Thursday, July 29, 2010

Working for Ford, fighting for equality

A milestone in labour struggles and women's liberation, a 1968 strike by machinists at Ford Dagenham, is to be turned into a film. The strike fed into the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights, and resulted in a series of similar struggles across British industry, driving up womens' representation in trade unions. It also forced the Labour government to launch an investigation into Ford's practises by employment secretary Jack Scamp, ultimately resulting in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, one of the signal successes of British feminism. For all that the legislation failed to eradicate the yawning pay gap between male and female workers, it did provide the legal basis for a series of struggles that improved the situation of women. This should be a welcome addition to the spate of British films about working class struggle 'back then', from Brassed Off to the Full Monty - great as these films are, there's usually an antiquarian feel about them, as if class struggle is a sort of museum piece rather than an enduring reality. As Sheila Rowbotham and Huw Beynon write in Looking at Class, while films focused on working class issues in the Sixties were filled with anger and hope, emphasising the prospect of coming changes, even the more light-hearted films about the working class since the 1990s, as well as the grittier fare such as Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, are incredibly pessimistic, depicting a world of disintegration and individual survival against the odds through tenacity and humour.

I wonder, though, what manner of depiction it will be when the producer renders the subjects thus: "I was fascinated by their story, and what struck me in particular was how innocent and unpoliticised they were. All they wanted was a fair deal. It was common sense rather than any kind of axe to grind." This may be a tactical statement, intended to soften the film's edges, but it's also a commonplace form of revisionism of the kind that mainstream culture often performs on formerly untouchable subjects to render them safe - think of the folk myths about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. Think of how posterity condescends to them, erasing as much of their relevance for today's struggles as possible. Or worse, how they're held up as self-sufficient agents of change through moral persuasion, as if they did not operate in a milieu of communism, revolutionary movements, labour militancy, global anti-imperialist struggles, and so on, as if they were not themselves convoked by grass roots agencies that have all but been forgotten.

The women were not 'innocent', as this interview with strike committee leader Rose Boland confirms. They were class militants, and they were part of a labour movement that, through the involvement of socialist women, had started to take the issue of women's oppression seriously. The equal pay that the women were demanding had long been part of the TUC's agenda, and its 1963 congress had pushed for the next Labour government, which was elected the following year, to make equal pay a requirement in law. This was followed by an Industrial Charter for Women drawn up by the TUC's Women's Advisory Committee. This is not to say that the extant left and the labour movement was already totally PC and feminist, and that the women were pushing at an open door - far from it. The strike was also part of a rising wave of women's struggles, which had started to make an impact on the male-dominated labour movement, and was registering in some sections of the revolutionary left. It is appropriate to acknowledge that of the Trotskyist organisations the IS (forerunner of the SWP) did not respond to the women's movement as quickly as it might have done. Calls for involvement in the liberation movement were fiercely resisted at first, according to Martin Shaw, who was a prominent member at the time. (Ian Birchall's response to Shaw, disputing many of his claims, can be read here). It was IS women, coordinating among themselves, who effected a volte face that grew in pace as Seventies militancy escalated. In fact, it is fair to say that in the far left as a whole, women's liberation opened up a whole series of cultural battles on the family, homosexuality, children's rights, and so on. Struggles like the Dagenham machinists' strike, and the movement of which it was a part, had a profoundly civilising influence on the British left, and eventally on much of British society as a whole.

The background of the struggle in Ford is that the company's accumulation strategy produced some of the sharpest industrial conflicts in British labour history, and galvanised a militant shop stewards movement that was at the centre of the most radicalised sectors of the organised labour movement. In its three big plants at Halewood, Dagenham and Swansea, the company acknowledged the trade unions, and it would negotiate over pay, but it was adamant that it would not negotiate over tasks and workload - the assertion of management's right to manage was a centrepiece of Ford's strategy. The trade union leadership, for its part, was happy to go along with the Ford management, agreeing that shop stewards should not interfere in matters liable to have an impact on any productivity deal. So, the struggles that took place were often over precisely the issue of the authority of line managers and bosses. The revolutionary left paid especial heed to such struggles because they were more than "DIY reformism", more than bread-and-butter fights. They seemed to point toward the emergence of an agency that challenged the owners' right to dispose of the means of production as they saw fit. The Ford bosses in Detroit were worried sick about what they saw as the "British disease" of constant industrial conflict such that, in 1972, the company announced plans to build a plant in Franco's Spain, where strikes were largely banned and labour costs systematically repressed.

At the same time, the company pursued a systematically discriminatory policy in pay. Gender management - like race management in Detroit - was an effective way of stratifying and dividing the workforce and extracting more surplus from them. This was accomplished through a grading system that ensured that while one in four male workers were on the slightly higher 'C' grade (for 'skilled' workers), only in four hundred women were. The vast majority of women workers, despite performing the same basic tasks as their male counterparts, were deemed by Ford to be 'unskilled'. Such gradings, as Jack Scamp's court of inquiry pointed out, were 'systematic' without being 'scientific'. They relied to a considerable extent on the subjective judgment of assessors who toured the plants interviewing workers and making on the spot assessments as to what grade women should be on. The women largely worked as sewing machinists, making the car seat covers. Largely because it was seen as a woman's job, it was automatically treated as unskilled. Most of the women were therefore on the lower 'B' grade of pay, but even here they were actually getting paid only 85% of the full 'B' grade wage.

