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).