then, have become interested in the Ford strike, and it was a very significant strike.

Clip 4: What do you think is the long-term significance of the strike?

MARY DAVIS: Well, what happened was that there was a huge groundswell of protest against the government and this led to the General Council of the TUC being forced to take action, in fact an amendment was made against the General Council advice, which called for TUC affiliates to support any union taking strike action for equal pay, which is absolutely amazing.

There was a huge, huge demonstration in May 1969 for equal pay organised by the National Joint Action Committee for Women's Equal Rights and this is what prompted Barbara Castle, partly to stop the strike. The strike hadn't fizzled out yet, I mean it was gaining momentum and I remember it well, it was front page news all the time but what she decided to do was to introduce the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Now, I think that if you say ‘...well was the Ford strike responsible for this...' yes it was. But did the 1970 Equal Pay Act resolve the issue? The answer is definitely not.

The fact of the matter is that although the Act was passed in 1970, it wasn't implemented until 1976. So in other words, employers had five to six years to make adjustments and those adjustments enabled them to re-grade jobs indiscriminately ways thus rendering them immune from the very limited scope of the Act.

The long-term significance of the women's stroke at Ford I don't think was the 1970 Act. I think it was the fact that equal value became the order of the day and it became absolutely clear even though I've said that the Equal Value Legislation didn't solve the issue but it became absolutely clear that the only way to tackle equal pay was by attacking the root cause of it which was job segregation. But the fact of the matter is we still haven't tackled it properly because women are still in segregated areas of employment.

Clip 5: How has the status and position of British women improved since 1968?

MARY DAVIS: I really don't think the status and position of British women has changed very much at all and certainly I don't think it has improved very much since 1968. We still live in a very class divided society and I think working class women in particular are still super exploited and oppressed and the examples I would give for that is that the ever increasing gender pay gap which is wider in this country than in any other European Union country. I'd look at the issue of domestic violence, which I think is shocking and getting worse. I would also look at the issue of what I would term the feminisation of poverty, as the welfare state has been run down more and more and more and now by this dreadful government that we've got in, I think it's going to happen even more on the grounds that the bankers are much more important than any of us. Who will be left looking after elderly people? Children? All of those people that society...that there's any responsibility for society to look after. And I would also point to...it's not the entire absence but the diminution of women in public life. I mean I've looked at the figures since women got the vote and I'm actually a suffrage historian and of course that was a very important step but then if you look at the number of women taking their place in the European Parliament or British Parliament or the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, the numbers are going down not up, down and I wonder why that is. I think I know the reason and I certainly know that for working class women it's absolutely the double burden that is really, really difficult.

Clip 6: What can young people do to championing women's rights?

MARY DAVIS: I would like to say two things to champion women's rights and to challenge sexual discrimination and I think they both go together. For young women I would say they must join a trade union as soon as they start working. It's absolutely vital because you cannot...and the Ford women knew that, they joined that union as soon as they joined the company. There are no pre-entry clothes shops, by that I mean you don't have to join a union, people make it as difficult as possible to join a union these days but for women in particular, if they are not to be sexually harassed at work, if they are to campaign for their rights and equal pay, they must join a trade union. The other thing I would say is that women, all women, young women in particular must be involved in fighting what I term the co modification of sex that is to say women's bodies being used once again like when I came into the women's movement to sell the products of capitalism. Not just men's magazines but also all sorts of other things and for young girls I mean I'm talking as young as seven and eight to be sold make-up and push up bras and all that sort of thing. I mean we've got to stop it and we've got raise awareness that this is something which is degrading to women, utterly degrading and if we can get that kind of consciousness. I'm not saying it's the be all and end all but I'm saying it's something that I think does help to raise women's consciousness and if we can do it at a young age, then we can get women fighting once again and help them be involved in a new wave, the third wave women's movement, that's what I would like to see; which combines the women's movement and the labour movement and fights for socialist feminism.