A watershed moment in the fight for gender equality, the Equal Pay Act 1970 ‘stated that women should receive equal pay for equal work’. If they believed they were paid less than a male counterpart, engaged in similar work, they could take their employer to a tribunal.
The Road to 1970
Whilst its impact has been widely disputed, it was the culmination of a long and arduous struggle by Barbara Castle against the old guard of the Labour movement. The first recorded claim for equal pay is understood to have been made in 1832, by the women who worked in Robert Owen’s ‘labour exchange’. From here to the late 1800s, various groups looked to align themselves to the Trade Union movement. It would be the First World War that drew many women into the workplace. In 1915 the Women’s War Workers Committee drew up a list of demands including the rights to training, trade union membership and equal pay. Yet Trade Unions still took a conservative approach to equal pay.
In 1943, the Equal Pay Campaign Committee was established and the Second World War saw 7.25 million women were employed in industry, the armed services and defence. This represented 46% of all women between the ages of 14-59.
Enter the Rose
Barbara Castle was first elected to Parliament in 1945, as one of 24 female MPs. She was shocked when she arrived to discover the size of her own income. The salary for an MP was £600 – (Equivalent of £18,000 today). Upon winning the election, Labour immediately increased the salary of an MP to £1000. This was met with much derision on the Tory side, yet the Labour intake of 1945 had many members who did not hold substantial wealth. MPs were still expected to pay for their own postage and secretariat from their salary.
Upon being elected Barbara Castle immediately experienced the sexism she would battle in the commons. On her first day as an MP, she walked to the entrance gates with her new colleague Michael Foot. They were then stopped by security, and Foot was told he could not bring in any guests. Foot then introduced her as the new member for Blackburn, to the astonishment of the security guard. Castle would do much to encourage other women into work and into politics. She wanted to prove to the male-dominated Labour Party that women could hold the big offices of state. She became only the fourth woman to become a Cabinet Minister, in October 1964 as Minister for Overseas Development. She later became Minister of Transport (1965–68); Secretary of State for Employment and First Secretary of State (1968–70); and Secretary of State for Social Services (1974–76).
In 1964 Labour had a charter of rights for all employees in their manifesto, which included ‘the right to ‘equal pay for equal work’. However this policy was only included as part of Labour’s application to join the EEC. When the application was rejected, the policy was ditched with it. The TUC was focussed on putting the men into employment. One of Wilsons reforms was the Prices and Incomes Act. The aim was that all wage and price rises had to be approved by a National Board for Prices, in order to control inflation. In January 1966 Castle tried to persuade the unions to open discussions on ‘how equal pay could be applied within the current prices and incomes policy’. But In July 1966, Wilson announced a six-month wage freeze, a further period of restraint and a price freeze.
Made In Dagenham
In 1968, the women sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham Factory went on strike over a re-grading demand. They proposed that their work required the same amount of skill as work as Eastman cutters and paint spray operators whose jobs had been graded more highly. Their leader Rosie Boland believed that there had been a second job evaluation report suppressed.
The Ford management themselves had been worried about the pay at Dagenham, the girls received 85% of the men’s salary compared to 92% at other factories. Castle pushed them to close the gap, which was in line with government prices and incomes policy. The Tory Press savaged Castle for caving in at Ford. The press had supported Labour’s attempts to bring down wage inflation. The strike is now remembered as a major breakthrough for Equal Pay to become law. The breakthrough however did not raise the grade of women in 1968 nor increase the pay to equal that of the lowest B grade worker. All it did raise the women’s pay to 92% of the male rate.
Castle’s own memoirs point to a separate dispute, this time within the engineering industry, as the moment she decided to take action on pay. Hugh Scanlon, who led the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers in the 1970s, was well-respected for his tough negotiating style. He was out to win a substantial pay demand for his members. A settlement had been reached – £19 per week for the men/ £13 for the women. The union structured the pay grading as such Skilled, Semi-Skilled, Labourers, and Women. Scanlon then decided to push for equal pay on top of the demand, to test Castle and her Prices and Incomes Policy. Castle agreed that the women should be on parity with men. However, she pushed Scanlon to settle within the current pay demand – ultimately reducing the male pay claim but bringing up the women’s pay. Scanlon threatened a strike, before accepting the original pay demand.
Castle knew then that the unions would never push for equal pay on their own and presented the case for an Equal Pay Act to cabinet. Roy Jenkins rejected the notion that it should be paid for from male wage increases. He argued that there is some hypocrisy in the people advocating it and that it was not electorally popular.Frank Cousins, the former minister for technology, and union leader had been previously heard saying ‘Of course I am opposed to equal pay’ on a trip to Russia. There was further opposition to the bill from Tony Crosland and Dick Marsh in cabinet.
The bill was then delayed as the Government continued to pursue its Prices and Incomes policy. When an amendment was tabled arguing for equal pay for women as part of the bill, Castle refused to vote against it. As Labour only had a majority of 1, it could potentially bring down the government. Castle knew she had to force them into action Jenkins sat beside her in the house and she told him:‘We are going to be defeated on this amendment, unless you allow me to draw up a proposal for an Equal Pay Act’.Castle sacrificed her own position and a labour government to get a guarantee. The threat worked. She would later tell a young Harriet Harman, ‘remember all Labour Prime Ministers are bastards’. In bringing the bill before parliament, Castle was careful to present it ‘as a measure for efficiency as well as equality’. Castle was conscious of not presenting it as a victory for women’s liberation and militant feminism. She wanted to present it as a positive for business.
By bringing it in before the end of the last parliament, Castle had hoped the Conservatives would not be able to repeal it. It worked. On the campaign trail, Ted Heath had been boxed into a corner. He admitted that the equal pay legislation ‘while vital, is only the beginning.’ And ‘a revolution will be needed in the hearts and mind of men will be needed if equal job evaluation is to be translated into real equality’.