Ford car plant in the 1970s: The first strike against sexual harassment in a factory in NZ

Don Franks was interviewed by Dr Toby Boraman in December 2013 about his time working in the militant Ford car plant in the 1970s. In this third installment Don tells of a fight against sexual harassment of women.

(The interview has been lightly edited. For citations please acknowledge the interviewer and interviewee The first installment is here and the second installment here.)

There was a sexual harassment dispute at the plant which was quite important, I’ll talk about that now if you like.

Yeah, yeah okay.

The basis was it was that in the paint department, there were noises about one of the foremen molesting some of the women in the paint booth.  And anyway I heard a few rumblings about this and I made a bit of an investigation, getting some complaints and but I couldn’t put anything together, so I took it no further. Then about a month later I saw a film called The Scream of Silence.  Have you ever heard of it?


It’s a film about rape. It’s a very graphic film. So I saw this film and it made quite an impression on me and it just so happened that the next day someone says one of those women have been sexually harassed in the paint booth. So I bent every effort, I went right through the fuckin paint department, I talked to every single person there and yes there was, there was definitely something going on and that did actually light the fuse. Then it took off a life of its own because these women started to realise they reinforced each other. So we had a meeting of the women in the paint department. They wanted to have a meeting just with them and me.  I think that’s how it started. 

So how many women were there?

Oh about half of them, I don’t know, couple of dozen maybe.

So quite a lot.

Oh yeah.  And a kind of stroppy bunch too in the paint shop, you know

Were they Maori or …

Mostly Maori or Pacific Island and one or two Pakeha people but, mixed. 

And anyhow, we then had a meeting with the whole paint shop and a guy said well okay we’ll support you so you know so the paint shop was united at that stage.

And the men were happy with that?


The men were happy with that outcome?

Oh yeah they were.  That was what tipped it because then I called a meeting of our senior delegates, see Danny had stepped down by that stage.  He was still in the frame.  He wasn’t all that keen on it.  I mean he wasn’t agitating against it but I mean initially none of the other guys were keen on it but I was a little bit more motivated because not only seeing that film but in the Workers Communist League women’s rights was a big thing. You were constantly trained in this area. So we had a meeting, the whole plant, it was quite a nice sunny afternoon and so I went in there reasonably confident because I knew I had the paint shop united. We went in and we debated the thing all afternoon.  And we won it.  And the place was committed to going on strike.

The whole plant?

Yeah, what we did. The paint shop was going on strike and everyone else was in support.  That was an easier way to do it, you know because that meant people gradually got laid off later.  See in those days they didn’t just tip everyone out.  They’d just tip you out when they ran out of work.  So it made more sense so you’d get another day’s pay or something out of it.  I mean these days that wouldn’t happen either.  All the bosses have learned a hell of a lot, they’ve learned more than us.

Yeah, yeah.

Anyhow, our demand was that the foreman be sacked, the foreman who was complained of. The company was for shifting him to another department and we said “oh no no you know you don’t put your rubbish in someone else’s place”. So anyway away it went and the place was stopped for several days and it got on the news to some extent. The dispute went on for some days in a stalemate. This is how it finished up. One of the things that always used to happen was that if we had a dispute and we were stuck, the custom was to give it to the Trades Council.

When you mean stuck with it you mean …

Well you didn’t know where to go next. You didn’t know where to go.  Because after a week a lot of people would be financially in the shit.  A lot of people lived from pay packet to pay packet, and they lived like that quite happily but after a week certain things weren’t being paid and so in the time honoured manner you gave the dispute to the Trades Council. They would negotiate something and you’d have to live with it. Usually we’d grumble about it you know but “oh they sold us out” but I mean you know you’ve handed it to them.  You know they had no magic lever.  All they could do was their best. Anyhow they negotiated something whereby the foreman was reprimanded and shifted to another department or something like that.

You went to the Human Rights Commission didnt you?

