Finally making the grade

Made in Dagenham didn’t tell the whole story. John Bohanna takes up the tale, with pictures by Carlos Guarita

February 1, 2011
4 min read


John Bohanna is a retired Ford worker and former shop steward at the Halewood plant

The 1968 strike

The 1968 strike of sewing machinists at Ford factories in both Dagenham, east London, and Halewood, Liverpool, began as a grading grievance. In 1967 a new grading system for all Ford hourly-paid workers was created. This placed the women on the least skilled production grade, receiving 15 per cent less than male workers on the same grade, simply because they were women.

The strike is remembered as an inspiration to other women trade unionists and a breakthrough in the campaign for equal pay legislation following the intervention of the employment secretary Barbara Castle. The Equal Pay Act, passed by Labour in 1970, became law in 1975 – after the defeat of the 1970-1974 Tory government.

The strike ended after three weeks with a deal that gave the women an immediate pay increase and eventual parity with men on the same grade. But the original grading grievance – that the sewing machinists were not on a skilled rate – remained a sore point until the memorable year of 1984. 

The 1984 strike

The sewing machinists did not forget this long injustice and in 1980 they began seriously to put right the unfairness by lodging once again the same grading grievance as in 1968. By 1984 they realised that they would not get the support they needed from the overwhelmingly male workforce and national union committees – they had to organise a strike themselves and then demand official backing. They succeeded in doing both. Their experience was documented in Making The Grade, an independent production by Open Eye Film, Video and Animation Workshop, which followed the unfinished business and the uneven support their struggle received.

By 1984 huge changes were being introduced to the car industry. For the women sewing machinists the decisive change was that men were being brought into sewing production. At the same time, the women were prevented from working elsewhere in the company. As late as 1984, an equal opportunities policy for women did not exist at Ford. Making the Grade shows a well-qualified woman machinist from Dagenham who had applied for 19 different staff administration jobs over a 20-year period without success.

The women were also being asked to repair their machines without an increase to skilled or semi-skilled rate. When they were offered Sunday work, they asked if it would that be at a skilled rate; when the company said ‘no’, they gave their own ‘no’ in response.

The strike lasted over Christmas 1984 and resulted in thousands of production workers being laid off. This was no different from countless lay-offs the women and many other workers experienced through other disputes that did not directly involve them, but it made many male workers angry. Some refused to support the women at all, and some were understanding about the justice of the argument but complained that the time was wrong. Only some of them were supportive, insisting ‘if the workers are right – the time is right’.

Other unions showed anger with the women as well, because they couldn’t finalise the annual agreement on wages and conditions due to the women’s outstanding grading grievance. The official strike continued until an agreement to accept an independent inquiry to examine the dispute brought a return to work early in January 1985.

Through the inquiry the women at last won their grading grievance and recognition as the skilled workers they had always been. They had been robbed and discriminated against for many years in one of the biggest union organised workplaces in Britain.

 Their success was short lived, however. Ultimately, all of the sewing machinists’ jobs were outsourced to another firm not far from Halewood. To add insult to injury, the local paper joyfully advertised the outsourcing as ‘New jobs are coming to supply Ford Halewood!’ This was itself challenged – but that’s another story.


John Bohanna is a retired Ford worker and former shop steward at the Halewood plant


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


4