At 17 years of age I worked as an apprentice Toolmaker in Ford Dagenham based in their Trade School at the River Plant. This was a run-down Ford location with a history too insignificant for a typical teenager who believed he knew everything but in reality knew little at all. The plant was basically a Toolroom, a vehicle seat cover machining department (Trim Shop) and a small training centre for apprentices. I recall lunch breaks where the women machinists from the ‘Trim Shop’ congregated at the rear of the canteen keeping themselves to themselves but demonstrating a spirit and humour you’d expect from good work colleagues. Even in the early 80’s seeing woman in the industrial environment of Ford was quite unusual. There were no female apprentices, very few women in production and certainly none in supervision or senior management roles. In fact you would unlikely see more than two women together outside of the River Plant.
Like most young men I was boisterous and often made regrettable decisions which were not in the interests of sustaining stable employment. One such time involved my being placed under investigation by Ford however before matters progressed I was unusually ‘summoned’ to meet the plant Convenor. I arrived at the office and a grey haired man with experience etched all over his face answered the door introducing himself as Bernie. He sat me down and provided measured advice, mostly concentrating on what can only politely be described as a reality check for young Mr Passfield. Later that day the employer backed off without further explanation, no doubt content that the Convenor had affected the required message.
I had of course met Bernie Passingham; subsequently portrayed by the late Bob Hoskins within the successful British film ‘Made in Dagenham’ which was also subject to a West End stage production.
Sadly Bernie passed away recently at the ripe age of 90 years young. His funeral, a low key affair, was attended by family, close friends and a few trade unionists showing their respect and remembering with fondness this quiet, unassuming man who together with the courage of a group of women helped change the employment environment we work in today.
Thanks to the film’s success and surrounding publicity; the events back in 1968 and through the 70’s are now rightfully within public awareness as opposed to something only historians or trade unionists with a curiosity for industrial struggles orate about.
Back in the late 60’s Ford was much like any UK industrial environment. A closed shop, dominated by middle aged men with male trade union structures mirrored through to the TUC. Ford national collective bargaining was headline news and set the tone for UK pay. Forget RPI in the 60’s & 70’s…it was, “What rise did the Ford workers get”?!!
Within annual protracted negotiations, usually lasting 3 to 5 days as a minimum and no doubt followed by prolonged strike action, was an antiquated pay grading system which identified the supposed highly skilled Grade E workers down to the Grade A factory cleaner. The fight for recognition of individual contributions to Fords success, whether it was skilled or unskilled, was a constant battle between various groups of workers. National and Regional Officers felt they knew best, whereas Plant Convenors and local shop stewards fought a corner for their electorate. In the midst of these male dominated struggles were a group of workers who skills were unrecognised and largely disregarded as they were women.
The film accurately, albeit with a touch of creative licence, portrays the struggle of those courageous women whose only ally was an unassuming Convenor with a sense of justice and fairness for all. Their struggle and continual battles with Ford and the male dominated Trade Union establishment sadly took another 16 years to bear the fruit of their endeavours. Nonetheless those endeavours helped change Ford, the trade unions and the UK working environment. Something we should recognise and never forget. Indeed it is useful to reflect upon the changes in Ford though my 24 years employment at Dagenham where from the mid 1980’s I witnessed an influx of female apprentices and engineers, women finally having an equal opportunity for progression and then being promoted into supervisory and senior management positions. No longer did you have to look to the back of a canteen to find our women members. In actual fact we had respected women shop stewards representing groups of male workers; a concept unimaginable for 60’s & 70’s industrial Britain.
Around the time of the film’s release in 2010 an amateur stage production team were presenting a short educational performance surrounding the Dagenham women’s struggles. They approached the London & Eastern Regional Secretary Steve Hart, a former Ford worker, to see if Ford would allow them on site for a performance. Steve’s view was that image conscious Ford would never in a hundred years entertain this however he passed the request onto the Officer…Vince Passfield.
So there I was some 30 years after my one and only meeting with Bernie Passingham, tasked with an assumed impossible job of securing this amateur stage production into Ford – a far from easy task with Ford UK and European affairs becoming involved.
I impressed upon them that back in 1968 a torch was shone on employer and union alike at Ford, and, whilst that light can be uncomfortable to reflect upon, providing we recognised our errors, could demonstrate change with a continual aspiration for progression - then why should we be ashamed to applaud the courage and resolve of those women, led by Bernie, which changed our ways for the better.
