Class, gender, the 1960s and Made in Dagenham

Posted: June 14, 2011 by Admin in At the coalface, British politics, Class Matters, England, Europe, Women's rights & women's liberation, Workers history, Workers' rights, Workers' strikes

dagenhamby Philip Ferguson

In 1968 three struggles by working class women in Britain helped inspire the formation of the women’s liberation movement there: Hull fishermen’s wives fought for better safety on trawlers, despite being told by the bosses to keep quiet; London bus conductresses rebelled for the right to become drivers; and women machinists at the Ford motor company’s giant plant at Dagenham went on strike for equal pay.  The Ford women’s strike led to the formation of the National Joint Action Committee on Women’s Equal Rights, a union-based group focussed on equal pay and women’s rights at work.  Over four decades later, the Ford strike has been dramatised, and partly fictionalised, as a film: Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls), produced by Steven Woolley (The Crying Game, Scandal, Interview with the Vampire) and  partner Elizabeth Karlsen (The Crying Game, Hollow Reed, Sounds like Teen Spirit), written by Billy Ivory, who wrote for TV series such as Minder and Common as Muck, and starring Sally Hawkins as strike leader Rita O’Grady, Daniel Mays as her husband Eddie and Bob Hoskins as Albert, the women’s shop steward.  The theme song is sung by 1960s British pop star Sandie Shaw, who was a Fords Dagenham punch-card operator several years before the 1968 strike.

The film does a good job in portraying working class life in England in the later 1960s and the sense that was in the air at the time that things didn’t have to be that way, the kind of “sixties spirit” which spawned so much rebellion and social change.  At the same time, however, the film’s producers have been involved in making some subtle and not-so-subtle changes of their own.  For instance, in an interview in the Telegraph, Woolley said, “We could have tried to make a Ken Loach-style film. But we knew we didn’t want to make a political movie. We wanted a populist piece.”  Karlsen added, “And we tried to avoid making class a major issue. We worked hard to make sure that issues crossed class barriers” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmmakersonfilm/8007335/Made-in-Dagenham-interview-with-producers-Stephen-Woolley-and-Elizabeth-Karlsen.html).  Thus the MacleansUSA site reviews it as “a purely feminist film” (http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/09/09/made-in-dagenham/). 

This attempt to de-class the movie simply makes it weaker and doesn’t even work stylistically.  For instance, it leads to a bizarre sub-story in which the wife of one of the Dagenham bosses befriends Rita and, at a lowpoint in the struggle, turns up at the O’Gradys’ flat and  tells her to keep going, saying “Don’t let me down” as she flounces off.  Yet this posh woman provides no money for the strike fund, no food for the strikers and their families and no support on the picket line.  It’s one of the parts of the film that seems most incongruous and odd.

Another quibble with the film would be that the government’s minister of employment, Barbara Castle, is presented first as a conniver but then as a bit of a heroine who backs the women, helps settle the dispute by meeting with the women against prime minister Harold Wilson’s instructions and offering the women 92% of the pay of men in the factory as a settlement, although she does open the bidding with a miserly 75%.  And, as they walk out to meet the press, Castle declares she will bring in equal pay legislation in the next few months.  In fact, in 1968 Castle was no friend of working class women.  In that year she brought forth the In Place of Strife proposals which aimed to hold down already-depressed real wages and suppress unions and strikes.  Moreover, Castle had been met with protests by working class women at the April 1968 Scottish Trade Union Congress.  Among other things, they pointed out that she got equal pay for her job!

While the film rightly portrays Wilson as a devious two-faced fox, Castle is presented as a fiery woman of some principle surrounded by awful men who are generally her intellectual inferior.  This is more a product of the producers’ desire to play down class and play up gender solidarity.  In reality, Castle was absolutely and ruthlessly committed to the regeneration of British industry at the expense of workers’ rights and living standards and, if anything, was the key Labour cabinet minister pursuing this course.

One of the strike leaders at Dagenham, Rose Boland, noted in September 1968 that Castle was trying to impose a wage freeze on workers.  “They keep saying ‘We’ll have to freeze wages’.  It’s all right for Barbara Castle, with her 7,000 pounds a year.  Well, let her take a cut”(Interview with Rose Boland by Sabby Segal in Socialist Worker, September 21, 1968).

