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Breakthrough Award

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Equal Pay Heroes Honoured: Breakthrough 2006

Some of the women behind the legendary Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, which paved the way for the introduction of equal pay legislation in the UK, were honoured at the Wainwright Trust Evening on 5 June 2006.

The ex-sewing machinists from 1968 - Sheila Douglass, Vera Sime - and Bernie Passingham, the T&G convenor who helped them win their pay fight against the car manufacturer, were presented with the Breakthrough Award by René Carayol, the broadcaster and business guru, who had chaired the panel discussion which took place before the presentation. Also honoured were four of the women who concluded the Ford equal pay struggle 16 years later, T&G senior shop steward Dora Challingsworth, Geraldine Wiseman (formerly Dear), Pam Brown and Joan Baker.



René Carayol listens to Bernie Passingham describe the struggle for equal pay


And, with the help of funding from the Trust, the TUC is to ensure that the memories that the women have of those days in the late 1960s are not forgotten. An oral history film - made for the TUC by film-maker Sarah Boston - is to be the first piece of footage stored in the newly launched TUC equal pay oral history archive.

The personal stories of the women will be the first of six films to go into the TUC archive. A clip from this pilot film was shown at the Evening. The next case to be filmed - due to be shot later in June 2006 - will be of the women cleaners who successfully won equal pay for work of equal value through comparing their work with groundsmen at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast in 1995.

The TUC hope to seek additional funding to develop the archive into a comprehensive resource for students and other researchers keen to delve deeper into the struggle for pay parity since the legislation was introduced over 30 years ago.

Susanne Lawrence, Chair of the Trustees, said: "David Wainwright was a true pioneer in the field of equal pay in the UK and the Trust is therefore delighted to be able to play such a key role in setting up an archive which, by recording some of the major cases in which he was involved and the women he helped, will serve to recognise his contribution and perpetuate his memory."

The Ford sewing machinists were among the first women to challenge the discriminatory pay systems which, before the 1970 Equal Pay Act, saw women, both in the public and private sector, generally being paid on separate, lower rates of pay. The women who made the seat covers in the Ford factory earned only 92% of the pay of the unskilled men who swept the floors, and just 80% of what the semi-skilled men took home.

The women, angry that their employer was not taking their claim for equal pay and regrading seriously, took industrial action and, as cars could not be sold without seat covers, rapidly brought production at the Dagenham plant to a halt. Following a meeting with Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment, the dispute was resolved.

So impressed was Barbara Castle by the case put by the sewing machinists that she pushed for the introduction of the Equal Pay Bill, which became law in 1970 (though it didn't come into force until five years later). But the dispute about unequal pay at Ford didn't end until 1984, when a second generation of sewing machinists finally won their claim for equal pay for work of equal value.

TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O'Grady who was on the panel for the Evening's question and answer session, said: "The women of '68 and their union convenor are the unsung heroes of the equalities world. Their insistence that they would not put up with being paid less than men doing similar jobs launched the equal pay struggle that we are still fighting today.

"Although the gender pay gap in the UK remains one of the largest in Europe, the fight that the Dagenham women started, and the legislation their action helped introduce, has enabled thousands of women to win equal pay cases against their employers. And with the setting up of the TUC equal pay archive, we can ensure that their memories of these pioneers will be with us forever."

The award was a specially commissioned trophy from sculptor and jeweller Andrew Logan and 1,000, which is to be paid into a joint fund for those who took part in the two strikes. To see photographs of the machinists and Bernie Passingham with their trophy click here.

Two Unsung Equality Champions: the winners in 2004

Jenni Murray of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour presented two Breakthrough Awards at the 2004 Wainwright Trust Evening on 15 June 2004.

One award went to civil servant Debbie Rees, who joined the Land Registry in 2001 and quickly began to represent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of her union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, across Wales. The following year, she obtained the support of the Welsh Trade Union Congress, who agreed to finance and publicise a helpline which Debbie organised and runs. The helpline, available seven days a week, can be used by any trade unionist in Wales.

Debbie says that many employers at first deny that there is discrimination or harassment in their workplaces, but add that, when it comes to personal issues, "unions and management are both on the same side really". In over 95 per cent of her cases she has managed a win/win outcome.

Nola Ishmael, this year's other Breakthrough Award winner, has for over a decade encouraged and helped black and ethnic minority nurses to advance in the National Health Service. She summarises her contribution as "giving them confidence to apply for more senior jobs". As a Nursing Officer at the Department of Health, she started a rigorous mentoring and work shadowing programme, under which nurses spent time with her to see how policies were developed and implemented. They even attended ministerial meetings with her.

Nola's other initiatives have included giving new life to the Mary Seacole Leadership Awards, designed to support black and minority ethnic nurses, midwives and health visitors in achieving their potential, and setting up networks, such as the Confederation of Black and Ethnic Nurses.

In each case, the award was a cheque for 1,000 plus specially commissioned trophies from sculptor and jeweller Andrew Logan. To see photographs of the two winners and the trophies click here.

Winners before 2004

When the award was launched in 1999, two awards were given, because the judges were unable to distinguish between two of the nominations. Amanda Short of Barclays Bank Technology Services won her award for her work in setting up the Opportunities for All action group at her workplace, which has greatly enhanced promotion chances for women. The second winning nomination was for Margaret Wall, then of MSF and now Baroness Wall of New Barnet, and the late Sara Leslie (died 2010), then of Irwin Mitchell, for their ground-breaking work on equal pay for work of equal value in the case of 1,850 speech therapists — known as the "Enderby Case".

A special award was made in 2000 to Sue Hastings for her unstinting work in the area of equal pay. This award was sprung on her when she was on the panel at the 2000 Wainwright Trust Evening and it was clear from the audience reaction that they felt the award was very much deserved.

The Breakthrough Award 2002 was presented at the Wainwright Trust Evening to Ejaz Ahmad in front of an audience of 120 people, including three of the previous four winners. Ejaz, who is now the Access and Inclusion Adviser to the Learning and Skills Council West of England, won the award for his work with Bridging the Gap, a Bristol-based project, part-funded by the European Social Fund, which aims to address issues of long-term unemployment. In just over two years, since the project's inception he was personally responsible for helping over 70 clients to gain employment and transform their lives; many of them had been unemployed for two years or more and, far from applying for jobs, had never even been to a jobcentre.

In 2003, the trustees made another special award to Sheila Wild,a former shop assistant who became Director of Employment Policy for the Equal Opportunities Commission. She was presented with her award by Moira Stewart at the Wainwright Trust Evening on 11 June 2003.

In a period which had seen five EOC chairs and at least as many chief executives, Sheila had been a constant factor in influencing and shaping the Commission's contribution to positive change. Her leading edge policy work on maternity and parental leave, childcare, compulsory competitive tendering, ethnic minority women and the national minimum wage had paved the way for the introduction of greatly improved rights in most of these areas.

The Trustees wished to pay particular tribute to Sheila's efforts in the areas of equal pay and part-timers' rights.

Over the previous two years Sheila had worked tirelessly in getting the message across to employers that equal pay reviews are the most appropriate means of ensuring that their pay systems are free of sex bias.

For details of the trophy and pictures of the winners click here.

Click here to return to the report of the 2007 Breakthrough Award winners