The performances, eventually 3 in all, were widely appreciated in Ford with European managers flying over to Dagenham to join senior Trade Union officials, activists and members from a new generation of workers.
Laying Bernie to rest last week was a good time to reflect again. The Ford Dagenham estate was a place in Bernie’s day which employed over 25, 000 workers. Today stands a single Engine Plant employing less than 5, 000 albeit with some opportunity for growth. The brutal decline in UK manufacturing and Ford’s apparent aspiration to exit these shores, despite the UK remaining their market leader, is a tragedy in itself. Nonetheless nothing will remove the history surrounding this industrial giant at Dagenham, particularly the memories of struggles won and lost by the workers and trade unionists who built its reputation.
It was humbling at Bernie’s funeral listening to his grandson talk about grandad with love and pride. He spoke of this retiring old gentleman who sat in his chair with a large cigar and scotch, reciting stories of war days serving in Italy as Private Passingham. Despite having obvious leadership qualities Bernie refused promotion as he felt it was safer in the fields with the troops, which you would imagine was where he would rather have been, amongst the Rank ‘n’ File. Nonetheless at the end of the war he was enlisted into the Territorial Army and immediately promoted. These are experiences you can easily relate to his future trade union activities and leadership qualities.
Ironically Bernie never spoke much about his work at Ford or his trade union past with his grandchildren until one day he telephoned his grandson and asked him if he would like to go to the pictures. It was the red carpet treatment for the premier of ‘Made in Dagenham’ at Leicester Square Theatre, London and Bernie’s grandson smiled as he recalled how he couldn’t believe it when he found out Grandad ‘was Bob Hoskins’!! The resulting publicity and recognition from the film’s release no doubt enhanced the love, affection and esteem the Passingham family will always hold for Bernie.
Out of the endeavours of our Dagenham machinists and Bernie’s unrelenting support it was shame that it took so long for society to recognise the need for change. Equally it is a pity that it took a film release to fully educate the masses 40 years later and further disappointing that we still sometimes have to fight for women’s Equality today. Having said all that I am glad the history is finally out there, ‘Made in Dagenham’ was a success and stands as a repeated inspirational message and fitting tribute to the Dagenham women and their Convenor.
I am glad to have taken a rollicking off the River Plant Convenor in 1979 and known of Bernie Passingham, Trade Unionist, Equalities Champion and lifelong Labour Party member.
Deputy Regional Secretary
“It's not every day your grandfather is played in a film by Bob Hoskins - but he did in Made in Dagenham”. These were the moving words of Bernie Passingham's grandson Alan at the funeral. The film was the first time they really knew the important part he had played with Ford women machinists in achieving equal pay in 1968 and 1984, not just for them, but for all working women.
I was the TGWU's Regional Officer for Women and Equal Opportunities in the early 90s when Bernie Passingham and Dora Challingsworth contacted me to take on the next stage of the struggle - pension’s justice for Ford women. And later I had the great honour of arranging for them all to be part of "The Reunion" on Radio 4, the programme that led directly to the film being made.
As trade unionists we know that nothing is ever handed to us on a plate - rights that are taken for granted were won through struggle. And we can never be complacent - gains have to be defended and built on. The story of equal pay rights and the industrial struggle at Ford show this so well.
Bernie Passingham stood up as a trade unionist for equal pay and women’s equality when it was very hard to do so, because he believed it was right and just... They all made history together.
Assistant General Secretary
Bernie should be remembered as a Convenor who not only took on the bosses at Ford, but the Trade Union membership and their representative structures. Thinking in the 1960’s was both entrenched and sexist – women went to work for ‘pin money’ and their very real contribution to the output of factories such as Ford was downplayed to the point of invisibility – until the women stood up to the system, challenging it all the way to the top. Bernie’s support during their struggle for equal pay was invaluable and appreciated by all the women involved then – and now. The attitudes of the male workers meant that Bernie was generally perceived as a traitor – it can’t have been easy for him to take them on in such a public way, and he would have had to challenge his own Trade Union whose own attitudes were mostly entrenched. Without men like Bernie taking on the ‘establishment’ (employers and Unions alike), the advancement of women’s causes in the workplace would have taken much longer than it eventually did. Together with the Dagenham machinists, Bernie helped to put equal pay on everyone’s agendas and, for that, we should remember him with pride.
Regional Equalities and Women’s Representative
London & Eastern Region, Unite the union