These disputes occurred within a wider context of industrial militancy in Britain, with significant rank-and-file victories, including the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes, and political resistance to anti-union legislation (Industrial Relations Act 1971), for instance, through the campaign to release the Pentonville Five in 1972.

The Gender Equalities at Work project – which examines 50 years of workplace equalities legislation from the Equal Pay Act 1970, Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 – will build a picture of equal pay disputes from the first appearance of equal pay in the Labour Party’s manifesto in 1964 to 1986 (an interim end date for this phase of the research). In doing so, it will consider whether, and how, trade unions and women union activists engaged with the Equal Pay Act. How did trade unions respond to equality legislation? Which unions pursued equal pay campaigns? How supportive were unions of equal pay disputes? What strategies were adopted by women union activists? This post will offer some preliminary observations on these questions.


Compiling a timeline

Jonathan Moss’ incredibly useful ‘Timeline of Women’s Workplace Militancy in Britain, 1968-85’, included in the appendix of Women, Workplace Protest and Political Identity in England, 1968-85 (2019), was my starting point for mapping women’s industrial disputes, which I supplemented with other academic texts (e.g., Hyman, 1973; Stevenson, 2019) and digitised resources, such as feminist magazines Red Rag (1972-80) and Women’s Voice (1972-82). The resulting timeline will be used as a springboard for archival research, consulting union records in particular, and oral history interviews.

So far, creating this timeline has illuminated a number of challenges in researching women’s labour history. Firstly, it has been difficult to standardise information on women-led disputes because there is no comprehensive record of key details, such as the number of strikers, length of strike, trade union representation or even the outcome of the strike – this information is patched together from disparate sources with many gaps. Secondly, equal pay claims are often nested within broader disputes on low pay, grading, productivity and union recognition, and so are often difficult to isolate. Thirdly, intersectional demands in women-led disputes were obscured by the characterisation of disputes as about either gender or race (as discussed in Ashlee Christoffersen’s recent blog).

Finally, it has been challenging to identify whether or not a strike was official. This is in part because the status of the strike was often not reported, but also because of union practices whereby a strike only became official when strike pay was required – strikes that were local and short often remained unofficial (Hyman, 1973: 107).Where more than one union was involved, decisions to make strikes official often differed; for example, in the case of the 1968 Ford Dagenham dispute, only two of the four unions involved – the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF) – made the strike official. Furthermore, there was the practice of making a dispute official to exercise control over the strikers’ demands and to urge them back to work, as demonstrated by the shift from a demand for regrading to equal pay by the AEF in the Ford Dagenham strike (Cohen, 2012).


Union attitudes towards workplace equality legislation

The trade union response to the introduction of workplace equality legislation reflected the movement’s wider attitudes towards state intervention in employment during the 1970s which was characterised by voluntarism, preferring to pursue change through collective bargaining rather than employment legislation. Criticism also came from sections of the women’s liberation movement; for instance, Anna Coote expressed scepticism over equal pay and sex discrimination legislation, concluding that: ‘New laws and regulations don’t bring social change’, but that women workers had to instead ‘organize and fight for themselves’ (quoted in Rowbotham, 1989: 168).


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In the 1976 Trico dispute – Britain’s longest equal pay strike – women strikers and their union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW), bypassed mechanisms established by the equality legislation by boycotting the industrial tribunal. In an interview for the TUC’s Britain at Work project, Trico striker Sally Groves explained the decision to boycott:

The Equal Pay Act … was so riddled with loopholes. The equal pay cases coming in front of the Industrial Tribunal in the first six months had resulted in ludicrous decisions … It was a lawyers’ paradise, and it was an employers’ paradise. (2013)

However, the strategies adopted by women workers depended on the support they received from their union, which varied considerably even within the same union. While the support of the AUEW’s Southall District Committee enabled Trico strikers to challenge equal pay legislation, the AUEW offered no support to the equal pay strike at Electrolux in January 1976, where the strikers alternatively pursued equal pay through an industrial tribunal. At Electrolux the seven women named on the case were awarded the ‘male’ rate while the other women remained on the lower ‘women’s’ rate (Boston, 2015: 317), whereas the Trico strikers achieved equal pay.


Using the legislation

Trade unions often used the Equal Pay Act, alongside the Counter Inflation Act 1973, to demand incremental moves towards equal pay during the five-year implementation period. For instance, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX) demanded that the difference between the men’s and women’s rate be reduced by one third in line with the legislation during a ten-week strike at GEC Salford Electrical Instruments, Greater Manchester, in 1973. Women workers also resisted employers’ attempts to circumvent the legislation through regrading and redeployment – the month-long strike at the Dunlop Factory, Coventry, in 1972 opposed moves to regrade women’s jobs to a lower-paid category than men’s (Stevenson, 2019: 72), while women workers in the electronics production unit of GEC Coventry fought redeployment to other factories which would result in a wage cut of £4 a week in a six-week-long strike in 1974.

