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Experiences of Recording the Stories of the Fight for Equal Pay by Sarah Boston

When researching for my history book, Women Workers and The Trade Unions I was continually frustrated by the lack of first-hand accounts from women about their struggles to win equal pay. Therefore when I was invited to take part in the film project Recording the stories of the fight for equal pay, I welcomed the chance to record the voices of women telling their own stories. Although, as a trade unionist I had never been involved in an equal pay dispute, I had been deeply involved in challenging the discriminatory employment policies of the industry in which I worked. In the 1970s, women members of the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians demanded that our union appoint a woman researcher to study the sexual division of labour within film and television production. The research culminated in the report, Patterns of Discrimination , the first of its kind produced by a trade union. One of the demands of the report, which was acted upon, was that a full time woman's equality officer be appointed. The report, and its list of demands, marked the first steps in changing the deeply entrenched sexual divisions of labour in the industry. This sexual division of work underpins inequality of pay - inequality that was challenged in each case that the film oral history project covers.

We started the project with a list of possible cases to follow - not realising at the outset the problems we would face in tracking down women involved in the stories we wished to tell. The 1968 strike of women sewing machinists at the Ford Motor Company plant at Dagenham was the first story we recorded on film and it was alarming to find that so many of the women who had taken part in that strike were untraceable. Others were known to have died. Fortunately three came forward to be interviewed and record their memories of that landmark strike. We assumed, wrongly as it transpired, that more recent disputes would not present the same problem. There is a photo from 1985 of Pete Allen, a Transport & General Workers' Union official in Hull, with the 15 women who were the first victorious claimants in an equal pay for work of equal value case. Searches revealed that several of the women in the photo had died and others were untraceable despite extensive searches. There were other cases we would have liked to pursue but they fell by the wayside through failure to track down the key personnel involved. Besides the voices of women workers involved in the disputes and legal claims on which each of our stories is based, there are other voices that make up the story. Finding the key union officials, experts, the lawyers and barristers, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) personnel who advised and supported some claims, was much easier.

Bringing together people who had been involved, in some cases for years, in fighting for equal pay or for recognition of their skill was like putting together a re-union. This wasn't our intent - but it quickly became clear that it was, for the participants involved in the group sessions, an important and pleasurable part of the film experience. This I learnt on my first filming day on the project. My film crew, and I, were late (a cardinal sin when filming) to interview the women involved in the strikes at Ford's Dagenham in 1968 and 1984. While gridlocked on the A13, I need not have been so worried about my unprofessional behaviour. We arrived to find everyone happily chatting over coffee, catching up on their lives and families and delighting in meeting each other again. Jenny Morgan's film about the cleaners at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast captures the obvious pleasure of the claimants and their supporters meeting again to reminisce. After filming the Yorkshire dinner ladies' case it was reported to me that when Ray Gray, the Unison official who supported the claimants throughout their case, was asked what filming had been like his reply had been "It was just like a re-union".

There were many bonuses to interviewing groups of people together, besides saving money. There was the 'triggering effect'. One interviewee would remember a particular event or experience and that would then trigger another to add more detail. With the women who were the named claimants, although their public confidence had clearly been boosted by going through tribunals and court appearances, they were still hesitant about the value of their testimony on camera. The support of others clearly boosted their confidence and their sense of the value of telling their stories. Before filming, Jenny Morgan and myself had done our research on the respective cases we were recording, but our job as interviewers on this oral history project was to tease out the interviewee's experiences, the stories not, so far, recorded. In order to get such material the interviewee needs to feel they have control over the interview. The location can be very important for people not used to being 'publicly' questioned. If someone's home is suitable I would always suggest it or, if not, a venue, which feels to them like home territory. Although we would have liked to have filmed women at work, in order to illustrate the actual work they do/did, interviewing them in the work place is usually not a good idea. Very few workers can speak openly about their job when the boss might overhear. Before the interview starts I always tell interviewees that they can say 'stop' or 'cut' at any time and that it is no problem for us, the film crew, to stop and start. All this is to empower, as far as possible, the interviewee. Throughout the interview eye contact is really important so that I never have a list of questions on paper that I refer to. It is also rewarding to allow the interview to go in the direction of the answers rather the direction of a set list of questions. Giving space and time to this kind of oral history interview is really important. Breaking for a cup of tea will nearly always lead to stories being told and the camera having to be quickly turned back on. The preparation and the time given is well rewarded with stories of people's experiences. It is those experiences, described vividly, which stay in the memory.

It does not appear in the court records that Sally Devlin, one of the hospital cleaners, was sick every morning before she had to appear in court. That story tells so much about the courage of a group of hospital cleaners fighting for what they believed to be their rightful remuneration. Julie Hayward recounting the incredible support she had from her fellow dock workers in Liverpool is one to be treasured, as an example of union men understanding the justice of her claim to equal pay for work of equal value. I still smile remembering Pamela Brown and Geraldine Dear, two women from Ford's Dagenham, describing doing night picket duty during their 1984 strike and being brought, most nights, a bottle of whisky by a gentleman from the local constabulary. Memorable too is the comment by Tom Foster (the comparator in the Yorkshire dinner ladies' case) that standing by the women was "Something I'll take to the grave with me, something that you can be very proud of." These stories, and many more, reveal vividly the value of oral history.

To our surprise most of our interviewees had kept no memorabilia from the cases they had been involved in. They had no photos, documents, videos or newspaper accounts. I felt this was another reflection of the fact that most people involved in winning landmark cases for women workers did not realise how important their actions had been. Sheila Douglass, one of the Ford sewing machinists who went out on strike in 1968, confirmed how at the time they had no sense of the importance of their strike. For historians, it is the strike that finally forced the Labour Government to introduce equal pay legislation. For the sewing machinists, it was a limited victory. After the intervention of Barbara Castle, Secretary of State at the Department of Employment and Productivity, it was agreed that the sewing machinists would receive 100% of the male grade B rate phased in over two years. In was only in 1984, after taking further strike action, that the sewing machinists won what they had originally struck for, Grade C, skilled status.

Oral history is people's memories, and memories are selective. People are also forgetful. They forget dates, names and numbers. They forget many factual details. Some of these details the historian can find through other sources. For all the cases we filmed there are a number of different sources of recorded information There are tribunal and court records, newspaper articles, TV news reports, union journals - all of which can help to fill out the picture and put in the factual detail. But even with these accessible records, as with so much of women's history, much material that would help to tell the story has been lost. All too often it is not seen as important and no effort is made to archive it. We appeal to activists who have memorabilia to deposit it in local or other record offices. This film project and the Winning Equal Pay: the value of women's work website will ensure that historical evidence that has been hidden or ignored in the past will be recorded.


A WOMAN'S WORTH The Story of the Ford sewing machinists.

SWEEPING THE BOARD Belfast Cleaners win equal pay victory.

JUST DESSERTS The Yorkshire dinner ladies' fight to win back equal pay.

COOKING UP A STORM Julie Hayward's equal value victory.

SPEAKING OUT FOR CHANGE Winning equal pay for NHS speech and language therapists.

CATCH OF THE DAY Hull Fish Packers: the first to win a claim for equal pay for work of equal value.

Sarah Boston, film maker