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Norma Rae in the U.K.

4 years ago
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For those needing a reminder about the power of female solidarity and the significance of organized labor, "Made in Dagenham" tells the story of a women's labor strike at a Ford Motor plant in the United Kingdom in 1968. It's a feel-good feminist movie with women uniting across class lines and British Employment Secretary Barbara Castle, the only woman in Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Cabinet, defiantly backing the strikers to win them near-parity with men's wages and two years later the Equal Pay Act of 1970. There were only 187 women in the work force of 55,000, and it was the first time they had dared to strike. Operating sewing machines in sweatshop conditions, they stitched together the seat covers for cars coming off the assembly line. Management was reclassifying their jobs from skilled to unskilled, which meant a cut in pay when they were already making less than men working at the plant.

The decision to walk out was a big one, angering the women's spouses, many of whom worked at the plant, and confounding Ford's top brass who at first assumed the woman who led the strikers must be a seasoned political activist. But ringleader Rita O'Grady, played winningly by Sally Hawkins, gets pulled into the fray for purer reasons, economic justice and wounded pride at being treated like a second-class worker. In reality, there was no Rita O'Grady at Dagenham in '68; she is an amalgam of the women who took part in the strike, and they are pictured as the credits roll. Gray-haired and grandmotherly looking, they are the role models four decades later for the spirited band of sisters portrayed in the movie.

The women machinists endured economic hardship and marriages suffered as husbands, who typically also worked at the Ford plant felt they bore the brunt of their wives' activism in lost wages themselves, along with diminished self-esteem as wives walked the picket line and neglected household duties. One scene has O'Grady's husband bewildered by his wife's behavior when by his definition he's been a good husband because he doesn't drink too much and knock her around. That's just the minimum that should come with being human, she protests, as she leaves him behind to address a labor rally.

The movie portrays labor unions in a positive light, and of course has a happy ending. Richard Schiff, who played Toby on the NBC series West Wing, and who is an unapologetic liberal in real life, does such a good job portraying the sleazy union-busting executive Ford dispatches to Dagenham to put down the strike that I was thinking, "Toby, how could you!"

Ford's management maintained that if women were paid the same as men, the industry would collapse. The thinking then was that men should get the "breadwinner's wage," on the theory that they were head of household, but even then, 40 percent of the men were single, and women were increasingly the main if not sole breadwinner, according to Laura Beers, an American University history professor who spoke after a recent screening in Washington. Male-dominated trade unions feared equal wages for women would mean lower wages for men. Natasha Richardson plays Barbara Castle, the feisty employment secretary who some viewers might mistake for Margaret Thatcher, but the two women were poles apart in their philosophy if not their approach. Castle was a leader in Parliament in 1945 and part of the post-World War II labor sweep in British government that ushered in the National Health Service and Old Age benefits. By the time the Labor Party was voted out of office six years later, its leaders had fulfilled their goal of a social welfare state with one major exception, equal pay. Thatcher came to power a decade after the Dagenham strike with the goal of dismantling much of what Labor had achieved.

The women at Dagenham didn't get all they wanted, but they got a relatively big chunk – 92 percent of what the men were earning – and two years later, in 1970, the British Parliament enacted the Equal Pay Act. Just as American workers are still battling to more fairly interpret and implement the Equal Pay Act of 1963 that President John Kennedy signed into law, equal pay in Britain remains an ongoing legislative and legal battle. How American audiences react to this depiction of a labor dispute where there's no confusion as to which ones are the good guys – they're the girls – may help revive labor's fading image.

Not since "Norma Rae," the 1979 film starring Sally Field as a textile worker in North Carolina who dares to battle for the right to unionize, has the fight for worker's rights been portrayed as so unequivocally the right thing to do. Yet the movie, to its credit, avoids sermonizing and manages to deliver pure entertainment as well with characters, though sometimes overdrawn, win your heart and have you rooting for them as they defy the conventional societal norms. What if their demands are turned down? How will they cope, reporters want to know. "We're women," one says. "Don't ask such a stupid question."
Filed Under: Woman Up

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