Made in Dagenham: Lessons for Today From the Golden Age of Factory Unrest?

Steve Early

The finer points of British labor history aside, if you like Brassed Off, The Full Monty, or Billy Elliot, Made in Dagenham is the film for you."

In 1968, the world was trans­fixed by glob­al stu­dent unrest. Less atten­tion was paid to fac­to­ry upris­ings that occurred at the same time and over­lapped with cam­pus protests in places like France. In one small cor­ner of the Ford Motor Company’s huge pro­duc­tion com­plex in Dagen­ham, Eng­land, sev­er­al hun­dred women did their part in the year of revolt.”

Toil­ing in their own sex-seg­re­gat­ed depart­ment, the only females in a plant of 55,000 had walked out many times in the past, over strike issues dear to their male co-work­ers. Now, it was their turn to shut down sewing machines, stop pro­duc­tion of seat cov­ers, and pick­et Ford over a pay dis­pute with broad­er social impli­ca­tions.

Made in Dagen­ham is the sto­ry of their strike — born of work­ing class fem­i­nist con­scious­ness in a labor move­ment even more dom­i­nat­ed by the lads” forty years ago than it is today. Schmaltzy, up beat and out of synch with our cur­rent work­place gestalt of hope­less­ness and defeat, this film is just what the head doc­tor ordered for hol­i­day enter­tain­ment. It is, by far, the best pop­u­lar depic­tion of union activist cre­ation since Ken Loach’s Bread and Ros­es and Mar­tin Ritt’s Nor­ma Rae.

If unions don’t use it to train shop stew­ards and bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers, that fail­ure of labor edu­ca­tion imag­i­na­tion will be under­stand­able because Made in Dagen­ham cap­tures the fre­quent ten­sion between labor’s full­time offi­cial­dom and its work­ing mem­bers, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing strikes.

The strike leader played by Sal­ly Hawkins in Nigel Cole’s new movie is a very British ver­sion of the South­ern tex­tile work­er por­trayed so famous­ly by Sal­ly Fields in 1979. Rita O’Grady is not even a union stew­ard in the film’s ear­ly scenes of shop-floor life and work. She steps into that role only because her old­er co-work­er, Con­nie, is deal­ing with the sui­ci­dal depres­sion of her hus­band, a dam­aged sur­vivor of wartime duty in the RAF. Unlike the mill where Nor­ma Rae toiled, the Dagen­ham plant is com­plete­ly orga­nized. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, with the excep­tion of Albert, a love­able chief stew­ard ally (won­der­ful­ly played by Bob Hoskins), the union, which is a com­pos­ite of sev­er­al actu­al­ly involved, seems to func­tion as an arm of Ford’s HR depart­ment, a labor-man­age­ment rela­tion­ship not unknown to auto work­ers in this coun­try.

The polit­i­cal tra­di­tions of British trade unions give this arrange­ment humor­ous left cov­er. In one mem­o­rable scene, a clutch of wor­ried offi­cials, in jack­ets and ties, are try­ing to talk Rita out of strike action that might upend some murky, big pic­ture strat­e­gy the lead­er­ship is pur­su­ing. While con­de­scend­ing to the only work­er in the room, they address each oth­er as com­rade” and invoke Marx as the final author­i­ty on what should and should not be done!

Rita’s first bar­gain­ing ses­sion is a face-to-face meet­ing with Ford offi­cials about their mis-clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the sewing machine oper­a­tors as unskilled labor. Both Rita and Con­nie (Geral­dine James) get a day off from work and over-dress for the occa­sion. Mon­ty, their full-time union rep­re­sen­ta­tive (played by Ken­neth Cran­ham), first takes them out for a well-lubri­cat­ed lunch, a perk designed to put Rita and Con­nie (Geral­dine James) in his debt. Mon­ty has obvi­ous­ly been off the job and out of the plant for years; his main pre­oc­cu­pa­tion now seems to be eat­ing and drink­ing at dues-pay­er expense, dress­ing nice­ly, and see­ing the company’s side of things. When the union del­e­ga­tion final­ly sits down with man­age­ment, Mon­ty does all the talk­ing and fails to give Ford a firm dead­line for fix­ing the prob­lem.

Shocked by the incom­pe­tence of her own union nego­tia­tor, and his obvi­ous cozi­ness with the employ­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Rita com­man­deers the meet­ing. She inter­rupts Mon­ty and pulls out sam­ples of the seat cov­ers stitched by the work­ers in her depart­ment. She explains the com­plex­i­ty of the labor process involved and insists that Ford prop­er­ly reward the skill and expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to do the job. The scene is a great tuto­r­i­al in how make effec­tive job upgrade pre­sen­ta­tions — and, believe me, they’re always done best by those who do the actu­al work. The boss­es are so tak­en aback that one can only respond with a threat of dis­ci­pline for Rita’s lift­ing of the mate­r­i­al used in her demon­stra­tion.

