Theory & Struggle

REVIEWS

Theory & Struggle (2019), 120, (1), 154–165.

Abstract

REViEWS Out – not down – on the Costa del Trico Heather Wakefield I spent a couple of days in the hot sun on the Costa del Trico picket line in 1976. Having read the fascinating and meticulous account of the women workers’ extraordinary fight for equal pay in Sally Groves’s and Vernon Merritt’s book Trico: A Victory to Remember, I wish I had spent the whole summer there and contributed more to their stunning victory. On 24 May 1976, 200 women employed by the American-owned multinational Trico Folberth, most of them members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW), voted at a mass meeting in a Brentford park to strike over (un)equal pay. Collecting their bags and coats, they walked out and did not return until 18 October, with £6.50 more in their weekly pay packets and the job done. The book’s vivid narrative is brought further to life through photos, quotes from the strikers and their supporters, strike bulletins and donation records, documenting the longest ever UK strike by women fighting for equal pay. The authors tell their story aware of its current significance too, so it’s a must-read for anyone campaigning to close today’s obdurate gender pay gap. The women’s complaint was rooted in gender segregation in the factory, which produced car wiper blades and motors, screen washers and care accessories. Men had worked on the night shift, and the women by day. Both worked on piece rates, but the men’s piece rate was higher. The Equal Pay Act, placed on the statute books by Labour’s Barbara Castle in 1970 following the Ford women’s strike, was due to be enacted by all employers on 29 December 1975. Trico’s answer to the women’s complaint of pay discrimination, and the AUEW’s serious attempts to negotiate equal pay, was to phase out the night shift. Most of the men took voluntary severance, but a crucial five remained and were placed on the day shift ‘marking time’ on their higher rate of pay, providing the Trico women with equal pay comparators. This spectacular own goal by Trico’s management took place in a context of low pay across the company compared to other local firms, and high inflation and record unemployment in the country. Statutory pay restraint was introduced by the Labour government. A new Trico plant — where even lower wages were paid — had been opened in Northampton and the company was eventually to reduce the workforce by one-third in the recession of the 1970s. Crucially, most of the men in the plant did not join the strike and many remained hostile even at the point of the women’s victory. None of this deterred Betty Groves, Eileen Ward and their Trico sisters. Of many nationalities, most of them local, they and their stalwart AUEW officials went into battle — not just against the company, but against an Equal Pay Act and legal system loaded against women seeking equal pay. Enduring weeks of poverty, scab lorries driven at them and hostile press and media, they mobilised widespread support from the Clyde to the International Metalworkers’ Federation, from Working Women’s Charter groups and Spare Rib to the Greater London Association of Trades Councils, from Tribune MPs to retired Trico employees, who all joined the picket lines, kept their spirits high and raised funds. There are many lessons for equal pay campaigners today within the pages of this book. The unstinting support of local AUEW officials was a crucial factor in the women’s success, against the failure of the Labour government, the TUC and AUEW executive openly to support the strike. The loopholes in the Equal Pay Act that allowed employers in 1976 to ‘level down’ men’s pay rates to women’s, and 154 theory&struggle Trico: A Victory to Remember. The 1976 Equal Pay Strike at Trico Folberth, Brentford by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt (Lawrence & Wishart, 2018) heather Wakefield, a longstanding socialist feminist, is chair of Maternity Action and a visiting fellow at the University of Greenwich

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