Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Struggles of the past

The car warriors

When Ford workers took on the bosses, by Sabby Sagall
15 pounds not 15 percent

Ford workers today face the gravest threat to their livelihood and job security since Henry Ford first came to Britain nearly 80 years ago. In this situation, they might cast their minds back to the struggles fought by a previous generation of Ford workers.

The motor industry was the economy's engine of growth and the barometer of its health, accounting in the early 1970s for 11 percent of British industrial production. But by then the motor industry in the US and Europe was operating at only three quarters of its capacity. The result was more intensive competition between giant firms. British employers launched an offensive aimed at driving down wages, but also at restricting workers' right to strike. The great upturn in class struggle between 1967 and 1974 was, in essence, British workers' resistance to this assault.

Ford workers were at the bottom of the car wages league when the employers launched an offensive aimed at introducing Measured Day Work. In 1967 Ford Europe was about to be launched, with large scale expansion and continent-wide integration of production. Ford wanted an increase in productivity and guaranteed continuous production. Until then jobs were classified under the headings 'skilled', 'semiskilled', 'unskilled' and 'women'. Most production workers were grouped in the semi-skilled band, with women paid 87 percent of the men's rates. Under the new system, five grades were introduced from A to E, with D and E replacing the old 'craft' category. The system created bitter divisions as workers previously paid the same found themselves in different grades.

The 850 women sewing machinists at Dagenham and Halewood were placed in grade B, though men working at a similar level of skill were allocated to the higher grade C (only two women were in grade C). In June 1968 the Dagenham women, followed by the Halewood women, struck against sex discrimination in grading. The strike was immediately made official by the transport and engineering unions. It was the first strike against sex discrimination, a struggle that inspired millions of working class women and had a major impact on the women's movement. They stayed out for three weeks, with a high level of participation by the women, while Ford was brought to a standstill. The entire strike committee had tea with Barbara Castle, the employment secretary, during which Rose Boland, the leading steward, demanded 92 percent of the men's rate. This was granted and the women went back to work pending a court of inquiry. The women didn't immediately win the demand for grade C but the principle of equal pay was conceded, a milestone in British labour history. The following year, partly as a result of the strike, Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Bill.

Ford also became the testing ground for government policies aimed at curbing the rise in wages and the independent power of the shop stewards. Ford workers wanted a 10 percent increase to narrow the gap between themselves and Midlands car workers. Bosses offered the unions a package which contained 'sting in the tail penalty clauses'. There was also a 21 day cooling-off period. Ford bosses were determined to re-establish managerial control of the shop floor. The background to the package was the Labour government's white paper, 'In Place of Strife'.

There was deep anger at the proposals which were overwhelmingly rejected by mass meetings. On 24 February 1969 nearly 46,000 Ford workers struck nationally for the first time. The executives of the TGWU (17,500 members) and the AEF (15,000) made the strike official. These unions were dominated by new left leaders, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. The company launched a court action to curtail the stoppage, but it failed since the strike didn't yet contravene any industrial relations law. This recourse to the courts only strengthened the stewards' resolve. They had the overwhelming backing of their members and the strike was biting, with Ford's Cologne plant having to close. The government was becoming twitchy. Ford put forward a revised package which removed the cooling-off period but retained some penalty clauses. Jack Jones and the National Joint Negotiating Committee (NJNC) accepted the new package and the workers went back. Many, both workers and stewards, were unhappy that the principle of penalty clauses had been conceded. But at least the old bureaucratic NJNC was finally killed off and the union side opened up to lay representation. The stage was set for the great 'parity' strike of 1971.

Throughout 1969 and 1970 the parity campaign gathered pace. In October 1969 a national Ford stewards' conference agreed to demand an increase of £10 a week to bring their members' earnings into line with Midlands car workers. They also resolved to demand equal pay. In January 1971 Ford, the most profitable car manufacturer in Britain, offered a £2 increase. The stewards were angry but when they passed the information onto their members, there were spontaneous walkouts at Dagenham, Halewood and Swansea, taking even the most hardened militants by surprise. Mass meetings confirmed the walkouts and a solid nine week strike followed.

It is possible that Ford's offer was a calculated insult intended to provoke a strike. The company was having technical problems and wanted to put paid to any notion of parity and eliminate the growing strike rate of the previous years. The company wanted a fight but was hardly prepared for such a long battle.

After nine weeks came the bombshell. Scanlon and Jones, concerned about the draining of union funds, made a secret deal with the chairman of Ford and called off the strike, accepting an offer of £8 over two years. Although the strike did also win equal pay for women, it was over on terms that fell far short of the workers' aspirations.

Many of the stewards were influenced by the Communist Party. But the CP encouraged workers instead to rely on 'left' union leaders such as Scanlon and Jones. The International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) had been active around Ford Dagenham since Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech in January 1968. The betrayal by Scanlon and Jones in 1971 acted as a springboard for the successful launch of the rank and file paper Carworker. This, and the Ford factory branch, showed that building an alternative leadership wasn't a dream. The militancy and combativity Ford workers displayed 30 years ago can be recaptured by the current generation who have already shown signs of a willingness to fight.

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