By the time the Ford women went on strike, workers – male and female – had been subject to four years of attempts by Labour to lower their horizons and undermine pay and union rights in order to revitalise the stagnant British industrial sector. In 1968-69, 6.1 percent of people in Britain lived in poverty and 21.8 percent on the margins of poverty.  In the period 1967-69 real pay was static – indeed real wage levels had been stagnating since 1964, despite increases in productivity.  Labour imposed a statutory wage freeze in 1966-67; employees’ net earnings declined 1.1 percent.  In 1967, Labour brought back prescription charges, increased the charges for dental treatment, took free milk away from secondary schools, cut the housing programme and postponed raising the school-leaving age.

Significant numbers of workers in the 1960s still had to rely on piecework and overtime to make ends meet; by 1966, 70% of dock work was paid by piece.  In 1967, Labour devalued the British pound, resulting in rising prices which in turn set off the 1968-1972 strike wave.  The largest number of workers involved in any one year was in 1968.  The Times newspaper dubbed 1968 “The Year of the Strike”.  Thus the Ford strike was not only a specific strike for equal pay by women; it was also part of a more general wave of strikes around pay and conditions.  For instance, in the 1968-72 strike wave, all sorts of workers were more likely to go on strike – in the textiles and clothing sector strike rates in the 1968-72 period were ten times those of the 1954-58 period; strike rates in the 1968-72 period among public administration, professional and scientific services employees jumped twenty-fold from the 1963-68 period; and white-collar workers generally became as likely to strike as workers in manufacturing.

As well as its false portrayal of Castle, the film also lets off a whiff of British nationalism.  For instance, Fords gets portrayed as ugly Americans and in one scene the strike is portrayed as a continuation of the supposed British sense of fair play and its supposed fight for justice in World War 2.  (A smaller quibble would be that one of the bosses asks which revolutionary group Rita belongs to: the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Revolutionary Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party?  However the SWP was the International Socialists until 1976; the WRP was the Socialist Labour League until 1973 and the RCP wasn’t formed until 1981.)

What the film does succeed much better in capturing, however, is that mood of the times – that 1960s sense of change being not only in the air, not only also necessary but, more significantly, possible – the exuberance, integrity and determination (and humour) of the women comes across strongly and contrasts with the cynicism and perfidy of the trade union officialdom and the bosses.  For instance, while Albert, the immediate shop steward (or delegate) is totally for them and encourages the strike, having been brought up with four siblings by a solo mother who worked in a factory earning less than half the pay of men doing the same job, all the union officials above Albert try to do sweetheart deals with the bosses, patronise the women and do their damnedest to sell them out.

Some of the scenes of this dirty work, and the women besting them, are among the funniest and most heartening of the film.  The sell-out officials are also portrayed as being members of the Communist Party, which also rings true as the CP feared strikes in general and strikes set off by the rank-and-file in particular.  One of them even tries to quote Marx at Albert to justify not supporting the Ford women, but Albert fires back a Marx quote to support the women.  (Actually I think Albert’s Marx quote may be Trotsky rather than Marx, but the point of the quote is well-made and leaves the bureaucrats speechless.)

The film also does a good job in portraying factory conditions.  As the same Telegraph article cited above records, having spoken to some of the Ford women who had just seen the movie:

“What the film did get right, they agreed, was the tyranny of the sewing-machines, which left them all with the arthritis-ridden hands they ruefully hold out to me. Hawkins and the rest of the female cast were taken to the London Sewing Machine Museum in south London to see authentic versions of the machines that were used. ‘They were quite terrifying beasts for one woman to control,’ says Andrea Riseborough, who plays Brenda, a ribald character firmly based on ‘Effing Eileen’. ‘My grandmother worked in a factory,’ she says. ‘And she often used to mouth things without actually saying them. She’d got used to making herself understood through the noise with exaggerated lip movements and lots of hand gestures.’

“The dire conditions in the factory were also praised by the original machinists as being authentic. ‘When it rained it flooded and in summer we had to have salt tablets and lime juice it got so hot in there,’ Sime says. ‘It wasn’t a brick building, it was made of something like asbestos,’ Pullan puts in. ‘It was just a heap of jerry cans. You couldn’t look up in case a bird did something in your eye. Sometimes they’d get caught in the wires in the roof and they’d hang there for months,’ Sime says.”

Yet Fords was a mega-rich company, one of the biggest in the world at that time.

The film is also quite good in portraying the highly-gendered division of labour, both within the factory and the home.  These are low-paid working class women bearing the double burden of paid employment and all the housework.  In the film the men in the factory are portrayed as being at first somewhat sympathetic, but then when the whole factory has to shut because there is no upholstery for the cars, many of them become more hostile,  In reality, however, there was some more solid support for the women from the men in the factory.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to use a film clip from the time only showing those men who were not so supportive.  Again, the desire to present it in a feminist light and de-class the struggle leads to distorting the actual history.

