Interviewed in Leicester Square, London, as he came out of the world premier of Made in Dagenham, actor Bob Hoskins, one of the stars of the film, remarked that, following the strike of the women machinists at the Ford car factory in Dagenham, Essex in 1968, Barbara Castle, the employment secretary in the Labour government of the day, had, in 1975, steered into law The Equal Pay Act, giving women the same pay as men. But, he said, 35 years later, it still hasn’t happened: women are still not getting equal pay with men. “It’s a liberty!” was his verdict.
The film tells the story of the women machinists who made the seat covers and door linings for the cars produced at the massive Ford factory in Dagenham. At the time of the events portrayed, there were 55,000 people employed on the Dagenham site.
The strike in question was sparked when Ford managers arbitrarily redesignated the machinists’ jobs as ‘unskilled’. The most cursory acquaintance with what was involved in making the vinyl coverings (and, indeed, any sewing-machine work) would show how ridiculous was that designation and how far from the reality of the women’s jobs. It becomes clear in the film that the management did it because it would result in lower wages for the women – and because they thought they would get away with it; the women might grumble but they would not make trouble.
The story of the film is the story of the women’s struggle to get that grading reversed, and how they developed in strength and understanding through the struggle. Quite soon, their demand became one for equal pay with the male workers: “for pay based on the work done, not whether you’ve got a dick”, as one of the characters succinctly puts it.
The women had to face opposition from the corrupt leadership of their trade union, who, apart from a sympathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins’ role), were more interested in enjoying the perks of their jobs and preventing trouble than in representing their members’ interests (an all too familiar story, both then and now).
They also had to face difficulties at home, where their domestic responsibilities either made the tasks of negotiating and campaigning difficult or impossible, or meant that they could only carry out these tasks to the extent that their husbands individually supported them. And that support wavered considerably when the persistence of the women in continuing their strike until their demands were met eventually led to the plant being closed and all the men being laid off when the initially abundant stocks of finished seat covers and linings ran out.
Eventually, both the US chief executive of Ford and government minister Barbara Castle became involved in an effort to resolve the strike: the CE reminding Castle of Ford’s ability to move their operation to another country where the labour force would be cheaper and more compliant. The strike was settled and the women returned to work on the agreement that they would be regraded and awarded 80 percent of the men’s pay.
Before the credits roll, the film ends by recording that, in 1975, Barbara Castle introduced into parliament the Equal Pay Act, which then passed into law.
The film has been meticulously researched, is well written and beautifully acted by an accomplished cast. It is enjoyable, entertaining, amusing and (for those of us alive and in the movement at the time) not a little nostalgic.
The filmmakers had the help and cooperation of the surviving women machinists who participated in the strike. As the credits roll, there are tantalising glimpses of interviews with the women today, which left our reviewer hungry to see and hear more of the women’s own reflections on their strike, the struggle and its achievements – and how they view these things now, in the light of their subsequent working lives and of national and international events.
Interviewed on radio, the women explained that the predominant perception of women working at the time was that they worked for ‘pin money’, to buy optional extras, whereas in fact the reality for many working-class women was that either they were the sole breadwinner or their wages were essential if their families were to make ends meet.
The women also said that they enjoyed working as, although the work could be hard (and the film showed the appalling working conditions provided for the women by this mega-rich international company), they had the benefit of each other’s company and they managed to ‘have a laugh’.
Made in Dagenham is a very polished production, and it is pleasing to see such a subject both treated seriously and as part of the mainstream. This itself is a tribute to how much has changed in the intervening years, in no small part owing to the actions and courage of the Dagenham women. Since the strike, women have increasingly penetrated into spheres of work totally barred to them in 1968, such as the production side of the film industry itself.
Interestingly, reviewers in both the Times and the New York Times, while giving the film in the main favourable reviews, ended by saying that the ‘feel-good’ emotions generated by watching the film (and it is a heart-warming story as depicted, with regard to the individual characters as well as the women’s struggle as a whole) do not last long after leaving the cinema.
Neither critic explained this rather cryptic comment, but perhaps Bob Hoskins’ comment referred to earlier provides the key: the film ends in the glow of victory, but our knowledge of just what has and has not been gained by women in the intervening years qualifies that sense of uplifting achievement.
In the first place, there is the question of equal pay itself. The first Act introduced by Barbara Castle, and passed, provided for ‘equal pay for equal work’. It was soon apparent that this would make little difference to pay inequality, as women then were generally working in spheres that had become almost exclusively theirs – ‘women’s work’ – such as nursing, typing/secretarial, cleaning, textile and garment making and food processing, which meant there were no men doing the work with whom their wages could be compared and to whose pay the women workers’ pay could be made equal.
