a strike made in hollywood

‘Feel-good’ hit movie Made in Dagenham didn’t make Sheila Cohen feel very good…

A film about a strike that really happened, a strike that brought a huge multinational to a standstill, a strike that was waged and led by women… What’s not to like? Only that Made In Dagenham fails to tell the true, and far more significant, story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike – a story of class rebellion against exploitation rather than of softly gender-focused togetherness.

For its first half hour, Made In Dagenham looks good. Apart from the stripping-off scenes in the sweaty factory, unanimously repudiated by strike survivors, the film more or less tells it like it was – i.e. that the sewing machinists were involved in a grading dispute. The emphasis is necessary, because, along with almost every account of the dispute over the last 40-odd years, the next two-thirds of the film stubbornly present it as a “strike for equal pay”.

A semantic distinction? Hardly. Once the industrial conditions surrounding the strike are examined, it becomes clear that the sewing machinists’ dispute was only one of countless grievances raised by rank and file Ford workers, male and female, in the wake of a vast pay restructuring exercise carried on throughout Ford’s in 1967-8. The project was intended to curb endemic walkouts in the plants over the multitude of ‘custom and practice’ pay rates. Yet management’s predictable insistence on restructuring pay and jobs in the interests of capital saw earnings cut and workloads increased. By early 1968, stewards at Ford Halewood were describing the plant as a “volcano waiting to erupt” with upgrading claims and grievances.  Ironically, “The slogan “equal pay for equal work” cropped up in most arguments over this issue”[1]; the concept was being used by workers across the board to support grading disputes of every description.

The sewing machinists were, in this sense, workers not women. When the 187 machinists at Ford Dagenham’s River Plant submitted a claim for upgrading from a B to C grade, theirs was one of ‘hundreds of grading grievances from all the Ford plants in the UK’, according to the then Dagenham convenor [2]. At this stage of the dispute, the question of equal pay – for women vis-à-vis men, rather than between different sections of workers in general – was not only peripheral but positively invisible.

Of course, it would be disingenuous to argue that the workers’ gender had nothing to do with the case. The sewing machinists themselves recognised that the refusal to concede upgrading was discrimination against them as women – ‘All the women were shouting the same thing: Just because we’re women, they think we can be left in Grade B. That’s all they think of us!’ The delay over the company’s consideration of their claim was another gender-related factor; submitted as early as August 1967, it had not even been graced with a reply six months later. Had these been typically ‘militant’ male workers, the company would almost certainly have looked at the claim much sooner.

Along with the impact of Barbara Castle’s cringingly “all girls together” approach (see below), these and many other aspects of gender undoubtedly influenced the dispute. Yet the fact remains that the specific issue of regrading, emphasised over and over by the sewing machinists themselves, indicates that centrally this was a dispute about exploitation – the value of the sewing-machinists’ labour to Ford – rather than gender-based inequality. And this is where, after a promising start, Made in Dagenham begins to go seriously astray.

As mentioned above, the first third of the film is roughly accurate. Yet it is at this  point that Bob Hoskins, playing (wonderfully) the convenor of the sewing machinists’ plant, involves shop steward Rita in a “Eureka” moment where they both agree that what the women are really striking about is – you’ve guessed it. From then on the inaccuracies mount and the film goes seriously downhill, introducing not only a series of mythical and barely credible storylines but, most criminally of all, raising Barbara Castle, Secretary of State in the then Labour government, to the status of feminist heroine.

Castle was indeed forced to intervene by a panicked Ford management as the Dagenham factory ground to a standstill – a moment graphically portrayed in the film. She had already set up a ‘Court of Inquiry’ into the dispute, and when its first session failed to dent the strikers’ determination, the flame-haired Minister made her famous entry.

So far, so (comparatively) accurate. Where the film really strays into totally unjustified myth-making is in its portrayal of Barbara Castle as a fire-breathing feminist, determined to sweep aside bureaucracy and male chauvinism in a bid to bring the strikers – and all women – equality and justice. The briefest glance at Castle’s diaries reveals that her objective was purely and simply to get the women back to work.

On her second meeting with the strikers – contra the film, they were not initially persuaded by her blandishments – the minister persuaded them that, without changing the grading structure as such, the question of differentials could be addressed. She ‘trusted the company and the girls must trust her. But…first, you’ve got to go back to work.’ On this condition, she offered the tempting fruits of an increase in the female-male differential from 80% to 92% as a move towards “equal pay”, along with a pledge to ‘place legislation before Parliament which, over a period of time, would make equal pay a reality’.

Yet in using what was clearly the ruse of a move towards “equal pay” and a promised Equal Pay Act as part of her arguments to persuade the strikers back to the plant, Castle was not acting only on her own initiative.  Here, again, the truth is much stranger – and of much more class significance – than the fiction.

In contrast not only to Made In Dagenham but to almost all “outsider” accounts of the strike, those who initially raised the equal pay demand were not the workers, not even their own plant convenor, but their union officials, in particular the engineering union’s self-declared revolutionary, Reg Birch. By the time management met the joint unions for negotiations, Birch had proclaimed, ‘We declare the strike official, but purely and solely in support of the principle of Equal Pay.’

