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Made In Dagenham - Movie Review

10 January 2011

A recently released movie, Made In Dagenham, depicts the true life struggle of female workers for equal pay in 1968 at the Ford auto plant in Dagenham, England. It was produced by BBC Films, and 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 go out on strike, and Miranda Richardson, who delivers a crackerjack performance as Minister for Employment, Barbara Castle. Ms. Castle is initially angry that after two years of Labour government, holding a large majority, there have been 26 000 strikes and five million lost working days. Now the Dagenham women want to add to that total.

Ford's Dagenham plant in 1968 was the fourth largest auto-manufacturing plant in the world, producing 3 000 cars a day. It comprised an area of forty-two million square feet, and employed 55 000 men and 187 women. The women were previously classified as semi-skilled, but recently demoted to 'unskilled' status with a corresponding pay cut. The Auto Workers' Union did not object. 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 are women."

Initially, the strike, opposed by the union, was to upgrade the women to semi-skilled status, but under Ms. O'Grady's fiery leadership, became a battle for equal pay for equal work. All 187 women sewed seat covers, but nowhere in the film do you see a man performing that task. Most of the movie deals with opposition from men in various areas. The overall view is chauvinistic, common for the time. Though this reviewer has not lived in England since 1966, he knows that depiction to be reasonably accurate.

Without seat covers, the plant shuts down. Laid-off male workers bitterly oppose 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, in turn, made the women more bitter, considering that they were supportive of the men when they were on strike. Union leaders begged the women to return to work. One, in a fit of profundity, declared, "Marx said men made history; he didn't say women made history." The word 'man' in the greater sense, which is how Marx meant it, of course, 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, that to grant equal pay would cause the price of the product to shoot up, which would kill the market. Surveys show that an average 7% 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 (one tenth) went on wages.

Perhaps the most perceptive comment made in the movie is when Lisa Hopkins tells the guy from Detroit that Ford should take a leaf from Vauxhall's book and not be so aggressive towards the union. . Though Ms. Hopkins didn't say it, this aggression stems from the early days when Henry Ford did all in his considerable powers to prevent unions from getting a foothold in his plant. After crashing the Union's National Conference, the delegates voted in favour of equal pay, and Ms. Castle, realizing the women won't quit, sides with them even after being warned by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, "Don't upset Ford, I have enough trouble with Americans." The women settle for 93% 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. Though it is recommendable, this reviewer, as a socialist, 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 Ms. O'Grady and her friends, who had no previous experience of negotiating and propagandizing. Nevertheless the movie 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." In other words, force them to be less exploitive. The question of no exploitation, period, is never addressed. One thing that Marx stressed that the union official never mentioned is the complete abolition of the wages system. The most a socialist can say about the Dagenham women is that their goals were alright as far as they went, but didn't go far enough. For real equality, a society where all will stand equal in relation to the tools of production, socialism/common ownership is the only answer.

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