by Hazel Conley
In the first of our posts marking International Women’s Day 2022, Professor Hazel Conley looks at some of the beliefs and arguments surrounding the dispute by women sewing machinists in the Ford Dagenham plant in 1968, popularised in the 2010 film, Made in Dagenham.
Revisiting the 1968 Ford Dagenham Dispute (again)
There have been hundreds of strikes about pay at the Ford Motor Company over the years. It is significant that the one that has received most attention and continues to inspire debate and popular culture is the dispute of women sewing machinists in the Dagenham plant in 1968. Popularised by the film and stage musical Made in Dagenham!, in which a feisty female politician, Barbara Castle, supports the equally gutsy female Ford shop stewards by promising them equal pay legislation, the 1968 dispute has entered into ‘feel-good’ mythology. Academic debate is, as you might hope and expect, somewhat more critical, questioning whether the dispute was actually about equal pay between men and women and how far the women had class or feminist consciousness.
Popular culture and academic research on the dispute focussed on the experiences of the women strikers, often asking them to reflect back on the dispute decades after it happened. This is valuable and important research, that needs to be captured, but to some extent it lets the government and employers off the hook of more detailed scrutiny. In this blog, I want to report on some of the documentary evidence from cabinet papers, Barbara Castle’s memoirs and, primarily, the little analysed Court of Inquiry Report lead by Sir Jack Scamp to reassess some of the mythology that has grown up around the dispute.
Sir Jack Scamp was an industrialist who was known for his skills in the conciliation of difficult labour relations. He was appointed by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, to chair the Motor Industries Joint Labour Council in 1964, where he led several Inquiries into labour disputes. The Scamp Report on the Ford sewing machinists’ dispute provides valuable contextual details that are overlooked in most analyses. Firstly, in 1966, the Ford Motor Company decided to restructure its pay systems and introduce a job evaluation scheme, hiring the management consultants Urwick, Orr and Partners to implement it. Prior to the job evaluation, all hourly paid women who worked at the Ford Motor Company received the lowest grade of pay, lower than the most unskilled man working in the company. Following the job evaluation scheme women were present in the lowest three of the new grades but at a lower rate of pay to men in the same grade:
This pay structure was agreed by all twenty trade unions recognised by Ford at that time, which is disappointing since at least some of these unions had adopted the principle of equal pay for women in their rule books by 1968.
The sewing machinists in the main plant in Dagenham were placed into Grade B while two sewing machinists employed doing the same work in the prototype research centre were placed on Grade C. The original dispute arose because of this anomaly but it is worth noting that most of the sewing machinists were still paid a penny an hour less than the least skilled men working at Ford. The Scamp report also highlighted a little-known fact that there were two male sewing machinists working on the night shift, which women were then prevented by legislation from working on.
The sewing machinists firstly took unofficial action to ban overtime and then to strike when no progress was made on their dispute. Four of the twenty unions claimed to represent at least some of the sewing machinists – the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB), the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the General Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF). Only two of the unions claimed to be in dispute with the employer, the NUVB and the AEF. Most of the sewing machinists at the Dagenham plant were members of the NUVB but six were members of the AEF. Both unions eventually made the strike official but only the AEF claimed, somewhat belatedly, the dispute was about equal pay. The NUVB were of the same opinion as the employer, Sir Jack Scamp and Barbara Castle, the newly promoted Secretary of State for Employment, that the dispute was about grading between women. It was from this position that Castle, according to her political memoirs, published diaries and cabinet papers, rather than promising the striking women equal pay legislation to solve their dispute as is popularly held, instead promised them the Court of Inquiry led by Sir Jack Scamp. As a result of the strike, and a deal brokered by Castle for the women to return to work, the employers increased the machinists’ pay from 85% of the male rate for Grade B to 92%.
What did the Scamp Report find?
Much of the Scamp Report is a detailed analysis of the procedural arrangements for dispute resolution in relation to the pay and grading restructure at Ford and whether the women and their unions had followed the procedures. The bureaucratic concern with procedure obfuscates some of the more serious faults with the conduct of the job evaluation and, indeed, the Court of Inquiry in its consideration of the application of the job evaluation and outcome. If one perseveres, however, these faults can be deduced from the report.
