On 7 June 1968, the 187 women working as sewing machinists making covers for car seats in Ford’s flagship factory in Dagenham, East London, went out on strike. Bernie Passingham, the Transport and General Workers Union convenor at the factory, who has died aged 90, was to play a crucial role in the strike that was eventually to be instrumental in introducing the Equal Pay Act. It was Passingham who supported the women’s claims – and rang up the management to tell them that they had downed tools.
The strike, which lasted for three weeks, brought production at the factory to a standstill. The women were fighting for recognition that the work they carried out – deemed as being unskilled – was exactly the same as that carried out by the men, whose work was classified as skilled, enabling them to receive a higher wage. The management refused to recognise that the women’s work was skilled.
“So it came to the point,” Passingham remembered, “where I just picked the phone up and phoned back to the plant to the stewards and stewardesses and said: ‘Well, that’s it! They don’t want to know. That’s the end of it.’ And they went out on strike.”
The strike was called off after Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment, met the women and intervened in the dispute. Passingham did not go to the meeting, arguing that the women were leading the strike. The victory was only partial as they settled for 92 per cent of the C-grade rate that they had fought for, and which the men received. A court of inquiry was set up, but the women were not classified into the skilled grade they should have been in. The Labour Government would finally introduce the Equal Pay Act largely as a reaction to the women’s strike.
Passingham was the archetypal male convenor – down-to-earth and plain-speaking, with a cigar stuck in his mouth. He was, above all, a trade unionist, and he supported the women all the way in their fight for grading and equal pay. Years later, Passingham would be played by the actor Bob Hoskins in the film Made in Dagenham, which would tell the story of the 1968 strike and the womens’ action.
The failure to get the women reclassified would have repercussions in 1984, when the women went out on strike again. Passingham, who was then the senior T&G official at Ford, refused to strike out a clause regarding women’s grading which had been dropped from previous claims by the joint unions, ensuring that this time the claim would be submitted.
Dora Charlesworth was one of the women leaders. She has no doubt that it was Bernie’s actions which led to them finally getting support and being able to take action. “Nothing would have happened without Bernie Passingham. It was his action in refusing to agree to the whole claim, unless grading was included, that made it possible for us to carry on the fight.”
The strike lasted for nine weeks and culminated in the women being brought into arbitration at Acas, where they were represented by Passingham. After a series of tests, including comparing the men’s work to the women’s, the Acas panel ruled that the womens’ work did indeed qualify for them to be in grade C.
Passingham was born in Holborn. His father suffered from shell shock after the First World War and was hospitalised, leaving Passingham’s mother, Amy, to raise a large family. Passingham was to spend time as a Barnardo’s boy; he even appeared as one in the film Goodbye, Mr Chips.
He never forgot watching his mother struggle and this left him with a deep appreciation of how hard women had to work. In the mid-1930s the family moved to the new Dagenham Estate, where his mother was given a council house. Passingham started working for Briggs Motor Bodies as a production worker, but at the age of 17 he joined the army. Over the next four years, he saw action in North Africa and in Italy.
After the war in Europe, he was sent out to the Indian Ocean fleet that was to invade Japan, but peace was declared before he saw any action. He would maintain his contacts with the army, becoming a captain in the territorials during the Cold War, when experienced people were taken on as trainers in case hostilities broke out.
He returned home to take up a job as a production worker with his old company, and it was here that he met Kathleen, who had worked as a welder during the war. They married in 1950. The company was bought by Ford in the 1950s and Passingham remained with them, eventually becoming a union convenor. He would rise to become chief of the Ford convenors.
Diana Holland, assistant general secretary at Unite, said: “Bernie Passingham stood up as a trade unionist for equal pay and women’s equality when it was very hard to do so, because he believed it was right and just... They all made history together.”
Bernie Passingham, trade unionist: born Holborn 2 April 1925; married 1950 Kathleen (died 2003, two sons); died Southminster, Essex 18 July 2015.
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