Some unions used the legislation to actively pursue equal pay campaigns in the 1970s, namely the clerical unions: the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section (TASS; a subsection of the AUEW during the 1970s) and APEX. George Stevenson (2019: 70) attributes TASS’s support of equal pay strikes to the activity of the national women’s officer, Judith Hunt, who aimed to highlight the inadequacies of the Equal Pay Act through these disputes. In a special issue on equal pay, Women’s Voice (September 1976) reported on an equal pay campaign by the Glasgow division of TASS, commenting that:

They took the demand for equal pay seriously. They looked around the Glasgow district for the factories where women’s pay was poor and gave official backing to the action of the women themselves. (p. 4)

Between January and May 1976, there were four successful strikes at Magnetic and Electrical Alloys, Hamilton; Wheway Watson, Hillington Industrial Estate, Glasgow; Reid’s, Linwood, Paisley; and Cockburn Valves, Hillington Industrial Estate, with Cockburn Valves eliminating the women’s grade altogether (ibid.).


Opposing equal pay

However, elsewhere women encountered open hostility from their male co-workers and trade unions. There were strikes in opposition to equal pay at the Vauxhall factory in Luton and Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil in 1970. In both disputes the male workers claimed that women performed lighter work which did not warrant equal pay. At Hoover’s, shop steward Marion Blanche Jones recalled that women were subsequently moved onto the big machinery, and she worked on the tumble dryer line, with the ‘animosity’ created by the strike lasting for years (interview with Catrin Edwards, 2014). During the six-week equal pay strike at GEC Spon Street Works, Coventry, in 1973, AUEW convenor Albert Beardmore refused to bring his section out on strike, encouraged delivery drivers to cross the picket lines and swore at pickets, justifying his behaviour by stating that he ‘couldn’t possibly bring his breadwinner men out in support of mere girls’ (Anon., September/October 1973: 8-9). Similarly, male AUEW members worked alongside management to end the occupation of a switchboard during an eleven-week equal pay dispute at Salford Electrical Instruments, Heywood, Lancashire, in 1974 by smashing down the factory doors, while SEI management persuaded local authorities to close nurseries because the striking women were available to look after their children (Stevenson, 2019: 71-2).



The Equal Pay Act 1970 was a ‘catalyst’ for women’s industrial militancy in the 1970s and the five-year implementation period proved to be ‘crucial years in the development of working women’s consciousness’ (Boston, 2015: 280, 285). The Act legitimised women’s demands for equal pay, particularly among manufacturing, office and ancillary workers who were excluded by earlier campaigns for equal pay in the professions. However, direct engagement with the mechanisms of the legislation appears to be infrequent, as women workers instead pursued equal pay through collective bargaining during the 1970s. The timeline presents a picture of women workers fighting for themselves, with inconsistent support (and even outright resistance) from their trade unions. From the 1980s onwards, trade unions increasingly resorted to pursuing mass equal pay cases through litigation in light of anti-union legislation, declining union membership and privatisation, as well as pressure from newly appointed women union officers and the Equal Opportunities Commission (Guillaume, 2015) – this will be explored in the next stage of the project. For now, I am excited to get into the archives to explore how trade unions discussed equal pay and strategized around key disputes during the 1970s, and to conduct oral history interviews with key actors to get a sense of the feelings behind equal pay strikes.



Anon. (September/October 1973) ‘Victory for GEC Women’, Women’s Voice no.8, pp. 8-9.

Anon. (September 1976) ‘Glasgow Women Win… They Made Their Union Fight!’, Women’s Voice no. 33, p. 4.

Boston, Sarah (2015) Women Workers and the Trade Unions, Revised Edition. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Cohen, S. (2012) ‘Equal pay – or what? Economics, politics and the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike’, Labor History 53:1, pp. 51-68

Groves, Sally (2013) Britain at Work Oral History Project, Interviewed by David Welsh and Rima Joebear. 25 March.

Guillaume, Cecile (2015) ‘Understanding the variations of union’s litigation strategies to promote equal pay. Reflection on the British case’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 39:2, pp. 363–379

Hyman, Richard (1973) ‘Industrial Conflict and the Political Economy: Trends of the Sixties and Prospects for the Seventies’, The Socialist Register 10, pp. 101-153.

Jones, Marion Blanche (2014) Voices from the Factory Floor, Interview Number VSE028, Interviewed by Catrin Edwards. 10 February.

Moss, Jonathan (2019) Women, Workplace Protest and Political Identity in England, 1968-85. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rowbotham, Sheila (1989) The Past is Before Us. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stevenson, George (2019) The Women’s Liberation Movement and the Politics of Class in Britain, London: Bloomsbury.