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Socialism Today 143 - November 2010

A striking victory

Made in Dagenham

Directed by Nigel Cole

On general release – 113 mins

Reviewed by Linda Taaffe

MADE IN DAGENHAM is a great film. At the finish I wanted to stand up, punch the air with both fists and shout: ‘Yes! A victory!’ A group of 187 women factory workers won their battle for equal pay. They stood together. They went through times of elation and joy, doubt and uncertainty. Their laughter echoes throughout the story. In the end, the mighty car bosses caved in. It felt so good!

Films touch a chord when the audience can identify with something in their subject matter, plot or characters. This film does exactly that for socialists, trade unionists and, I believe, all women, particularly working-class women.

What the film only hints at in the opening shots was how politically turbulent was 1968, the year women machinists went on strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham. Across Europe strikes and mass demonstrations erupted. Ten million workers occupied the factories in France. Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia. American capitalism faced social upheaval, draft-dodging and mutiny over its horrific war in Vietnam, black youth rioted in the ghettoes, and angry feminists started bra-burning outside the Miss America pageant.

On a more local scale, a ‘housewife’ could not buy major items, like carpets or furniture, on hire purchase unless her husband signed the forms. Products were advertised with scantily-clad females draped over them as a matter of course. Women worked in mostly unskilled jobs, their skilled work on lower rates. The pay of women workers in industry was generally only half that of male earnings. Family allowance (child benefit) was paid to the father, not the mother. In this context, this small strike had a huge effect.

Made in Dagenham stands out because it is about real women. It is unfortunate that many films depict women as victims of sex crimes, as prostitutes, or aping the worst characteristics of macho-men. These Ford women had full-time jobs, producing car seat covers, as important as the assembly line work, part of the industrial process. They had other aspects to their lives, too. They had families to feed, kids’ clothes to iron, husbands that counted housework as women’s work. They had marital problems, and hopes and dreams of escaping to be rich, of even becoming famous. They lived on council estates, and socialised in Labour clubs. They were ordinary, yet led an extraordinary and victorious battle.

There are films, like those of Ken Loach, which are great and describe many of the problems of the working class. But they often over-emphasise the dark side of the tough lives many workers face, including defeats. This film is not of this character. But neither is it dull. It is a real piece of entertainment. It is uplifting. The director colours the truth through dramatic licence and paints the picture heavily here and there so that it can connect with an audience watching the story unfold for the first time, 40 years later.

This film is about laughter. You can hear it. Feel it permeate workers’ lives. Yes, factory conditions were poor, the roof leaked, the work was arduous. The factory buzzer sounded and the women started the machines. They were expected to turn out 55 seat cushions an hour, 240 bucket seats or 250 head-linings a day. They laboured on heavy machines, their hands scarred through handling unwieldy materials. When the buzzer signalled clocking-off time the machines were switched off immediately. You worked for the time you were paid. None of this voluntary overtime, out of good will or pressure from the boss, that thousands of workers endure today. Conditions were brutal, but the working class found a way of coping through humour. This comes over very strongly in their upbeat wit and, at times, raucous behaviour. There was no way they would be ground down.

The mood of the age shone through. This was a decade of optimism, of rising expectations. The privations of war had come to end, labour-saving devices were more affordable. Capitalism was still on an upswing. Manufacturers were chalking up millions in profits. Ford was a leading exporter. One of the machinists said: "What have they got to lose? 187 at five pence [old money] an hour? That’s a pittance. They could get us back tomorrow. And them making millions! This is their boom year".

Indeed, Ford could easily have afforded it, but chose to face the women down because even a small amount of its profits was at stake. Employers squealed about the loss of £1 billion in profits if equal pay was conceded. They said that the floodgates would open. Yet, when Ford was finally forced to concede, its profits were not affected. It continued to use every trick to screw wages down.

This battle for a share of the profits in a thriving economy was everywhere. Naturally, workers wanted a slice. The trade unions were crucial. Apart from the lovable, cheeky, cockney shop floor convenor, played by Bob Hoskins, the film depicts the union officials as conniving smoothies. Nonetheless, even these fixers played a role.

In the post-war economic upswing, there developed a type of bureaucratic leader who, under mass pressure, could be forced to threaten or actually call strike action to win advances for workers. In a manufacturing economy, while bosses needed workers to produce to make profits, this gave the unions some clout. Ford bosses were losing £1.25 million a day in the course of this strike. The trade unions using their full weight were powerful forces. It was through them that workers won the 40-hour week, payment for overtime and unsocial hours, improvements to pensions and welfare. These were the gains that bosses and governments have tried to clip back for years. Now, with the financial crisis, they want to roll them back even more.

Unions called mass meetings in car parks, called for a show of hands, then walked out on strike. Today, workers cannot operate in this way – legally. Strikes are bound by laws designed to take the effectiveness out of any action. ‘Everybody out’ has hardly been heard since Thatcher introduced the vicious anti-trade union laws in the 1980s, and which were never repealed by Blair or Brown. What happened at Dagenham could not happen today. And the solidarity action by the male workers would be unlawful, as would that by the women at Ford’s Halewood plant in Liverpool.

By their own admission, these women leaders did not see themselves as striking a blow for all women. They were doing what all workers would do: finding a way to make a justifiable claim for better wages. In a regrading exercise, Ford machinists were classed as unskilled, which meant lower pay. They claimed, quite rightly, that their job was as skilled as the paint sprayers (all men) and that they should be upgraded to semi-skilled. At root, it was a material struggle. However, it dovetailed with all kinds of agitation by women in the 1960s and 1970s: for access to skilled and professional jobs, education, better pay and conditions, and recognition of family responsibilities. And the Equal Pay Act was won in 1970.

It is ironic that the film’s release coincides with the massive cuts being prepared by the Con-Dem coalition, which are reckoned will affect women three times as hard as men. And the first big announcement was to end universal child benefit, now paid to mothers, for higher earners – a very dangerous precedent.

Many reviews have praised this film for its warmth and feel-good factor. Critics have extolled the qualities of these feisty East End women for going all-out for what they believed in. Then, reflecting the fear of the ruling class, they declare that strikes are for history, not the present day, unions are old hat, and trade unionists dinosaurs! Yet, equal pay has not really been won. Women still earn 16% less than men.

In the very near future, women will be on the march again. As the full effects of this capitalist crisis feed through, women will not stand silent. This time, the battle will not be for regrading, but for their very jobs, livelihoods and those of their families. Seeing this film may just rekindle the fires of opposition and set them thinking about how to win. Made in Dagenham is a simple retelling of a piece from the history of our class. It has important lessons. I would like to see it shown in union branches, workplaces and anti-cuts campaigns, to show all workers that there is an alternative. United collective action can force bosses, and governments, to retreat, the lesson being that workers can win.


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