Made in Dagenham is a highly entertaining British film centred on the equal pay struggle of women sewing machinists at the Dagenham Ford car plant in the late 60s.
With the dramatisation featuring actors such as Sally Hawkins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson, Daniel Mays and Bob Hoskins it should attract a decent audience. Better still its arrival, in a period when employers and the coalition government seem set on cutting pay and conditions, could ironically give today’s workers a few tips on how to organise.
As June 1968 arrives the news is dominated by the Knighting of Manchester United manager Matt Busby, the arrest of Martin Luther King’s killer James Earl Ray at Heathrow airport and the search for Robert F Kennedy’s assassin.
187 working class women in east London though have more important issues to get concerned about after their employer announces they are to be downgraded from semi to unskilled labour. Unlike many factories in the private sector today, they’re all members of the union - not any old union, but one with some clout in the National Union of Vehicle Builders that later amalgamated with the TGWU that is now part of Unite. The result is an overtime ban and then a walk out.
It’s thought the women will soon be back at work, but as the film shows they grow in strength and confidence as they realise the collective power they have over production.
Nigel Cole previously directed the Calendar Girls, in which a group of Yorkshire Women’s Institute members take their clothes off to raise money for Leukaemia Research. As a comedy it was sweet and good-humoured and in his attempts to bring similar qualities to Made in Dagenham Cole does occasionally overstep the mark. Such as when he has some of the women stripping down to their underwear to escape the boiling hot temperatures of a dilapidated workplace or having one of the strikers persuaded by management to pose for a Ford calendar photo-shoot.
Bob Hoskins too, as the male shop steward who backs the women’s walkout, often appears awkward. You also doubt that the behind the scenes union wrangling over whether the women should be fully supported would have been resolved so amicably. Particularly as towards the end of the strike thousands of Fords male workers were laid up and the company was losing millions, causing it to threaten the Labour Government about pulling out of Britain.
These though are minor points. Made in Dagenham is after all not a documentary but a film based on factual events. Nevertheless, to its great credit it presents a serious industrial struggle in an accessible and entertaining fashion. Furthermore within it working class people are portrayed positively, not as objects of laughter as in The Full Monty, but as living, breathing makers of history who through struggle pave the way for improvements in working conditions. At a time when newspaper columnists are poised to vilify any workers forced to defend their pay and conditions through strike action Made in Dagenham may just be the sort of show that gets people thinking. That would be something.