More positively, Eddie, who has become somewhat resentful of the women’s strike shutting the factory and of Rita being away raising support for the strike, in the end swings back to strongly support her.  This rings true with changing social attitudes of the time – for instance, a 1965 poll found that two-thirds of husbands approved of working wives and only 6 percent felt women’s place was purely in the home (Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: a history of Britain in the swinging sixties, London, Abacus, 2007, p695).  The strike has transformed not only the women but changed men like Eddie as well.  Moreover, Rose Boland, in the interview mentioned above,  reported, “I don’t think I saw my husband or my son during the whole three weeks (of the strike – PF).  They never knew whether I was in or out”.  In other words, the necessities of this particular economic struggle impacted on domestic relations and the consciousness of both female workers and male workers, including their husbands and sons.

Yet here another question arises.  Although the Dagenham strike has been presented as the first strike by women in 80 years and the ground-breaking one around equal pay, there were actually some earlier strikes around the equal pay issue – for instance, that led by socialist Agnes McLean at the Rolls Royce factory in Hillington, Glasgow in 1943 where 16,000 workers were involved and the dispute went on for 11 days.  In the wake of the Dagenham strike, there were nine equal pay strikes in October 1968.  These strikes were part of a wider consciousness and demand for equality on the part of oppressed sections of society, but they were also part of a more generalised working class unrest as the 1960s Labour government not only failed to meet their expectations but also tried to push through anti-working class measures as a necessary part of its project to restructure British industry in the interests of the capitalist class.

Rose Boland, in the interview cited above, points to the generational change in attitude.  In relation to unequal pay and discrimination against women in the workforce, she noted, “The youngsters of today won’t have it.  They want to be on an equal basis.” She was also clear about who benefited: “I think (women in the workforce) are discriminated against because the management employ them as cheap labour.”  Furthermore, she was clear that the women’s fight for equal pay was in the interests of their male co-workers at Dagenham, noting that if the women won, “it would have broken Fords’ wage structure.  There are so many men fighting for upgrading that if Fords gave it to us, they would have to give it right through the firm.  And the men know that if Fords turn round to us and say ‘Right, you’ve got C grade’, well they’re going to have a better chance to fight.”

The Labour government had quite quickly alienated many workers.  In the interview cited above, Rose Boland also said, “Let’s face it, the Labour Government which we looked forward to, they’ve just let us down.  They’re just completely washed out as far as I’m concerned.”  Asked whether workers should vote Labour, she said, “I think they ought to try something different.  I don’t know who else.  Let’s have this lot out and try another lot.  Perhaps the younger generation.”

While attitudes about gender were changing in the working class, the reality of unequal pay didn’t change all that much.  The Equal Pay Act of 1970 was a measure forced on Labour by the growing strike wave, but it certainly did not mean equal pay – rather, it merely allowed employees who felt that they were being paid less for comparable work to take their case to an industrial tribunal.  By August 1976, reported the Observer newspaper, 104 out of 145 cases taken by women under the Act had been lost.  In one especially bizarre case women in a Kraft cheese factory had their case for equal pay rejected because it was claimed their work was different as they couldn’t walk across high ramps because men would look up their dresses and be distracted from their cheese-making work!

Just as the Dagenham strike had won significant pay gains for the women workers there, it was another strike, by 350 women and 150 men at a Trico factory in 1976, which represented the next significant gain in the long, and still unwon, struggle for equal pay.  In the Trico case, the workers had to battle their bosses, the Labour government and reluctant bureaucrats in their own union, the AUEW (Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers).  They won higher base rates for the predominantly female day-shift, significantly closing the pay gap in the factory, and also struck a blow against the wage freeze of the Labour government of their time.  (Labour lost the 1970 election, but returned to power from 1974-79, carrying out more sweeping attacks on the working class and paving the way for the Thatcher era.)

Forty years after the 1970 Equal Pay Act, women employees in Britain are still only paid 79 percent of the rates of male employees.  The gender gap in Britain is one of the worst in Europe.  Moreover, research published by the Chartered Management Institute in 2010 suggested that, at the current rate of ‘progress’, British women will have to wait until 2067 for full equal pay!  (Of course, with recessions being a regular feature of capitalism, and the gap tending to widen in recessions, 2067 is a rather optimistic prediction.)

Despite its weaknesses, Made in Dagenham is an inspiring film.  This was the first strike by women workers in Britain in several decades, so it would be difficult for it not to be inspiring.  While I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it, I also left the cinema wishing that Ken Loach had made it.  It would have been truer and better.


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