The job evaluation at Ford was applied to 1,800 job profiles including 56 benchmark jobs, of which the sewing machinists were one. From the account of the process in the Scamp Report it is quite clear that the scoring of the sewing machinists’ job profile was contested right from the start. In their evidence to the Inquiry, the NUVB, who did not claim the dispute was about equal pay, noted:
“… there was further discrimination within Grade B itself. A male employee could enter any Grade B job in Fords without previous experience. The sewing machinist had to pass a test on three different machines—edge cutting, welting and cording. Men were required to pass a test for entry to only two jobs – Eastman cutter and production welder, both Grade C.” (p.26)
In a more detailed examination of this comparison, the Report highlights that the sewing machinists’ job rated higher on eight of the twenty-eight factors than the Grade C leather cutters’ job and lower on five of the factors. However, each factor carried a weighting which could increase its value in the overall score. The five factors in which the leather cutters scored more must, therefore, have had weightings that boosted their score and the eight factors on which the sewing machinists scored higher did not. A crucial failing of the job evaluation process is that the weightings were kept confidential and were not made known to anyone other than the employers and consultants, despite claiming in the training manual that trade union representative on the grading panels would be given the weightings. In this respect the trade unions were at a major disadvantage in the process but had not contested this prior to the sewing machinists’ unofficial dispute. Ford defended its decision not to reveal the weightings by claiming that this knowledge would bias the decision-making of the job evaluation panel, although the employer representatives on the panel would likely have known. They further defended the objectivity of the weightings by claiming they had been “evolved by computer” (p.31), a dubious claim given what we now know about the potential for discrimination in computer algorithms.
Equally concerning, the Inquiry did not challenge the lack of transparency in relation to the weightings that had resulted in the lower grading of the sewing machinists’ job or seek to confirm them:
“After considering all the evidence we accept the assurance by the Consultants that the same set of weighting factors was used on all profiles. We did not therefore think it would be helpful to have details of the weightings and we did not ask for this information to be given to us. This does not, however, affect our view that weightings should be made known to the unions when this is agreed” (p.35-6)
In reaching its decision, the Court of Inquiry concluded that the lower grade given to the sewing machinists was correctly arrived at and was not predicated on discrimination:
“From the evidence given to us we are entirely satisfied that the machinists’ present grading is not at variance with the evaluation results and the principles followed in grading other jobs in the. structure. (p.42)
“We find that this dispute is about the grading of the sewing machinists’ job not about equal pay.” (p.44)
“The machinists think that in the job evaluation studies their “job profile” was singled out for discriminatory treatment. We have considered their criticisms in detail and we are satisfied that nothing of this sort happened.” (p.45)
It is difficult to understand how the Inquiry came to these conclusions without having examined the weightings and knowing which factors they applied to. The justification used in the Report was that the weightings were applied in the same way to all job profiles and, therefore, the sewing machinists had not been discriminated against. Taking this approach overlooked the possibility that if positive weightings were applied only to the factors which applied to the jobs that men did and not to those factors where women scored highly, the job evaluation could have been applied in a discriminatory way.
Embed from Getty Images
Furthermore, the Report mildly rebukes the employers for making any concessions by increasing the pay of the sewing machinists to 92% of the male grade B rate to get them to return to work:
“…while we appreciate that the Company found itself in a critical situation, it is in our view open to question whether the Company’s judgment was right in their negotiating, concurrently with a return to work, an important change in the wage structure, which had been decided on nine months earlier on the basis it should, save for exceptional circumstances, stand for two years.” (p.38)
The sewing machinists therefore did not win pay equality in 1968, nor would they receive it in 1970, after the passing of the Equal Pay Act because the Act only covered men and women doing the same work or work rated as equivalent. They did not receive equal pay until 1985, after a change in the law, forced by the European Court of Justice, gave women the right to equal pay for work of equal value. Even then the law did not directly make the difference since an employment tribunal failed to find in their favour. Only after another strike by the sewing machinists did Ford agree for a panel of enquiry led by ACAS to re-evaluate the sewing machinists’ jobs, this time finding unanimously that they were, indeed, worthy of a Grade C (Hastings, 2007). In 1972 Sir Jack Scamp became the chairman of Urwick, Orr and Partners, the consultancy firm who worked for Ford in the implementation of the job analysis scheme.
A close reading of the Scamp Report refutes the rosy-tinted picture of the 1968 dispute depicted in popular representations such as Made in Dagenham! and adds more complexity to academic debates about whether the dispute was about equal pay. The film has been important in recognising working women’s activism in the late-60s and early 1970s sewing machinists, but it obscures the ways in which sex discrimination resulting in pay inequality was endemic in employer practices, weakly challenged by the trade unions and institutionalised by the State.
 First by The Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act 1920 and then by the Factories Act 1961
 The story of the Ford sewing machinists, TUC Recording Women’s Voices project