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50 Years of Equal Exploitation?

50 Years of Equal Exploitation?

29 May marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, precipitated by the Ford sewing machinists’ strike in 1968 which started in Dagenham.

Since the famed strike, and despite the legislation that followed, women in the UK continue to earn 17.3%1 less than men on average to this day, while the working class as a whole remains enslaved by the capitalist mode of production, as a class of propertyless producers and the source of profit for the owners of the means of production.

As the post-war economic boom was coming to an end, the 1960s saw a remarkable revival of international working class militancy, and Ford was no exception – there were only 23 days in the whole of 1968 that there wasn’t a threat of strike action somewhere in the company.2 In the UK, in September the previous year, Ford, hand in hand with the unions, introduced a new wage structure based on the following grading: A (unskilled), B (semi-skilled) and C (fully-skilled). Women sewing machinists in Dagenham, who made car seat covers, were now classed as semi-skilled, which they felt undervalued their labour on the basis of their sex. Through formal grievance procedures, they tried for seven months to get themselves reclassified as fully-skilled. This proved unsuccessful, so on 29 May 187 women walked out in Dagenham, followed by a three week long strike starting 7 June 1968. They were soon joined by 195 more women workers in Ford Halewood, in Merseyside. What began as a dispute over grading was however turned into a dispute over equal pay, when the unions NUVB and the AEF declared the strike official on 13 June. Why? The unions didn’t want to challenge the grading system (which they helped to enforce in the first place). Instead, they pointed out that the women were receiving only 85% of the equivalent male wage rate on the same semi-skilled grade (justified by Ford by legislation which barred women from working night-shifts or weekend overtime, see e.g. Factories Act 1961).

This is how the struggle came to represent in public consciousness the fight for equal pay, even though the original demands were for reclassification as skilled workers. Being part of a much wider trend in society, the general issue of women workers being “short-changed” in the labour market eclipsed the actual issue from which the struggle had arisen, namely that just by suddenly being classed as “semi-skilled” workers the women were now being paid less.

This shift in emphasis imposed by the unions framed the male workers’ position as an enviable one worth fighting for, alienating the latter group, who, sharing an exploiter and a site of exploitation, should rightly have been the machinists’ comrades. Rather than clarifying the class position of the machinists as part of the proletariat and seeking to generalise the struggle along class lines to reach fellow workers, the strike was posited as an issue concerning all women and not men. Small wonder then that according to the striking workers themselves, the support they received from their fellow workers was not unanimous; while some cheered them on, others resented them for closing down their workplace and told them to get back to work (and here old school sexism will have played a part too).3

After three weeks of strike action, the strike leaders were invited to talks with Ford’s management chaired by Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in Harold Wilson’s Labour government, to negotiate a deal. The workers were offered a pay rise that would raise their wages to 92% of that of their male coworkers, compared to the previous 85%. This deal, which in fact gave them neither the skill status they had initially walked out over nor the parity they ended up fighting for, was accepted by the strike committee. The machinists returned to work, and with them returned their male colleagues. Wilson’s government celebrated the restarting of production at Ford, and ever since the strike has been mythologised in feminist and trade unionist narratives as a great victory. But workers at the time saw it differently:

"I mean really Ford's had won, if we're being honest, after we had gone back to work Ford's had won because we never got our grading. We hadn't got what we wanted... All they had given us was a rise. And not an equal pay rise, not equality."4

It would take another two years for equal pay to become enshrined in legislation in the 1970 Act, but the Act only came into force on 29 December 1975. And that’s not even the end of the story. According to the ONS, the general gender pay gap in the UK in 2019 still stood at 17.3%. However, this only shows part of the picture, because these statistics are based on overall earnings of men and women in the UK, not specifically men and women doing the same job. The disparity in pay between men and women doing the same job exists, but is generally smaller than the wider average figure, because women are disproportionately represented in jobs that are paid less – today as fifty years ago. In fact, the Ford machinists, having initially walked out over downgrading, would not be granted the “skilled” status until 1984, following a further six week strike – i.e. twice as long as the famous one in 1968. By this time, many of the workers involved in the initial struggle had retired.

Although discrimination by employers remains a problem, this is just one compounding element in the division of labour enforced by the ruling class along skill and gender lines, which overlap to a considerable degree but are by no means one and the same. And as for the realisation of actual pay equality, we don’t know how long that’ll take, but one study based on current trends suggests that worldwide we might have to wait another 257 years!5 And that is of course assuming that capitalism’s relentless drive to destruction doesn’t reduce humanity to a state of generalised destitution, or even total extinction, much sooner... But even if, in theory, the total elimination of pay disparity between workers of different genders doing the same job is conceivable within capitalist society, in reality the crisis inherent to the system and the inner workings of the labour market complicate the picture, as does the way in which discrimination benefits the ruling class by dividing the working class against itself. And like the crisis, the division of labour is also an inherent feature of capitalist society, which cannot be eradicated without getting rid of capitalism itself.

Equal pay means an equal rate of exploitation to that of our male counterparts, it doesn’t mean the jobs we do wouldn’t continue to be low-paid, shit jobs. If every woman worker, of every race, ability, sexuality and age, were paid the very same amount to the penny as their coworkers doing the same job, they would be just as unfree as the rest of the working class. Even if all disparities in pay were done away with, as workers we still have to toil away in production and services for the bare minimum that bosses can get away with paying us, selling our labour power by the hour for just enough money to feed ourselves and our families, creating surplus value for the capitalists and products for them to sell back to us. Some dream of equality! We internationalists don’t think that equal exploitation by the bourgeoisie is worth waiting for. The only hope for the emancipation of women workers lies in recognising our shared class interests with the rest of the proletariat in general, so workers of all genders may unite and fight, not for equal misery under capitalism, but an end to the exploitation of class society.

Socialism – by which we don’t mean a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, but a society that would put an end to the wages system, production for profit, and the division of labour as we know it – for the first time in modern history would open up the way for the emancipation of women that under capitalist society remains but a pipe dream.

We don’t want equal exploitation between genders, we want an end to exploitation altogether!

Tinkotka

Posted By

Internationalis...
May 29 2020 00:11

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Spikymike
May 29 2020 12:37

Funny that the same photo's are still reproduced indirectly relating this strike to equal pay for women in the UK, including by the UK Guardian just today, but I noticed they were a bit more careful this time following at least 2 corrections they previously received from Sheila Cohen who has written extensively about militant workplace struggles in that time. See here for instance:
https://theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/13/ford-sewing-machinists-stri...
https://theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/25/sewing-machinists-strike-at-...
Sheila makes some valid points about the opportunistic use of this by the Labour Party at the time and subsequently.