Posted August 19, 2011
Nigel Cole, director of Made in Dagenham, commented in the Socialist Worker, “I hope that people come out of the film thinking, maybe we don’t need to be pushed around, maybe we can stand up for ourselves.”
Last year’s release may have been perfect timing for us here in the US: the intensifying attacks on the public sector, declining union density and limited (if inspiring) fight backs, made it a good moment to reflect on accomplishments of workers movements and on collective action generally. Now, the Verizon strike, which involves 45,000 workers up and down the east coast, gives us another reason to contemplate our political moment.
Made in Dagenham recounts the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike in England. The strikers, who sewed car seats at the world’s largest Ford plant, were galvanized by management’s effort to classify of their work as unskilled. While this resulted in lower wages, the issues of respect and workplace control were the driving factors. Ultimately these women, a tiny minority of the plant’s workforce, were able to halt production entirely.
The film has plenty of Hollywood-esque qualities. For one, it attributes a lion’s share of the strike’s leadership to single individual: the protagonist, Rita O’Grady played by Sally Hawkins). In fact, her character is a composite of several real-life strikers.
The film’s depiction of O’Grady’s personal transformation is predictable at times. For example, there are a couple of “Mr. Mom” scenes — which seem obligatory in this sort of mainstream feminist historical drama — in which her husband Eddie (played by Daniel Mays) ineptly prepares lunch for the kids after O’Grady ditches them to attend to the strike.
In another, more telling scene, Eddie vents his frustration at what he perceives to be her lack of appreciation for his role. “I don’t slap you around,” he pleads with her as she looks on in disbelieving rage.
The film does a fairly nuanced job of portraying the complicated and duplicitous relationships among union officials and management. There is the well intentioned union rep (played by Bob Hoskins), who tries to support the women while operating mostly in the universe of company-union collusion.
Ultimately the work of the women strikers inspired the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Here in the United States, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that strikes are about far more than immediate issues that spark them.