Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/641/10370
Made in Dagenham
It is always a surprise when either Hollywood or Britain's film industry makes a sympathetic movie about workers who go on strike. Made in Dagenham is getting a lot of publicity with its story of the Fords women machinists' strike of 1968. LEAH MAUGHAN reviews the film, which is now on general release.
MADE IN Dagenham brings to the screen a story of struggle without resorting to the depressiveness of some previous British films such as Brassed Off or the saccharine comedy of The Full Monty. It emphasises the strike's importance and the heroism of the women workers, though the film has received mixed reviews.
The machinists complained of the film 'sexing up' the dispute. The film obviously needs to make a visual reference to the women's working conditions but having the actors strip to their underwear to work sends the message that the women didn't take their work seriously.
This point is refuted by the strikers after a laid-off worker complains that work is: "Different for the women, they don't have a family to feed, it's all just a bit of fun for you".
This accusation could not be further from the truth. Other scenes show the machinists bravely working on, wearing macks with umbrellas above their workplaces, as the shed roof leaks during their shift.
This was not due to some outburst of Dunkirk spirit but actually happened at Fords where the machinists were then too scared to stop work in case of victimisation.
Bob Hoskins' character, playing the plant trade union convenor, attempts to dispel the myth that women don't really need the money. He describes the hardships of his single mother attempting to make ends meet whilst earning half the wages of her male counterparts.
However, serious financial discomfort is only felt once production is completely stopped and the men are sent home.
The film makers attempted to highlight the dual exploitation of women, in the workplace and home, showing their role as carers both for the young and elderly. Whilst the women's husbands are initially supportive, they begin to complain about the lack of home comforts as the real strikers' husbands did during the three-week strike.
The film ignores the support the women received from other union members at Fords in an attempt to create the atmosphere of one woman battling for what is right. Unlike in the strike, the women don't discuss the strike's tactics - what decisions are taken by vote are made on gut feeling and anger, not through any real debate.
Even the involvement of Rita, the main character in the film and leader of the strike and the machinists, comes from being handpicked by Albert Passingham (the convenor) rather than being voted for by the members.
As the then Labour minister Barbara Castle, Miranda Richardson reprises her role as Queenie in Blackadder to snipe and scream her way through the film attacking her comedy assistants. Castle is not portrayed as a particularly sympathetic character.
While she appears to sympathise with the Fords women, her role as a government minister is to get them back to work, only brokering concessions after it becomes clear the women will not be returning to work without them!
The real life Castle's later attacks on the trade unions would herald the beginning of the anti-trade union laws that still hamstring the workers' movement in Britain to this day.
This film makes for enjoyable viewing though it does not try to make any real comment on the workers' movement. The women are portrayed as inspiring which they certainly were and still are! Their struggle, however, is not linked to that of other women in the workplace.
The film makers instead attempt to establish a relationship between Rita and Lisa Hopkins, the middle class wife of the Fords Dagenham public relations officer, who seems to spend her days shopping and haranguing her son's school, all the while bemoaning the fact that her history degree from Cambridge is going to waste.
The film focuses on the individuals not the struggle. It attempts to highlight the women's struggle as for only sexual equality, ignoring the need for workplace equality and the fact that parity pay still has not been reached. In fact the pay gap between men and women is again on the rise, reaching 22% in 2009.
This was underlined by the film's final remarks that Fords is still one of the best places to work in the world, a proclamation met by laughs and jeers in the East London cinema where I saw the film.
Made in Dagenham is likely to be pegged as another Full Monty or Billy Elliot, but the fact that the struggle of ordinary East London women has been immortalised in film is an achievement in itself.
As I left work on Friday to see the film, one of the (low paid) women I work with commented: "You never know, the things we do might change the world."
In The Socialist 6 October 2010:
Defend Child Benefits
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Health and Safety
Europe: fighting the cuts
International socialist analysis
Socialist Party review