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Made in Halewood

Ahead of the Miranda Richardson film Made in Dagenham Larry Neild recalls the long equal pay fight at Ford's

Published on September 30th 2010.


Made in Halewood

THEnewly released film Made in Dagenham will project women of the East End of London as pioneers in the fight for equal pay.

The editor at the Echo received anonymous mail claiming I was promoting the cause of the women because I was having a wild affair with one of the strike leaders

Yet key to the success of the struggle among the sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Co were the army of women working at Halewood.

Between them the women of Dagenham and Halewood brought the mighty production lines of Ford’s UK empire to a standstill.

The film centres of the first strike in 1968 when the women in Dagenham and Halewood walked out in protest at their lousy pay.

Car making was a man’s world, tough, sweaty and hard. Women were needed to produce the car seats.

In 1968 Ford had four pay grades for its production workers, skilled male rate, semi-skill male rate and unskilled male rate. Despite their experience as sewing machinists, the women earned 87% of the lowest unskilled rate. It worked out at around £8 or £9 a week, and for many women the hard work was better than the traditional piece rates paid generally to machinists.

The women demanded to be paid the same as skilled workers on C grade. The strike was settled when they accepted for 92% of C grade. For many of the women at Halewood and Dagenham it was unfinished business, and it was to take an even longer and bitter strike by the women in 1984 before the women were finally victorious. They won then because an independent panel ruled their work justified full skilled status, and Ford had to cough up.

The 1984 strike led to angry exchanges with newspaper headlines describing the strikers as the Petticoat Pickets. I covered the dispute at the time for the Echo and was caught up in the drama and hostility. Some of the male workers and their families resented the lay offs caused by the strike which prevented any cars being built.

So much coverage was given to the plight of the machinists the editor at the Echo received anonymous mail claiming I was promoting the cause of the women because I was having a wild affair with one of the strike leaders. Interestingly – or perhaps not interestingly - I had never had a face to face meeting with the woman in question; we only ever, before during and after the strike, spoke on the telephone.

pThis though was the nature at Ford, something I was well used to. Ford workers and shop stewards developed a hatred of the Echo, perhaps because in the 1960s the newspaper’s owners, the Jeans family, were very much part of the business community.

When I met convenors and shop stewards one-to-one away from the plant they were fine; in front of their members on Pork Chop Hill (the traditional gathering point outside the main gate at Halewood), I was Public Enemy Number One.

To ensure I got my stories on time, and accurately, I resorted to infiltrating the mass meetings of Ford workers. Once, during a meeting of thousands of workers at the South Liverpool ground in Horrocks Avenue, I blended in as usual, listened to the debates. Then came the vote, with a recommendation from the stewards committee to stay out. The forest of arms flew into the air and a burly production worker looked at me, saw my arms at my side and said ... get yer hand up yer effing little scab. So I voted to stay out. I imagined for a nano-second the convenor announcing the result .... by one vote brothers and sisters we’re out. It was though an overwhelming endorsement of the shop steward’s recommendation.

At times during my coverage of Ford disputes I was exposed to potential danger, not because of who I was (I first became a trade union official at the age of 19) but because I represented the hated local media. Yet the Echo’s reports were always balanced and fair; it was an illusion the paper was anti-union.

When Princess Diana visited the Halewood plant she spotted the sewing room, made a beeline for it and had a good old jangle with the women. It was the highlight of the visit.

In the 1980s Ford’s employed almost 15,000 people at Halewood, building over 1,000 cars a day. Now the Jaguar Land Rover plant, still a significant employers, have far fewer on their books.

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Old hall StreetSeptember 30th 2010.

Blimey!

To think that The Echo once covered important industrial relations stories that had no connection with The Beatles, football or Z-list "celebrities"!

What went wrong?

lin18161October 1st 2010.

You may find it was because the likes of Mr Laz left the employ of that once great publication.

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