This issue of pay 'grading' was not separate from the issue of managers' right to manage, but integral to it, since managers insisted on controlling and determining job profiles in every detail: the workload, the range of tasks, and the pay grade associated with it. While an overall pay settlement, based on a productivity agreement, was usually negotiated between trade union leaders and managers, this always included a clause that it was for managers to shift workers' around between posts and jobs as they saw fit, to allocate tasks, and introduce labour-saving devices where it would boost profitability. That invariably produced a clash between the common sense of workers, who knew their jobs inside out and who understood the rationale of their tasks better than management, and the impositions of the bosses whose systematic-but-not-scientific evaluations were increasingly segmenting tasks in a way that was discriminatory. In fact, alongside the standard use of gender management, the bosses were finding ways to re-grade old jobs, and to create new ones with less prestige and lower pay. Management sought to impose agreements that would divide workers in different plants and roles, so that Halewood workers would gain where Dagenham workers losts, while small part sprayers would lose where sprayers in other parts of the plant would gain. Some workers were experiencing lay-off and deliberate de-skilling while other workers appeared, if only temporarily, to have it easier. These divisions were encouraged to the maximum by bosses, the better to undermine collective militancy, increase productivity and drive down wage costs - to increase the rate of exploitation, in other words.

In the late 1960s, a series of strikes broke out led by women, first at Halewood and then in Dagenham. These were driven by the same issues that had provoked militancy in male-dominated sectors of the plants - workload, managerial infringement, and job grading, and discriminatory practises. But axis of womens' oppression intersecting with the class conflict added fire to the struggle, and gave a pulse of new energy to the rest of the workforce. Huw Beynon, whose Working for Ford is a classic of industrial sociology, reports that these strikes had a "cathartic" effect on the men in the factories. Though they spoke in a macho and often sexist idiom, and though they were socialised in a patriarchal society that wanted them to hate women, and patronise them, they were gaining respect for their female counterparts. At least the women were having a go, they said. "These women are the only men in the plant," they said. "These tarts have taught us a lesson," they said. "We ought to go down there and shout a big fucking 'thank you'." Subsequent militancy, including sophisticated campaigns for parity in pay among all workers in the industry, owed a huge debt to the women's struggles.

The women at Dagenham didn't win the 'C' grade that they were entitled to, however. The Labour government was determined to contain the rising arc of industrial militancy. Maintaining profitability and growth was central to their ability to deliver reforms, and they were determined to resituate the role of trade unions in British society so that workers could not so easily push up labour costs. The In Place of Strife bill introduced by Barbara Castle as secretary of state for employment and productivity, with the support of the Conservative opposition, had been promulgated to thwart sudden shop steward militancy by forcing secret ballots, a 'cooling off' period, and collective bargaining with legally binding results. The bill failed because of opposition from the trade unions, the Labour NEC, a significant chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and even Labour right-wingers like Jim Callaghan, who opposed state regulation of the unions on ideological grounds. This was an opening shot in the collapse of the post-war consensus, and ultimately the Thatcherites would succeed where the Wilson government failed.

In the meantime, the Dagenham machinists' three week dispute was a signal example of the kind of militancy that the government was determined to contain. Ford needed the workers they discriminated against - you can't sell cars without seat covers - but it was markedly bad at containing militancy. So, Castle intervened. The strike committee were invited to have tea in Whitehall, and they put their demands. The meeting ended with the women accepting 100% of the 'B' grade to be phased in over two years, with a promise of a court of inquiry and an Equal Pay bill that would criminalise separate pay grades for women. This ended an explicit gender bar in pay, but also left in place the most invidious form of discrimination in which womens' work was graded as 'unskilled'.

Note that no work, and no worker, is actually 'unskilled'. Skill in the sense used in industrial relations is a social category - it reflects more on the position of the worker within the labour system than it does on the workers' abilities or even necessarily her tasks. The process of 'de-skilling' labour that I mentioned earlier is a really a process of demotion within the labour system, intended to increase the extraction of surplus. The Scamp-led court of inquiry's verdict that pay grading was highly subjective is crucial here. The determination that womens' work was unskilled was driven by the company's need to contain pay claims, and buttressed by prejudicial assumptions about female labour. So it remains today. Job profiles are still highly gendered, and pay and prestige still attaches more to 'male' labour than it does to 'female' labour. Increasingly, as the service economy has grown, women have been pushed into roles where most of the work emphasises emotional labour, which is often a priori classified as 'unskilled' (though this is notably less true of the more macho 'sales' end of emotional labour). And so the same struggles go on, from a higher plateau.

The re-emergence of feminist agitation in the UK, the packed conventions of the London Feminist Network, the Reclaim the Night marches, a reviving feminist literature that is seeing liberals like Natasha Walter become radicalised, the campaigns against sexual objectification and violence against women with the Million Women Rise marches in the capital, thus forms a vanguard, an avant-garde, of the coming class confrontation. It will be disproportionately female workers in the public sector who will be out on the picket lines in the coming months and years. On the fortieth anniversary of the Equal Pay act, it is fitting that the beginnings of resistance to the long misogynist backlash should also be a frontline in the nascent resurgence of working class struggle.