Hidden Gem: ‘Made in Dagenham’ (2010)

By Syd Slobodnik

Films about female labor leadership are few and far between. The only two films that come to mind are the lighthearted 1957 Doris Day musical “The Pajama Game” and Martin Ritt’s 1979 “Norma Rae.” The latter is a true story featuring Sally Field in the title role as a textile worker, who leads a group of exploited North Carolina workers to strike for fairer wages and improved working conditions.

I recently discovered a fantastic British film, Nigel Cole’s “Made in Dagenham.” It’s about a 1968 auto workers’ strike at a Ford factory in Dagenham, England, a strike led by bold females who protest against overt sexual discrimination, poor working conditions and mostly wage inequality. Sally Hawkins, Oscar nominee from “The Shape of Water,” stars as Rita O’Grady, the spirited shop steward, and Bob Hoskins is Albert Passingham, their union representative and advocate. Director Cole’s previous film was the 2003 women-centered film “Calendar Girls,” with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.

The Dagenham Ford plant was the largest car factory in the United Kingdom located in East London that could produce more than 3,000 cars per day. In 1968, it employed over 55,000 men and only 187 women, who mostly sewed interior fabrics for the cars’ upholstery. William Ivory’s screenplay depicts the historical events that led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. This Parliamentary act prevents work discrimination “that prohibited less favorable treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment.”

The women employees of the Ford plant were confined to one large factory room where the summer’s heat is so brutal that they are forced to slip off their dresses and work more comfortably in the underwear (while male workers are not present, of course). When it frequently rains, parts of the ceiling leak in their work area. We learn that these women make nearly 50% of their male coworkers’ wages in the rest of the plant, partly because the management determined their work is unskilled.

As the film begins, it is announced that a one-day work stoppage was being planned for late May. Rita O’Grady is selected to be the lead spokesperson for the women’s complaints at a pre-strike meeting. Union advocate Passingham, a man raised by a strong working mother, declares, “Someone’s got to stop these exploiting bastards from getting away with all they have been doing for years! You can, Rita!”

Simultaneously, a new government Employment Secretary, Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), is taking control of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labor Party’s agenda. Castle is disturbed that in the last twelve months, over 26,000 strikers participated in the loss of five million working days, while unions and management are at war. When the women strikers take their pickets outside Westminster, Castle becomes determined to help solve the Dagenham crisis.

As the strike continues, all interior car seats are going undone, and the rest of the plant is forced to shut down, causing further unrest that angers even American bosses in Detroit. Soon even the male workers complain that their status as breadwinners is sacrificed for female workers who aren’t primary breadwinners.

Hawkins’ spunky Rita O’Grady is an inspiration to her co-workers, especially her older friend Connie. As a mother of two young children whose husband seems semi-employed, O’Grady juggles her many roles without any real complaints. She even strikes up a friendship with Lisa Hopkins (Rosamund Pike), the elegant wife of plant boss, Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves). Lisa is sympathetic to the strikers’ cause because her husband treats her like a fool despite having a university degree.

In addition to effective costume design, bobbed hairstyles and period sets, director Cole nicely complement many of the scenes of this very entertaining film with a variety of popular and contemporary songs, like “All or Nothing,” “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” and “You Can Get it if You Really Want.”

Cole’s film leads to a joyous, somewhat predictable conclusion. With Secretary Castle’s help, the women settle the strike, winning 92% of their fellow male Ford workers’ rate. “Made in Dagenham” is a delightfully entertaining film that teaches an important history lesson.