Over eighty years later, this principle was finally recognised in statute law.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 laid out that the terms and conditions of men and women employed on ‘like work’ or ‘work rated as equivalent’ should not be ‘less favourable’ for one sex than the other. ‘Equivalence’ was to be assessed in terms of the demands of a job (in relation to headings such as ‘effort, skill, decision’) through a process of job evaluation. The Act was to come onto force on 29 December 1975, providing employers with a five-year planning and implementation period.

Prior to the Act, men and women in many industries were employed on different rates for exactly the same job – with higher rates for men justified as necessary because of the financial responsibilities of being (or becoming) a ‘male breadwinner’. The model assumed that male wage earners supported families, and that women should not work at all or their earnings were subsidiary.

The Act was finally passed in 1970 because of a combination of factors. Firstly, the Labour Party had finally committed to equal pay in 1964 (in its election manifesto); this galvanised women’s organisations across the party political spectrum to push for it. Secondly, there was UK interest in joining the European Economic Community (although it did not go on to do so until 1973) and Article 141 of the Treaty of Rome stated that member states  should ‘ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied’. Thirdly, as Elizabeth Homans has argued, there was a partial shift in policy and social attitudes away from thinking of women as ‘dependents’ and men as ‘providers’ (the ‘male breadwinner’ model). Fourthly, the Ford Dagenham dispute of 1968 and high levels of activism, protest and potential for unrest around equal pay placed the issue at the centre of public awareness. Finally, there was a change of political leadership: within six months of taking office as the Secretary of State for Employment in 1968, Barbara Castle had tabled equal pay legislation for 1970. Prior to this, the issue had been left to the CBI and TUC to agree its implementation, which, after 4 years, the two organisations had failed to do.

Despite the achievement in passing the legislation, the Equal Pay Act was extremely limited in scope. Loopholes allowed employers to evade implementing equal pay, in part because there was significant gender-segregation within or between occupations (which meant men and women were not considered by employers to be doing ‘like’ or ‘equivalent’ work).

Within the UK, campaigners were very aware of the deficiencies of the Equal Pay Act and sought the introduction of a Sex Discrimination Bill to remedy some of the loop-holes.

Most significantly, the Equal Pay Act (as enacted in 1970) was deemed not to accord with the principle of securing ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ as laid out in a European Council Directive of 1975 (which made reference to the Treaty of Rome). As a result of a ruling in the European Court of Justice, the UK government was required to amend the Act in 1983.

The main contribution of the Act was symbolic – and to put an end to different male and female rates for the same work. The issue of ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ is significantly more complex and the question of how to tackle it remains a live issue now.

Leeds Clothing Workers dispute

In February 1970, a four-week-long unofficial strike in opposition to the terms of a National Agreement between the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers (NUTGW) and the Clothing Manufacturers Federation started at John Collier’s clothing factory and spread throughout the clothing industry in Leeds.

The National Agreement, negotiated in 1969 and implemented in 1970 without the approval of the union’s membership, provided a ‘low and discriminatory’ wage rise of 4d. per hour for women and 5d. for men and introduced payment by results as part of the industry’s first productivity agreement (Honeyman, 2000: 211). This agreement followed a long period of decline in the clothing industry, which had widened the pay gap between clothing and other industrial workers and expanded the differentials between men and women clothing workers (Honeyman, 2000: 211).

The strike’s central demands were for an increase of a shilling an hour and no productivity agreements. The strikers used flying pickets, marching from factory to factory to call fellow clothing workers out on strike. The NUTGW opposed the strike, stating that: ‘It is a negation of everything the trade union movement stands for to break an agreement so obviously beneficial to the vast majority of the membership covered’ (quoted in Leicester, 2009: 42). The NUTGW worked to split the strikers and undermine the dispute by arranging meetings in individual workplaces to encourage a return to work.

After four weeks, the strike concluded with the negotiation of an increase of 8d. per hour for men and 10d. for women, on top of the previously negotiated increase of 5d. and 4d. respectively. These increases were to be paid in two stages in April and September 1970; however, inflation rapidly diminished the value of this wage rise.

Employers further sought to undermine the wage rise through the extended application of productivity agreements and payment by results. In the aftermath of the strike, employers manoeuvred to weaken the collective strength of the rank-and-file by moving production from ‘strike-prone’ Leeds to Middlesbrough and permanently reclassifying women’s work as unskilled to circumvent the recently introduced Equal Pay Act 1970 (Honeyman, 2000: 222-223). Male cutters at John Colliers also acted to undermine worker solidarity by privately negotiating a higher wage rise after the strike (Honeyman, 2000: 223).

The BBC Play for Today, Leeds – United! (Dir. Roy Battersby, 1974) dramatized the events of the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike. For more on the play and its production context, read Frances C. Galt’s blog post:
Women’s Activism on the Screen: Leeds – United! (1974) and the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike


Hoover Merthyr Tydfil strike against equal pay

Hoover factory, Pentrebach, Reproduced by permission of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, Central Library Creative Archive Licence

The Hoover factory became a major employer in the village of Pentrebach, Merthyr Tydfil, when it opened in 1948. However, its established position in the area was no defence against the rising awareness by women of their right to equal pay. Inspired by the strikes at Ford Dagenham, the women of Hoover Merthyr Tydfil decided to strike for equal pay in 1970.

The Lottery-funded oral history project, Voices from the Factory Floor, documents the experiences of women working in manufacturing in Wales between 1945 and 1945.  The women of Hoover commonly described the camaraderie between the workers, a loyal and family-like atmosphere, but also the difficult conditions in which they worked for the company.

Marion Jones (on the left) working in Hoover, early 1960s c-Marion Jones

The strike by women at Hoover’s Merthyr Tydfil factory in 1970 was particularly of note because it is an example, among many, where men were not supportive of equal pay for women.

In fact, in this and the Vauxhall strike in Luton, men campaigned against equal pay for women. The men, who were largely classed as skilled workers, felt that equal pay diminished the status of their work by reducing the pay differential between skilled and unskilled work, which was usually undertaken by women. 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).