Review: To Understand Ford-U.S., Study the Ford Empire

At Britain's Ford-Dagenham plant, workers did not submit gently to labor-management cooperation. They locked managers in their offices, marched through the plant setting off fire alarms, threw tea mugs at windows, and turned fire hoses on police. Notoriously Militant: The Story of a Union Branch at Ford Dagenham, by Sheila Cohen, Merlin Press, 2013.

If you’re into social justice but not sure you want to read Sheila Cohen’s Notoriously Militant, read the conclusion first. Your blood will boil just reading the bitter end of Trade & General Workers (TGWU) Branch 1107 and its fight against Ford-U.K.’s cunning depravity. Then you’ll read the whole book.

“Depravity” isn’t too strong a word. Ford retouched Black faces out of a plant photo for use elsewhere. We heard about that even where I worked, half a world away on a Ford assembly line in Michigan.

Other management maneuvers were more sophisticated, summarized in the formula, “Ford regains control by sharing it.”

Fight for the Shop Floor

It was partly in Britain that Ford planned the labor-management cooperation schemes it later brought to the U.S.

At Ford-Dagenham in Britain, workers did not submit gently. Beginning in the 1960s, the shop floor boiled over in weekly job actions. Strikes, most without higher union approval, were almost as common as the daily tea breaks.

In 1973, workers locked managers in their offices and marched through the plant setting off fire alarms. Workers threw their tea mugs at windows, turned fire hoses on police, and formed a barricade of burning vans. There were plant occupations.

Dagenham workers also stood for social demands. In 1989, 4,000 voted to strike to reduce the workweek to 35 hours. (The leadership did not act on this vote.)

They were reacting to viciously difficult work—common to most assembly lines. But in the U.S., these conditions don’t usually produce riots. Instead they cause drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness, motion injuries, lung problems, heart attacks, slow-death disabilities, divorces, suicides, and even, among my former Ford co-workers, murder.

I’d cite these four factors that made Branch 1107 “notoriously militant”:

  1. The Dagenham Paint, Trim and Assembly plant saw an effort, unprecedented in a large assembly plant, to “rationalize” production by newly draconian international standards.
  2. The previous, too weak, union leadership was ousted.
  3. Ford and the government tried to keep Ford wages below those of other British auto companies.
  4. Radical Labour Party and socialist traditions fed rank-and-file rebellion against Labour and Conservative party leaderships that used “Government Inquiries” against the workers.

Co-opting ‘Democracy’

Beginning in the 1970s, Ford-U.K. conspired with the union leaders to make stewards “partners in control.” Ford provided the in-plant unions with offices, telephones, and typists. It attempted “feel-good” team meetings with workers.

The goal was the appearance of a little workers’ control, on the Japanese model. Management would hug the union to death—while working the members to death.

“Partners in control” sounds familiar to me. I was on the assembly line at the Rouge Complex in 1981 when Ford began holding “elections” of team leaders for each assembly line.

Our union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), was weaker than TGWU Branch 1107. In the early 1980s, management at the Dearborn Assembly Plant threatened to fire union officers if they led a six-minute work stoppage for workers to write their congresspersons. The UAW canceled the protest.

In my plant, committeepersons—the lowest level of elected union officials with paid time off the job—represented up to 300 workers. With “elected team leaders” for every 30 workers, Ford was stealing the union’s mantle of democracy.

British management had the same playbook, but found more resistance at Dagenham.

What the Film Got Wrong

Dagenham’s sewing machine operators, all women, walked out in 1968.

Cohen notes that this dispute was “then and forever mythologized as a strike ‘for equal pay’ which has attracted international attention ever since (including a recent film, Made in Dagenham).”

But Cohen says the film incorrectly portrays the strikers as demanding upgrading from unskilled to semi-skilled work. In reality, the sewing machinists didn’t want “equality” with semi-skilled men. They demanded upgrading to skilled, Grade C.

This meant the women would get more pay than most men. Yet this demand got more support from men than “equal pay for equal work” did. That’s because men knew upgrading meant an opportunity to make claims about everyone’s skills. Cohen sees the women as fighting against exploitation in general.

She also quotes a woman worker who was for upgrading, but not for “equal pay for equal work”: “equal” work entailed night shifts, which would disrupt women’s care for children.

