"Made in Dagenham" - Women workers making history

Author: 
Esther Townsend

Esther Townsend reviews Made in Dagenham.

The strike for re-grading and equal pay organised by women sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham in 1968 is one of the heroic episodes of British labour movement history. In terms of both working-class militancy and women’s self-assertiveness, it was a product of movements that were already on the rise, and an important catalyst for further struggles and gains in the period that followed.

The machinists originally called for their jobs to be re-graded from unskilled (Grade B) to semi-skilled (Grade C), but it soon became clear that a big underlying problem was the existence of a ‘women’s rate’ which was only 85% of even the unskilled male rate. Equal pay became one of the strikers’ key demands, and their action galvanised wider struggles. The 1970s saw other equal pay strikes, the most famous of which was the 1976 Trico strike, at a Brentford factory making windscreen wipers. The National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights was formed by women trade unionists, organising a 1,000 strong demonstration for equal pay in 1969. The 1970 Equal Pay Act armed women with the right to demand equal pay with men doing "like work".

Every socialist, trade unionist and fighter for women’s rights should learn about this struggle and consider its lessons. Does the new film Made in Dagenham help in this task?

At first glance the film’s romanticised scenes of smiling workers cycling to work, women in 60s mini-dresses and hot pants, and sunny, summery glow, suggest that Made in Dagenham will follow in the footsteps of director Nigel Cole’s previous offerings Calendar Girls and Saving Grace, which depict women joining together to fight through to a feel-good ending. However, Made in Dagenham is saved from such blandness partly by its well-developed characters, and partly by the nature of the story and the film’s relatively close approximation to the real struggle. Factory workers striking is inevitably more interesting than middle-class ladies baking cakes!

Producer Stephen Woolley has amalgamated several real Dagenham strikers into a central character Rita (Sally Hawkins). Rita reluctantly becomes the strike leader and her development from hesitance and nerves into determination and forceful action mirrors that of the strike, which brought Ford’s entire production at Dagenham to a standstill, then spreading to women machinists at the Halewood plant in Liverpool.

The film does a surprisingly good job of depicting a world in which the working class was strong, confident and on the rise - from the fact that the strikers can simply put their hands up and walk out (no ballots for the courts to strike down!) to the fear with which workers’ struggles fill the bosses of multinational companies like Ford.

One particular aspect the film highlights well is the fact that women weren’t just fighting against sexism in wider society and law; they were also fighting for recognition by their own unions. Since the 19th century women workers had been viewed by sections of the movement as a threat to male employment, and some trade unions had supported bans on married women working and women being thrown out of war employment when conflicts ended. Alongside an overall increase in unemployment during the 1930s, women workers increased their share of the workforce from 27% in 1923 to 30% in 1939, fuelling the idea that women were a ‘threat’ to men. Lower pay for women was, at base, a way of capitalists saving money – this both generated and was reinforced by institutionalised ideas that their work was less important and their wages ‘pocket money’ to support their serious duties in the home.

The film shows the women’s difficulties, but ultimate success, in winning support from male workers, from their own families and men at the plant to their union’s national delegate conference. Male privilege and class solidarity jostle with each other.

The depiction of the union bureaucracy is fairly realistic. National Ford convenor Monty (Kenneth Cranham) attempts to palm off the women with lunches at expensive restaurants (on the union), while asking them to keep quiet during negotiations in which they are repeatedly referred to as “the girls”. The chauvinist attitudes of union officials are combated by Rita’s refusal to be placated and her determination to maintain the principle of striking for equal pay. Dagenham branch secretary Albert (Bob Hoskins) backs them up. One scene shows an argument between Albert and national officials – apparently Communist Party hacks – who try to represent Marx as saying “men make history”, i.e. implying that women do not. Albert replies by quoting Marx’s position that “social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex”, and asking them if that was a different Marx, “Groucho perhaps?” It’s pretty clear that the treatment of the strikers is a matter of sexism and bureaucracy intertwined.

Naturally, the relationships between women are the strongest theme in the film, but not just those of the strikers. Through their sons both attending the local grammar school Rita develops a friendship with Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike) – the wife of the Ford plant manager – who, after reading history at Cambridge, has ended up as a housewife who is not allowed to think or have opinions. This friendship culminates with Lisa standing outside Rita’s flat pleading with her not to give up on the strike. She points out that Rita and the other women are “making history” whilst her husband treats her like “a fool”. This scene shows how the women workers have the potential to “make history” and challenge oppression in a way that bourgeois women like Lisa are not able to. You might think Lisa’s existence would be a way of toning down the class-struggle content of the film, but – however the film-makers intended it – it actually acts as an example of workers acting as a beacon for all the oppressed.

The other ruling-class woman in the film is much more problematic. Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, then the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. For most of the film the depiction is fairly accurate: Castle balances between the company and the workers, hoping the dispute will end, complains about strikes and demands that Harold Wilson give her the power to “regulate the unions” (as she in fact tried, but failed to do). Even in the last scenes she attempts to fob off the women with a vague promise of equal pay legislation. But female solidarity wins through, after Rita ludicrously tells Castle that “we’re working women, and so are you”, and in the end she helps the women win what is presented as a resounding victory – an immediate rise to 92% of comparable men’s wages, rising to 100% in two years, and a promise of equal pay legislation.

In the real world the deal meant that the women didn’t get the re-grading to skilled status they had demanded, with all kinds of negative results not only in terms of benefits such as pensions but also class power. (The women only won re-grading to C Grade in 1984 following a further seven week strike). The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, but as a concession to the bosses did not come into force for five years – and has still not solved the problem of unequal pay, much of which is not simply a matter of crude discrimination, but women’s segregation into low-paid, ‘feminised’ jobs. Today, women workers are still paid on average 16.4% less than male workers, rising to two-thirds less among part-time workers. At Ford in 1970 no male workers were doing ‘like work’ so no comparison could be made. Castle tried to bring in the first anti-union laws since the Second World War, ‘In Place of Strife’, preparing the way for Heath’s attack on the unions and eventually Thatcher’s.

Perhaps the low point of the film is right at the end, when Rita and Castle chat about the dresses they are wearing, and Castle appears before the press as a friend of the workers. During the credits we are told that Ford – a viciously anti-union company which, since 1968, has laid off millions of workers all over the world and tens of thousands at Dagenham – is now a model employer.

There will be more Ford Dagenhams in the future – the struggle of women in low paid and undervalued jobs will be central to the new wave of women’s struggles and a renewal of socialist women’s movement politics. One of the best lines in the film is on the day after their first, one-day strike, when one of the younger women, Brenda, says "It's a taste of how it might be". Whatever the makers of Made in Dagenham intended, these are the real lessons: that if we fight, we can win; that neither sexism nor class exploitation are unchallengeable; and that workers have made history and will again.

The AWL will be holding a public meeting on the Ford equal pay strike and its lessons for today in London on Thursday 21 October: see here for details.