Oh yeah, that was Graeme Clarke’s idea. 

Try something different.


Rather than the Trades Council?

Well no we involved them in it.

Yeah, okay.

The Commission were quite excited about it because it was the first industrial thing that they had. And all these women went in one after the other and were interviewed by the Human Rights lady. As I remember she had this façade of being totally objective and da de da but I think she was actually from the word go she was on their side.  That was the impression I got.  Because I mean they did have a case.

So we passed it over and I rang up Ken Douglas and asked what happened. He told me the deal they’d come to.  So I went back to the paint shop and was about one o’clock.  And I said well this is what we got.  And they said get Ken Douglas out here, you know we’re not accepting this.  So, I went back to the phone. To his credit he came straight out.  He drove out to the plant, so he’s there, he’s there about half past one or something and the paint shop workers they sail into him and he defended the Trades Council’s position. I’m not a fan of Ken Douglas for a great many reasons but I thought he was actually quite principled and because he came out, he fronted up. He’d been given the thing, given power to negotiate and probably it wasn’t, you know and it wasn’t that bad an outcome.  Anyway, they bailed him up until the knock off whistle went and then they all disappeared.  And he drove me back to town. 

The point that I’d take out of that case is several very important things. One is that it just raised people’s consciousness about women’s rights and sexual harassment. Because it was debated not only at the meeting but throughout the factory for a week people were debating these things and the women in the paint shop had a huge rise in their confidence and self-esteem and self-worth.  But see these days if such a thing happened, none of that would eventuate.  It would be illegal to stop work over such an issue.  People wouldn’t have the culture of stopping anyway.  Back then it wasn’t actually illegal for us to take that strike action.  There was no law that said you could but no law said you couldn’t.

That’s a good point.

So these days if such a thing happened it will be an individual going to arbitration, with a personal grievance.  That will be it so all that on the job education and also that decision making, you know, that mass decision making where we went and we decided okay yeah we were going to support these people and then took it, see all of that is something that people are not in a position to experience today.  I mean it was a little bit unusual then you know.  But it wasn’t, you know it wasn’t terribly out of the way.

So this, this dispute was a kind of landmark dispute then?

A what?

A landmark dispute for the time.

Well, I don’t know I suppose it was.  I think it might have been the first strike against sexual harassment in a factory.  I don’t know.  Possibly.

I think so.  I havent come across it before.

We put a little Workers Communist League booklet together about it.

Is that that No Laughing Matter One?


It would have been a better book but there was a tape made with one of the women which was lost.  Someone lost the tape which was a pity.

It was an interview with somebody?

One of the women in the paint shop. It’s still not a bad wee book.

Yeah it’s alright. So shall we talk a bit about sexism in general in the workplace?

So was it a male dominated plant?

Oh yeah but you see …

Not as in dominated but majority men.

Yeah, it was. It was mitigated by the fact that there were always women delegates. I can remember a couple of times some women had some issue and they’d say well no disrespect to you Don but can I take this up with a woman delegate.  There were always woman delegates who were the equals of the other guys.The only places in there that women weren’t allowed to work in were the lead booth because of lead poisoning and pregnancy.

I don’t know whether we had any woman final coat spray painters but I don’t think that was necessarily down to sex.  Women worked throughout the plant and there were quite a few married couples there.

It was at a time when there were still quite a few housewives at home.

So did that mean you mainly had single young women?

There were single young women and there were women supporting families.

Oh okay.

There were quite a lot of married couples and both worked at Fords. 

Oh okay, yeah.

Quite a few. There was the ‘normal’ sexism of the time but I think it was mitigated by the fact that the most active union was just a constant presence.  It was a constant factor of workers lives so something went wrong you went to the union. So if your senior delegate was a woman you just went to them. That took the shine off chauvinistic attitudes. I’m not saying they weren’t there but you know people would at least shut up about it.

Yeah yeah, sure.

Of course the sexual harassment dispute had a bit of a bearing. 

