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Film Review : Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham, depicts the true-life struggle of female workers for equal pay, in 1968 in the Ford Plant in Dagenham.

Produced by ‘BBC Films’, it stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, the girls’ main spokesperson, Rosamund Pike, as Lisa Hopkins, the wife of a Ford executive, who opposes him when the women strike, and Miranda Richardson, who delivers a crackerjack performance as Minister for Employment, Barbara Castle. Castle is initially angry that after two years of Labour goverment, with a large minority, they’ve had 26,000 strikes, lost five million working days and now, these women want to add to it.

Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1968 was the fourth largest auto manufacturing plant in the word, producing 3,000 cars a day. It comprised an area of 42 million square feet, employed 55,000 men and 187 women. The women were previously classified as semi-skilled, but were demoted to being unskilled with a corresponding pay cut, which wasn’t objected to by the Union. According to their shop steward, played by Bob Hoskins, “This has nothing to do with being unskilled. Ford decided to pay you less, because they can, because you’re women.”

Initially, the strike, opposed by the Union, was to upgrade the women to semi-skilled status but under O’Grady’s fiery leadership, became a battle for equal pay for equal work. The women, all 187 of them, sewed seat covers, but nowhere in Made do you see one man doing that; equal work?

Most of the movie deals with opposition from men in various areas. The overall view is, in 1968, most Englishmen were chauvinistic. Though this reviewer hasn’t lived in England since 1966, he knows the depiction was reasonably accurate.

Without seat covers the Plant shut down. Laid-off male workers bitterly opposed the strikers, which caused problems in the marriages of couples who were both employed at Ford. O’Grady’s husband was extremely nasty when their fridge was repossessed. This made the women more bitter, considering they were supportive of the men when they were on strike.

Union leaders begged them to return to work. One, in a fit of profundity, declaimed, “Marx said men make history; he didn’t say women make history.” The word ‘man’ in the greater sense, which is how Marx meant it, carries no gender connotation.

In desperation, an executive from head office in Detroit came over to put the world to rights. This economic genius argued, to grant equal pay, would shoot up the price of product, which would kill the market. Surveys have shown, an average of 7 percent of the price goes to wages and salaries, including that of high-price CEOs. A few years before the strike London busmen were out all summer for higher wages. A survey, conducted a year later, showed that for every pound received in extra fares, only two shillings (then one tenth) went towards wages.

Perhaps the most perceptive comment in the movie is when Lisa Hopkins tells the guy from Detroit, Ford should take a leaf from Vauxhall’s book and not be so aggressive towards the union. Though Hopkins didn’t say it, this aggression stems from the early days when Henry Ford did all in his considerable powers, to prevent unions getting a foothold in his plant.

After crashing the Union’s national conference, the delegates vote in favour of equal pay and Castle, realising the women won’t quit, sides with them even after being warned by Harold Wilson, “Don’t upset Ford, I’ve enough trouble with Americans.” The women settle for 93 percent of their demand. In 1970 the UK Parliament passed the Equal Pay Act, which was soon adopted by other countries. Even Ford management accepted it.

The movie, directed by Nigel Cole, is well acted, fast moving, totally absorbing and contains some humour, arising from real life situations. Perhaps, the funniest is when an attractive girl finks on the rest by entering the plant for a photo shoot and double crosses the company.

Though Made is recommendable, this reviewer has one small quibble. The thrust of it is no different to millions of movies; you don’t know what you can do until you try. Certainly, one must admire O’Grady and her friends, who had no previous experience of negotiating and propagandising. Nevertheless, Made depicts people fighting for improvements within capitalism. At one point, the shop steward says, “Someone has to stop those exploiting bastards from getting away with what they’ve been getting away with for years.” Meaning forcing them to be less exploitative. The question of no exploitation full stop, is never addressed. One thing which Marx said that the union official never repeated is “…abolition of The Wages System.” The most a Socialist can say about the women is their aims were alright as far as they went, but they didn’t go far enough. For real equality, a society where all will stand equal in relation to the tools of production, is the only answer.

STEVE SHANNON