Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Remembering the 1970s: Equal Pay strike in West London

Book Review


From the publishers:
    This is the remarkable story, still relevant today, of four hundred women and their supporters who, in 1976, went on strike for 21 weeks to win equal pay with their male counterparts. It took place at the Brentford plant of Trico-Folberth, an American multinational producer of windscreen wipers. The strike was trail-blazing in many ways, and was essential to making women’s rights a central focus for the labour movement in the UK, a major turning point of the 1970s. Trico: A Victory to Remember is indispensable to understanding that shift. Illustrated with stunning archive photos mostly unseen for over forty years, the book charts the women’s campaign to their final victory, including anecdotes from some of those involved.
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Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt, Trico: A Victory to Remember. The 1976 Equal Pay Strike at Trico Folberth, Brentford. Lawrence & Wishart with Unite the Union, 2018. 

This account of the "longest successful strike for equal pay in British Trade Union history" is presented in an attractive and readable form. Sections of reportage and commentary are interspersed with pages of direct quotations, clearly differentiated and attributed, from several of those involved. Many excellent illustrations bring out both the collective experience and the individuality of the women in their struggle. Discreet footnotes (or side-notes) fill out extra bits of background and history.

A Foreword written by the first author in 1977 summarises what these "400 or so very remarkable women" did and why, and what happened as a resut. Strike action was taken in May 1976 when women being paid less than men doing identical work walked out - after "months of frustrating and non-productive negotiations" aimed at persuading a recalcitrant management to fulfil its obligations under the Equal pay Act (which had itself given employers five years to prepare). Three weeks into the action, the strike was made official by the then AUEW; the factory produced items for the motor industry, mostly windscreen wipers and related accessories. A minority of the male workers, about 150, joined the strike, which was to last for 21 weeks, prolonged by "unbelievably incompetent company policy" which caused considerably hardship but at the same time strengthened solidarity and support. Management tactics included hiring transport gangs to smash through picket lines in convoy. Settlement was reached in mid-October, when a mass meeting was told that equal pay had been agreed. The triumphant return to work followed three days later.

First march round Brentford - only women in sight
Second march with the union to the fore.
The strike committee (right-hand page) has 50% women (4:4)

United in victory march, 18th October
Details of incidents, personalities and day-to-day organisation are given in the three parts: "Getting organised", "The battle rages", and "The reckoning", each containing numerous subheadings. Part 1 describes the background of a workforce drawn mostly from nearby council estates, so that, importantly, many of the women were known to each other or related. Labour was segregated by gender, men on the night shift and in "craft" jobs; adjustments led to the few men on the washer assembly line being paid £6.50 per week more than the women. Spontaneous stoppages had occurred in February when shop stewards "restored order". Things were made worse by a "series of phony excuses" including conformity with the (Labout) government's pay policy (wage restraint) and by "hamfisted handling" of grievances, as British managers adopted the methods and "blackmailing tactics" of their American employers.

Part 2 launches into the developing struggle, featuring “Strike breakers incorporated”, “They shall not pass”, and “Battle at the Trico gates” while throughout, the activists' own take on events adds another dimension under a great variety of headings such as Picketing and solidarity, Surveillance, Growth of political awareness, Strike breaking, Sexist attitudes and many more. Despite problems, obstacles and risks it was evidently far from an unremittingly grim experience on  Costa del Trico in that famously hot summer, as many pictures show. Methods included strike bulletins with cartoons (to counter the inevitable press hostility and bias), meetings in nearby Boston Manor Park, with entertainment, and a protest delegation to Brentford police station about police complicity with strike-breakers. They had lots of fine days for it for a time at least. Part 3 continues with “More determined than ever”, “Tribunal trickery” plus the wider picture of outside support being sought and organised and the union involvement, and finally “Victory!”

Acclaim for the settlement, 15-10-1976 (pp.158-9)
This is followed by an analysis-with-hindsight and assessment of contemporary relevance in "Forty years on - what lessons for today?" including a comparison with Grunwick, and an overview of campaigning for equal pay, "Fighting for our rights". Lastly there is an obituary for Eileen Ward, one of the foremost activists. 

The winning formula was, in the authorial view, the “power of direct action backed up by the organised muscle of a strong trade union connection”. Valid perhaps in this sort of context (implementation of reform enacted by legislation), but the point is not lost that it was the women’s own decisiveness and determination that both instigated and sustained the struggle. While it may be difficult in the conditions of 2018 wholly to endorse or revert to the optimism and triumph that are the prevailing mode of the book, it reminds us that such a struggle can be both upbeat along the way and effective in the long run. 

"Local Auhor" - window display, The Pitshanger Bookshop, W5
The Trico factory closed in 1994, with most of the workforce becoming redundant, and different buildings occupying the site, so that in a way these events may appear all to belong in the past. Nevertheless the subject's significance remains as a bit of labour history that should not be forgotten as well as concerning a vital issue still far from resolved. This very worthwhile publication does an excellent job of helping to preserve it in collective memory. 




1 comment:

  1. Issue still far from resolved... From BBC Scotland News, 13-9-18:
    "Why are women in Glasgow striking over equal pay?" https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-45507319 -
    "Thousands of women in Glasgow including care workers and school cleaners are set to go on strike over an equal pay dispute with the city council..."

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