Did women become more stroppy with the rise of the kind of womens lib movement if you like?

Well that was our factory’s women’s lib movement.  There was also a thing going on, a branch of the WCL called the Working Women’s Alliance.

Oh, that put out the paper Workings Women Working Together.

They put that out and I remember Sandra McCallum came out when we had a meeting of the paint shop.  She was quite heavily pregnant too and came to the meeting bringing support from the Working Women’s Alliance and saying well this is good what you’re doing.So that was something that had a bit of a presence in Wainuiomata among, among housewives.  Not a huge presence but it was a presence. 

Did you have things like in the freezing works when you had women tried to take on men’s jobs.  Did you have any of that?

 I’m just trying to think now.  The only one that was debarred was the lead booth, really. 

But you didnt really want to get in there cause of the poisoning issue. 

I mean it was, I don’t think anyone should have been in there.

Well yeah, yeah.

But, but, so no I mean there, like there were women inspectors cause in most departments that was like as high as you could go.  There weren’t women foremen and I suppose that’s an expression of gender imbalance but I mean from our point of view that wouldn’t have struck us as being a problem cause foremen they’re on the other side of the fence you see.

So it’s not something we would have been angling for. 

I don’t think there was any women cleaner either.  The cleaners were mostly older guys in their fifties or sixties. Some of those older kiwi factory workers who might have been 40 but they looked about 60. 

These old guys wandering around very slowly with a broom and putting the tea out and throwing a bit of disinfectant in the general direction of a toilet.

Theyd be in the Cleaners and Caretakers Union?

Well that was before it got going.  Just before Pat Kelly took it over it was a nothing union before Pat rejuvenated it. 

Another one, yeah.

And they just shuffled around.

That’s interesting.  Tell me one question we’re interested in is I think I read in the Coach Workers journal that the strategy of the union was to build up some degree of control over the production process, over time.

Yeah.  Yeah.

Did you actually achieve that?

Yes and no. I mean you can’t, you can’t control a moving line really. One thing that we had a lot of futile arguments and one or two futile stoppages over was the guys wanted to know, this came up every now and then, how many units do you want to be made in a day.  How many do we have to make and the, the company would always respond and I think not unreasonably, well you just work to process you know.  You just, well you just keep doing your job and however many it is at the end of the day that’s how many it is.  Cause what, what a lot of them wanted to do of course was to rush through it …

And then go home.

And go home you see …

Or the pub.

Yeah, yeah that’s right and so …

Which did happen overseas apparently.


That happened overseas quite a lot, in some factories but go on.

Yeah, and the other thing is is that there’s only one way to, there’s only one way to assemble a car really.  You work to process.  You put this bit on here, you put this bit on there and then this other bit goes on and there’s a certain  number of screws and da de da da da so you know really that there’s pretty much only one way to do it.

What is a bit interesting from the times is the company made a tentative attempt to involve us in workers’ control and they had a thing called Quality Circles and it was a very lame timid attempt at getting workers involved in caring about what they made, and it was a voluntary thing and da de da and only a few goody goody sort of people had the slightest interest and most of us jeered at it.

There was also a suggestion box and you could put a suggestion in and most people ignored that but once in a while someone’d have an idea and you’d put a thing in you got money and in fact I got money myself.  I was working on the water test and something occurred to me and I thought about it for quite a while whether it would be helping the class enemy or what if I put a ticket in the suggestion box but I did and I think I got a couple of hundred bucks out of it which was quite a lot.  I think, Graeme wrote a couple of things about controlling production and that but it wasn’t something that caught people’s imagination.  I mean most people just wanted to get their work out of the way and fuck off home, you know. 

Yeah, yeah.

You know it was because there’s only one way to assemble a car, it’s not something like fine  work like cabinet making. It’s not something you’d take much of a pride in.  Not even as much I don’t think as putting nice paint on the outside of a house.  There’s only one way to do the process and you’d do it and it’s hot and it’s noisy and so you’re getting reasonably well paid so you do it and then you fuck off, to do something that you want to do.