The strike made some progress, but didn’t get the women to Grade C. Winning this demand at this militant moment in history, one female steward commented, “would have broken Ford’s wage structure.”

Sixteen years later Dagenham sewing machinists were on strike again, this time together with Ford-Halewood. In 1985 they finally “won their grading grievance and recognition as skilled workers.”

The film also errs in ignoring Trim Shop stewards’ role, and in “canonizing” Baroness Barbara Castle, Labour Party superstar, who mediated the dispute. Cohen offers Castle’s revealing diary entry: “interesting lunch with the three Ford directors.”

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Black workers were at times 45 percent of Dagenham’s workforce.

Black and Asian workers struck in 1978 over racism. In the 1980s, two Dagenham foremen distributed a racist leaflet.

This reminded me of 1979 at Ford Rouge. Responding to reform-caucus defense of a Black worker, two foremen wore homemade KKK hats at work. One of our assembly lines walked out. An anonymous “Brass Knuckles Caucus,” led by supervisors, countered with leaflets, vandalism of our cars, and death threats.

At Dagenham, Black workers’ action against similar abuses got Ford to advertise jobs in the local Black press. On the other hand, with management support, racist white workers struck against Asian workers.

When in the mid-1990s Ford removed Black faces from a Dagenham plant photograph, 200 workers prepared to strike. A white union officer stopped strike preparation—and later regretted it.

He concluded he’d been wrong to think a strike would cost workers jobs. After all, the union was strong, the workers were determined, and Ford-U.K. was besieged with bad publicity over racism.

Before Ford CEO Jacques Nasser’s visit in 1999, a thousand Dagenham workers did walk out to protest racism. They saw their moment when Nasser received an award for Ford’s “equal opportunities.”

One Dagenham militant said Black workers’ resistance “nailed the lie of the hunky-dory partnership with the workers.” Treatment of Black workers showed the “partnership” was phony for everyone.

‘Lions Led by Donkeys’

A shop floor leaflet headlined “Lions Led by Donkeys” captured the union’s decline.

When Ford-U.K. workers struck in 1971 for parity with other British auto workers, union bureaucrats sold them out by settling, again, for less. UAW President Leonard Woodcock helped lead British union leaders into a more conservative posture.

Ford management and top union officers conspired to prohibit certain workers from running for steward. Fewer workers, especially Asian workers, wanted to become stewards.

Workers’ hard-won Equal Opportunities policies, Cohen concludes, were eventually “outflanked by Ford’s ‘Human Resources’ professionals with politically correct policies on ‘diversity management.’”

By 1995, among auto companies in Britain, only Toyota paid less than Ford.

In response to workers’ action, Labour and Conservative governments held “Government Inquiries” into the situation at Ford-U.K. These were supposedly evenhanded and in the national interest. But by increasing Ford’s power over the unions and the national union’s power over the branches, they helped beat back Branch 1107’s gains.

In my opinion, the bipartisan attacks showed that workers can’t go qualitatively further than they did at Branch 1107 without political alternatives to the British Labour Party—or, in the U.S., alternatives to the Democratic Party.

Dagenham’s Demise

Ultimately, union tops collaborated with Ford on a behind-the-scenes deal to close part of Dagenham while keeping open another plant, Halewood. Not because Dagenham was so militant, but because its weakened union made it an easy target.

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to “interfere in business decisions.” Assembly stopped in 2002, stamping in 2013.

Engine production remains, but engine was the least militant component. The end of the Paint, Trim and Assembly signaled the end of the Dagenham that we activists in the U.S. had looked to for inspiration.

Nonetheless, in 2009, workers occupied Ford-U.K.’s spun-off Visteon plants, demanding that three planned plant closings be reversed.

The demands were rejected. Disciplinary charges for the action were dropped only on condition of ending the plant occupations. But Cohen notes that many workers, including women in their 50s, argued for continuing to occupy the plants.

And as late as 2012, Ford-U.K. workers struck against the elimination of new-hire pensions—disproving Tony Blair’s boasts that “the class war is over.” Ford-U.S. workers should take note, as new-hire pensions are eliminated and buyout schemes threaten current pensions.

You don’t really know Ford-U.S. if you miss this book about Ford-U.K.

Ron Lare is a retired UAW-Ford worker.