This led to an early amendment to the original legislation requiring ‘equal pay for work of equal value’, which at least made possible negotiations over the appropriate grading of women’s work and the level of pay for it. But legislation does not automatically equal reality. Enforcement had to be by the women themselves: by unions supporting their women members.
Here, the compromised leadership of many unions found it no easier than it had at Dagenham to support female members, either collectively or by individual negotiation, especially when strong cultural forces come into play on both sides. The result is that women overall get 60 percent of men’s wages even today.
It took until this decade for local authorities, who generally have been among the best employers of women and minorities, finally to grant parity between refuse collectors and school cooks, with much handwringing as to the disastrous consequences for the authorities’ budgets, their liability for their former workers’ pensions and the depressing effect, long term, on their male employees’ wages.
What the film does not touch upon is one of the most important legacies of the Ford women’s struggle, namely, the reinvigoration of women’s centuries-old struggle for equality, and the birth of its latest incarnation in the form of the women’s movement of the 1970s.
We see the film’s heroine, Rita O’Grady, having been elected leader of the strike, travel around the country, talking to meetings and rallies of other women, workers and supporters, but in an impressionistic way, without any detail. The film is a bourgeois entertainment, concerned with the stories of the individual strikers rather than the history of the working-class movement.
In fact, galvanised and inspired by the Ford women’s struggle, there grew up a network of women’s groups forming the ‘Women’s Equal Rights Campaign’. Those women’s groups held meetings, raised funds and distributed leaflets in support of the Ford women. They united women from all sections and none of the working-class movement: trade union, Labour and Communist party (in all its incarnations) members, members of Troskyite and anti-revisionist groups and members of no group or organisation at all.
The agenda was strictly reformist to start with, and along established trade-union and party lines: campaign for changes in the law by the Labour government. The purpose and inspiration of these groups did not end when the Ford women’s strike ended, and in 1970 there was a coming together of many women at the Oxford conference, when the National Women’s Coordinating Committee was formed in order to provide a loose confederation of these various groups and enable women from all areas and all types of groups and areas of struggle to meet and share experiences and learn from each other.
By then, there were many feminist groups, who were not concerned with the struggles of working-class women or of the working class for socialism, but only with their own personal ‘liberation’ from the ‘oppressors’, whom too often they identified simply as ‘men’, rather than as the capitalist ruling class and the system of exploitation that had reached its apogee in imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.
The women’s movement of the 1970s became increasingly polarised between those with a socialist and proletarian perspective and the feminists. Sexual ‘liberation’ became the theme of one strand of the feminists. Although their chief propagandist, Germaine Greer, has since recanted her advocacy of women becoming ‘liberated’ by sexual promiscuity, this view of ‘freedom’ found favour with many branches of capitalist society and permeates it still, to the profit of some, but to the detriment of young women and men alike.
Other strands of feminism pursued the reformist agenda of legislative change or concentrated on particular areas of work/professions – Women in Media, for example. Later in the 1970s, Barbara Castle also introduced legislation outlawing discrimination on the ground of gender: the precursor of all subsequent anti-discrimination legislation.
It is not the purpose of this article to review the history either of the recent women’s movement, or of the changes in the position of women since 1968, although some of the latter are obvious as one watches the film’s accurate representation of the prevalent attitudes towards women and the realities of their daily lives.
In passing, however, we would make just one further point. In 1970, the Union of Women for Liberation (UWL) was formed with the aim of studying, propagating and campaigning for women’s emancipation on the basis of a proletarian analysis. While campaigning for changes in the law, the group’s main aim was to show that the only true liberation of women will be be found once individual domestic labour has been socialised.
Not on an individual level or a profit-making basis, as happens now, meaning that few working-class women can afford to use the various services (from child care to restaurants), but collectively. This in turn will only happen if the means of production are owned by the working class, since they alone have the motivation to provide universally available, good-quality services that put people’s needs, rather than profits, first.
Forty years ago, the UWL pointed out that whatever facilities women and families might achieve in the way of nurseries, etc, could be easily lost, as could any benefits won by the working class as a whole, so long as they were dependent upon the superprofits obtained by the imperialist ruling class from their exploitation of the peoples of the developing world. As soon as those profits were squeezed, or as soon as the ruling class felt confident, it would have no hesitation in worsening both the pay packets and the social wages of the working class (ie, in driving down pay and cutting social services) and so increase profits.
Subsequent events, above all the collapse of the socialist regimes in the USSR and East Europe, which had provided a model of another way apart from capitalism to organise production and society, and the cyclical, ever deepening economic crises of imperialism, culminating in the banking crisis of 2007, all of which have led to the reduction in actual wages as well as a drastic cut in the social wage of the working class in Britain, have only confirmed the correctness of this analysis.