Yeah exactly. Same thing day after day and I think exact same thing you do on the job you know.

 Now that’s another thing outside people often comment on  – oh the monotony and oh you know wouldn’t it be nice if you’re all making a whole complete thing. Well that’s all shit actually.  Most people would rather have the same process and keep doing it, if they’re in that environment, because the more used to doing it, the more you can cut little corners. So if you’re doing exactly the same thing, if you’re like me if you’re putting the headliners in and putting the sun visors on and the little light and whatever else I did, you get used to that. Then you can buy yourself, especially if it’s not a moving line, maybe about an hour and a half or two hours in a day where you can be sitting on the toilet reading a book or something. So we don’t want to be swapping round.  We just want to do one operation and get to know it really well and then we can buy time for ourselves because we’re really good at that operation.  That was my observation of how most of us felt.

And did a lot of people take off for an hour or two?

Well some of us would go and sit and read in the toilet. I remember there was one women on our line she’d spend an unreasonably long time on the toilet and our foreman came over and he said oh look you’ve been a wee while there in the toilet.  I’ve been changing my sanitary pad she said good and loud so the whole rest of the plant can hear, and then he goes red and he never bothered her with that again.  If you weren’t on a moving line you could buy yourself some time, but we didn’t want variety in our work, that’s the last thing we wanted.

Right.  Thats interesting cause a lot of, some people prefer that eh?

Yeah I know quite often but you sometimes find that quite often they haven’t done that sort of work very much.

Right.  And also did you find that people could switch off and can think of other things whilst you do this thing.

Oh yeah for, sure, exactly.  We’d always do the Dominion crossword and on the truck line compare notes. We’d be talking about all sorts of things, although the most heated debate we had on that truck line was about the silliest things you could think of and it was never resolved. It was whether professional wrestling is real or acted.  That was the most contentious. I mean we talked about international issues and all sorts of stuff but that was the one that blazed away for days and days. 

Shall we talk a bit about disputes a bit more, just in general, and maybe just ask you a few questions about certain ones.  We kind of talked about causes of disputes but now I read that horrible enquiry, remember that in 1977 some guy, I think the yeah Coach Workers actually asked for an enquiry by an independent guy and then he wrote this report about Ford Seaview, about the number of disputes there, and he basically blamed the Coach Workers.

Yeah that’s right.  Now what’s the guy’s name. Valentine. The Valentine Report.

My brother wrote the Coach Worker’s reply.

Oh okay.

He wrote that.  He was a WCL member then and he wrote a really good sort of rejoinder to this thing. The Coach Workers union didn’t have anything to do with it. 

Yeah that was disturbing because the guy was saying the company was okay but you guys were the ultra-militant revolutionaries who were out to disrupt and do nothing else, you know.  It was kind of weird.

The Valentine Report wasn’t a hell of a big deal really because nothing much  came of it.

Cause he wrote the thing and the rejoinder that Peter (my brother) wrote – in terms of debating points it answered it quite well so the company weren’t left in much of a position. Valentine had done his report but the Coach Workers had answered it.  So where were they going to go, you know.

It didn’t lead to Muldoon picking on you cause he did that with the Boilermakers?

No, we never had anything like that.  In Wellington it was Con Devitt getting all that sort of flack.

Con helped us out with quite a few things too.  He came out and did some negotiations with us and we learnt quite a lot off him.  Con was good. But, no we didn’t really get into the news very much.

Right.  So you kind of went under the radar a bit.  Yeah.  Would, speed-up be a big reason for dispute.  Would it just be a combination of things.?

I can’t remember speed-up being an issue because all the time I  was there it was an organised place.  It was organised before I got there and, and it was organised in the time I was there so people were pretty alert to complain quickly. 

In the next installment Don talks about the big strike in 1979-80 at the carplant.