The rad­i­cal­iza­tion of Rita that fol­lows is a sight to be seen. Hawkins’ char­ac­ter in this film is no Pop­py, the loopy Cock­ney in Mike Leigh’s Hap­py-Go-Lucky that won her a Gold­en Globe and a slew of oth­er awards in 2008. She is a moth­er with two chil­dren, work­ing the prover­bial dou­ble shift” in a tra­di­tion­al mar­riage to a fel­low Dagen­ham work­er (played by Daniel Mays) who is sweet but weak-willed. She’s a woman pre­vi­ous­ly lack­ing in per­son­al self-con­fi­dence, a stranger to pub­lic speak­ing, and bereft of polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence” (as Ford offi­cials dis­cov­er when they scour her file expect­ing to find evi­dence of left-wing par­ty con­nec­tions).

Under the tute­lage of Albert (a far more appeal­ing ver­sion of the union men­tors played by Ron Leib­man in Nor­ma Rae and Adrien Brody in Bread and Ros­es), Rita finds her own voice, a streak of deter­mi­na­tion, and the capac­i­ty to move oth­ers. As in many strikes, rank-and-file uni­ty is stronger at the begin­ning. Then, as the job action spreads, thou­sands are thrown out of work and the recrim­i­na­tions begin to fly. For some work­ers, orga­niz­ing strike relief, attend­ing ral­lies, main­tain­ing pick­et-lines, and meet­ing oth­er union mem­bers is a learn­ing expe­ri­ence, lib­er­at­ing and even euphor­ic. Oth­ers — in this case, main­ly fear­ful or dis­grun­tled guys — slink away to the pub. There, they watch strike cov­er­age on the tel­ly and grouse about the eco­nom­ic hard­ship inflict­ed on the real bread-win­ners in the com­mu­ni­ty by a hand­ful of unrea­son­able women.

Rita’s own Nor­ma Rae moment occurs at a union con­fer­ence, not stand­ing on the pick­et-line or a work bench in the plant. Mon­ty and the oth­er com­rades” have sched­uled a vote, among the entire­ly male con­fer­ence del­e­gates, that will end this cost­ly indus­tri­al action” at Ford, with­out a favor­able res­o­lu­tion of the job grad­ing issue. Rita and her rov­ing pick­ets are the only women at the meet­ing. Rita takes the stage and deliv­ers a mov­ing but sim­ple speech recall­ing the wartime courage of her co-worker’s hus­band, the now deceased RAF vet­er­an. Men and women, we are in this togeth­er,” she tells the stone-faced crowd. We are not divid­ed by sex. Only by those will­ing to accept injus­tice.” Moved, shamed and/​or inspired by her mes­sage, the del­e­gates vote to con­tin­ue union back­ing for the Dagen­ham strike, which, by then, was cre­at­ing wide­spread dis­rup­tion of Ford pro­duc­tion.

The com­pa­ny responds by send­ing a hard-nosed exec­u­tive from Detroit to read the riot act to Britain’s then-Labour Gov­ern­ment. If the strike is not end­ed, Ford strong­ly hints, it might shift Corti­na pro­duc­tion to a land where the blokes and birds aren’t so strike hap­py. The prime min­is­ter at the time was the wishy-washy Harold Wil­son. His First Sec­re­tary of State was Bar­bara Cas­tle, a long­time mem­ber of par­lia­ment (played with flair by Miran­da Richard­son) who takes charge of the sit­u­a­tion when Wil­son doesn’t. In the film, with a lit­tle wav­ing of Castle’s mag­ic wand, a dis­pute over pay-grad­ing in a par­tic­u­lar auto plant job clas­si­fi­ca­tion gets trans­formed, for PR pur­pos­es, into a broad­er demand for equal pay.” Two years after the walk-out was final­ly set­tled with an increase for the sewing machine oper­a­tors (that still left them earn­ing less than men in the same job grade), Par­lia­ment did enact leg­is­la­tion against pay dis­crim­i­na­tion, based on gen­der. The mea­sure was not ful­ly imple­ment­ed until 1975.

But the social real­i­ty, in the mean­time, was a bit more com­plex, as sev­er­al British com­men­ta­tors, includ­ing Sheila Cohen, have not­ed. (See Cohen’s cri­tique of the film at The Com­mune) The real-life Labour Par­ty fem­i­nist shown nego­ti­at­ing with Rita and her friends in Lon­don trig­gered a trade union revolt in 1969 with a white paper enti­tled, In Place of Strife.” Cas­tle (who lat­er become Baroness Cas­tle of Black­burn) cre­at­ed a back­lash against Wilson’s gov­ern­ment and con­tributed to Labour’s elec­toral defeat in 1970, when she tried to curb union rights and quell the broad­er strike wave that the women of Dagen­ham surfed so impres­sive­ly.

The fin­er points of British left and labor his­to­ry aside, if you like Brassed Off, The Full Mon­ty, or Bil­ly Elliot, Made in Dagen­ham is the film for you. The lyrics for its theme song, per­formed by for­mer Dagen­ham work­er Sandie Shaw, were writ­ten by the British protest rock­er, Bil­ly Bragg (who has a street in Dagen­ham named after him.) It’s not coal min­ers or steel­work­ers who take cen­ter stage this time, but sewing machine oper­a­tors who were no less skilled in the hard work of union solidarity.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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