Films: Made in Dagenham

by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith & Michael Schreiber

“Made in Dagenham” is one of the best labor-oriented films to open in commercial movie houses in recent years. It is a touching, warm, and often humorous picture of British working-class life in the 1960s. And the struggle it portrays will leave you cheering.

The film (directed by Nigel Cole, with screenplay by William Ivory) is a dramatization of the three-week strike in 1968 by women at the Ford plant in Dagenham, on the outskirts of London. The victory of the sewing machinists was key in the fight to abolish wage discrimination against women, and helped to launch the feminist movement in Britain. Their militant and uncompromising struggle holds many lessons for the labor and social movements today.

“Made in Dagenham” opens on a scene of women working in a sweatshop atmosphere at industrial-size sewing machines and cutters, making upholstery for car seats in Ford automobiles. Many women are stripped to their underclothes in order to endure the sweltering heat. And when it rains, they unfurl umbrellas to protect their machines from run-off from the holes in the roof.

Most of the women are married to men who work on the plant’s automobile assembly lines. (A lot of the women acting in the film are workers in real life, who were recently laid off from a Hoover plant in Wales.) The filmmakers captured the look of the late-sixties suburban working class with the women’s beehive and flip hairdos, make-up, and dress styles. There are great scenes of them bicycling to work in the rain and passersby bringing them food and hot tea on the picket line. Sally Hawkins plays the petite but spunky sewing-machine operator, Rita O’Grady.

A subplot involves the World War II vet husband of one of the women who meets a tragic end, making Rita feel guilty for pushing her agenda. On the other hand, Rita gains the unexpected sympathy of a wealthy woman, Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), whose child attends the same school as Rita’s son. Lisa happens to be married to a wealthy Ford official, Peter (Rupert Graves), in an upscale, split-level home; yet despite her Master’s in History, he treats her like a maid.

Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins), a sympathetic union rep, announces that the women are being reclassified into less-skilled Category B jobs, and that they will be paid 15% less than the full B rate received by men. The news infuriates them. Rita, the most vociferous, is chosen as the spokeswoman to bring their grievance to management. When their written and vocal complaints prove ineffectual, they decide to strike.

Management tries to talk them out of it, threatening that a strike would bring production to a halt and no one would get any money; how would their husbands put food on the table? The union bureaucrats also try to browbeat the women into staying on the job. The head of the local union, who calls his cohorts “comrades” and spouts half-remembered quotes from Marx, argues that the women’s fight against pay discrimination is really not very important in the scheme of things. And even worse, he claims, their militancy could upset the union’s plans for friendly negotiations with corporations on the national level.

The frequent meetings and picket-line activities alienate the women from their families. Husbands and children complain of late or non-existent meals. When the wives travel to other towns to rally support, their husbands are left to cook, clean, and get the kids off to school.

The women vote to strike; production stops; men are laid-off, and the plant is closed. Rita and her husband can no longer keep up payments on their refrigerator, and a crew from the appliance store carts it away. Many families likewise suffer. But Rita’s husband slowly begins to understand the importance of Rita’s activities in the labor movement, and he proudly offers her his support.

In the meantime, Ford’s top management—including a Ford honcho from the United States—tries to engineer a deal with the union bureaucracy to end the walkout. But their efforts fail. At an important union conference, Rita gives a simple but impassioned speech, which convinces a large majority of the delegates to vote to sanction the Dagenham strike.

By this time, the Dagenham women have been receiving national publicity. Their militant action is a thorn in the side of Harold Wilson’s Labor Party government, which is under pressure by the corporations to put an end to the strike wave now overtaking Britain. Barbara Castle (excellent, spot-on performance by Miranda Richardson), the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in Wilson’s cabinet, asks the women to meet her in her office. Castle intervenes, and the strike ends.

The women did not achieve equal pay but 92% of a man’s earnings, rising to the full Category B rate the following year. Still, this ruling didn’t end happily: a court of inquiry (under the Industrial Courts Act 1919) was set up to consider their re-grading, but it failed to rule in their favor, and the women were only re-graded into Category C (fully skilled) following another strike in 1984, lasting six weeks.

The Dagenham sewing machinists’ actions proved that working women and men have the power to win against odds that might seem to be overwhelming—if only they keep up the fight. Their actions led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came into force in 1975, and for the first time, prohibited inequality in terms of pay and conditions of employment between men and women in the UK.

Yet in Britain today, women still receive an average of 17 percent less then men in similar job categories. Many companies routinely flout government regulations on pay equality—and get away with it.

In the United States, the gap is even wider; women make 77 cents to a dollar despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. One only has to read the details of conditions with which this act applies state-by-state to understand why the United States is backward in its dealing with equal pay for women. Hopefully, “Made in Dagenham” will help to bring the issue of pay discrimination against women to the fore.

> This article was originally published in the January 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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