Sunday, January 9, 2011

Smash Sexism in Dagenham! Only Proletarian Women Can!

Women workers lead victorious struggle in ‘Made in Dagenham’
By Sue Davis
Published Jan 8, 2011 7:31 AM

Called a “British Norma Rae,” the recently released “Made in Dagenham” tells the story of how 187 women workers, who sewed seat covers at a Ford plant employing more than 55,000 workers outside London, stopped production with their 1968 strike and won huge raises. Their victory led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

This inspiring working-class story begins when the women find out they’ve been reclassified as unskilled workers at lower pay. After they vote unanimously to stage a one-day strike, there’s a meeting between union and management. Shy but determined, Rita interrupts a class-collaborationist union bureaucrat trying to derail the strike and defiantly details the kinds of skills the women need to sew seat covers.

Flush from the strike, Rita upgrades the issue from skill levels to equal pay, and the strike continues. Soon the plant shuts down because cars can’t be sold without seats. During a union meeting to vote on whether to support the women’s strike, Rita again interrupts the bureaucrat and appeals to the all-male delegates: “We are the working class. We’re men and women, and we are in this together. We are not divided by sex, only by those willing to accept injustice.” Her militant appeal works — 79 in favor, 48 opposed.

A Ford bigwig, dispatched to London, threatens Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson: Either end the strike or we’ll move the plant to Europe. Wilson so instructs his Employment Minister, Barbara Castle. But Castle, both demeaned in her position and won over by the women, negotiates behind closed doors with the Ford boss, who agrees to a compromise: The women will be paid 92 percent of men’s wages. Castle adds the promise about sponsoring the equal pay bill.

Made with a star-studded cast, the movie has been called timely, stirring, entertaining, but Hollywood predictable. A few scenes seem far-fetched, like the upper-class spouse of a Ford executive encouraging Rita to keep fighting for all women and then lending her an expensive dress to wear to meet with Castle.

Is the movie accurate? Did a male shop steward have to persuade Rita, a composite of several women leaders, to demand equal pay? There’s also the question: Were all the women white? A few men of color are in some scenes.

A big question is: Why was this film made in 2010? U.S. and British reviewers see it differently. In a Nov. 18 New York Times review, Stephen Holden calls it “a grown-up feel-good movie plunked in a feel-bad age” and writes that it’s “so smoothly written and well acted that its humanity and good will leave you with a 1960s buzz of hope that social justice might be at hand; that feeling wears off quickly.”

British reviewers take a more class-conscious approach. In the Oct. 4 Daily Mail, Chris Tookey describes the movie as “ordinary people finding their voice” and notes that it “has pertinent things to say to the modern generation about standing up for your principles.” Writing in the Oct. 3 Independent, Nicholas Barber observes that it’s “fairly radical for a contemporary film to be so squarely on the side of the strikers.”

This reviewer wishes the movie could be shown around the clock on television so all working and oppressed people could be inspired to unite and fight back.
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