Even more significantly, a contemporary article from the Times suggests that none other than Ford’s labour relations director, Leslie Blakeman, had gone along with the “equal pay” scenario as a means of resolving the dispute: “Blakeman hit upon the idea of taking up the question of equal pay…He visited [the engineering union conference] and…discovered there that a move towards equal pay as a means of giving an immediate increase might be acceptable. A figure of 92% of the men’s rate was talked about…”[3].

An alliance between three class enemies – the employer, the trade union bureaucracy (even in a supposedly “revolutionary” form) and the government therefore appears to have brought about the focus on equal pay as a pivotal element of the dispute.  It was certainly not the promise of an Equal Pay Act not coming fully into force until 1975 – ‘We’ll be old ladies by then!’ – which lured the stewards to recommend a return to work. The increase in the women’s pay to 92% of the full Grade B rate for men would effectively mean a pay rise of up to 7% – 2% more, ironically, than they would have received had they won the coveted C grade. This, along with, their fatal trust in the outcome of the Court of Inquiry, was undoubtedly the clincher. But whatever the reasons, the decision to end the strike was made, and was toasted (literally) by the comradely Castle as a ‘victory for common sense.’

But a victory for class power? Alas, no – despite the film’s triumphal ending. Ford’s grasp at the straw of “equal pay” rather than regrading confirms the significance of the company’s determination to oppose the regrading from its own, equally class-based, perspective. As steward Rosie Boland put it, “Let’s face it, if the women had got C grade…it would have broken Ford’s wages structure. There are so many men fighting for upgrading that if Ford’s gave it to us, they would have to give it right through the firm.”

And this raises another crucial issue neglected in the film – worker solidarity. Even beyond the Halewood sewing machinists’ entry into the strike – gestured at rather than highlighted in Made In Dagenham – the story of the strike reveals a hidden underside of class-based support for the women’s struggle. Male workers at Halewood, themselves daily experiencing problems with the new grading structure, embraced the women’s action, proclaiming in supportive if non-feminist language, ‘The women are the only men in this plant…those tarts have taught us a lesson. We ought to go down there and shout a big fucking “thank you”.’ Such expressions of support – against all the ideological and organisational odds – indicates an impressive potential for class solidarity at the roots of the movement. Yet none of this appears in the film, where the men are depicted as providing emotional support rather than workplace-based solidarity.

In the face of such obfuscation, it will have to be left to the sewing machinists themselves, then and now, to tell the story. Perhaps no one has placed the red herring of “equal pay” so clearly in the context of exploitation as shop steward Lil O’Callaghan, interviewed shortly after the strike: ‘As regards equal pay, some women even today think they shouldn’t earn as much or more than their husbands, but they should realise they are working for what they can get, and Ford are making a big profit out of them…they are not working for their husbands, they are working for Ford, and the car is the same price whether it is men or women doing the job.’ Here, equal pay is defined not as a high-level politico-legal demand, an abstract invocation of ‘justice’, but simply as what it is; the recognition that workers both provide equal amounts of labour and require a comparable amount of subsistence: ‘they are working for what they can get’.

One benefit of the film’s release is to the opportunity to return to these historic strikers, most now in their late 70s and 80s (another myth of Made In Dagenham is of the strikers as sexy ‘60s chicks). A review article in the magazine Socialist Review confirms yet again how the strikers, despite the insistence of their interviewer, really saw the dispute:

“Interviewer: “When did you come to think that equal pay was also an important issue?

“Striker: “I wanted to get my C grade.”

“Interviewer: Did the question of equal pay become as important as the grading issue?

“Striker: I must be honest, not in my mind. I thought we should get C grade, so the equal pay wasn’t that important. I don’t mind it being there but I still thought we should be trying to fight for C grade.

“Interviewer: For you the C grade was more important, but for lots of people outside Ford’s equal pay was more important.

“Striker: I understand what you’re saying, but the women wanted to be recognized for their skills. To get the job you needed the skills to do it, but you were classed as unskilled.

“Interviewer: Did you feel inspired in 1984 [4] by the memory of the 1968 strike?

“Striker: Yes, because they weren’t treated properly at all. Although they came back with equal pay that is not what they went out for. They were let down.”

As the lawyers in the Court of Inquiry undoubtedly said, I rest my case.

[1] This and other quotes specifically concerning Halewood are taken from Huw Beynon’s classic history of the plant, Working For Ford (Penguin 1973, 1984).

[2] Henry Friedman and Sander Meredeen The Dynamics of Industrial Conflict: Lessons From Ford Croom Helm 1980. All quotes are from this book unless otherwise indicated.

[3] Ronald Kershaw,The Times (no date) “How the Ford machinists won a 7 per cent rise.”

[4] In 1984, sewing machinists went out on unofficial strike over exactly the same regrading issue – proving yet again that they had not achieved their central demand in 1968. This time they won; but that, dear readers, is another story.