It’s 1968 and 187 female machinists at the huge Ford Dagenham car plant in east London vote for a 24-hour stoppage in a dispute over grading. Employed to sew seat covers in a dilapidated building where the roof leaks, the women decide upon action when they are regraded as unskilled while male colleagues doing similar work are classified as semi-skilled.
Central to the story is the character of Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), a newly radicalised union member who, alongside workmates Sandra, Eileen, Brenda and Connie, embodies the optimism of the late 1960s. She’s fearless in the face of both management and the trade union leadership’s determination to prevent further action and becomes the strike’s unofficial leader. Encouraged by Albert, the plant’s union rep, Rita wins her workmates to an all-out strike for equal pay.
A film which focuses on working class people leading a strike is still a rarity on cinema screens and it’s a pleasure to watch Made in Dagenham portraying how being part of a collective struggle transforms the women. The speed with which they move is impressive and their newfound confidence brims over into their personal lives, as illustrated by the changing relationship between Rita and her husband, Eddie.
But it is not all plain sailing. As the women struggle to survive on strike pay and maintain the support of male workers, Ford uses various tactics to divide the workforce and discipline the union. Personal tragedy and individual ambition also threaten to undermine their unity.
What stands out in the film though is the underlying class solidarity displayed by key individuals. This is most evident in the camaraderie between Rita and Albert. Delighted to have found a valuable new group of activists, Albert resists pressure from trade union officials to get the rank and file back under control. When one Communist Party official tells him that Marx spoke of men making history, with men being the operative word, he replies, “Yes, but he also said you can judge the social progress within a society by the position of women…or was that a different Marx…Groucho perhaps?”
The sexism present throughout society is explored through the characters of Lisa, the middle class wife of a senior manager at Ford, and Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment and productivity in Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Lisa, a history graduate, dreams of being involved in “making history like all the people I read about at college”, rather than being an isolated trophy wife in an immaculate house. Castle rails against the condescending male advisers who caution against meeting the strikers in case it gives credence to the cause for equal pay. Yet she tells the strikers they’ll need to wait to achieve equal pay and sets out to curb the growing number of strikes taking place in Britain. For all their difficulties, the machinists in contrast show the advantages of fighting sexism collectively within a unionised workplace.
They also show how the brash and aggressive management style adopted by Ford can be forced to grant concessions. An industrial relations expert is flown in from the US to threaten that Ford will pull the plug on its British operation if the government concedes to the strikers’ demands. In a candid moment, Castle reminds the prime minister that in opposition he was in favour of equal pay. His response, “Yes, but I wasn’t running the country then,” speaks volumes.
But there are weaknesses in the film, primarily the lack of reference to the wider international struggles in 1968 and some historical inaccuracies. The women visit Ford Halewood for solidarity but there’s no mention of the support offered by trade unionists from across the labour movement. At points the narrative lapses into a somewhat patriotic defence of what is right.
But overall this is a film worth watching for its feelgood factor, its humour and the lessons it offers to those who want to be part of a fightback today. It took two more years before the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but the Ford Dagenham strike played a crucial role in that battle.
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