Monday, 4 October 2010

A labour movement in the image and interests of women

From today's Guardian:

Beatrix Campbell

As he was Listening to Radio 4's Reunion series, film producer Stephen Woolley became enthralled by a group of working-class women involved in a historic event he'd never heard about: the Ford sewing machinists who went on strike in 1968. Ford was the biggest car-maker in Britain, one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, and 187 women working in one of their craggy hangars brought them to a standstill.

It was a revolutionary year: sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, riots, student sit-ins, protests against the Vietnam war, general strikes, institutions besieged. Even the Folies Bergere's burlesque dancers went on strike in Paris during the May 68 whirlwind.

I wasn't a student and I wasn't on strike, but one May weekend a group of communist women – we weren't yet feminists – sent off a missive congratulating the dancers for their militancy.

When Woolley heard the women on the radio he registered that they weren't in his historical memory. They reminded him of his own Islington mother, and together with his producer partner, Elizabeth Karlsen, he decided to bring their story out of the shadows of history.

I heard that Reunion broadcast, too: I'd met some of the strikers, but instead of feeling excited, like Woolley, instead of hearing this as a triumphant story, I heard a narrative that has been muted.

Woolley's resulting film, Made in Dagenham, shows us unexpected success. Those women almost triumphed. Certainly they triggered the then employment secretary to introduce an equal pay act. But Barbara Castle fixed a deal, she managed a crisis: she didn't honour those women's yearning for respect as skilled women. They never really got what they wanted. They were never really heard. Their convenor, Bernie Passingham, a genial, clever communist (played by Bob Hoskins) liked and believed in them and facilitated their militancy. But their unions, the government, the Labour party, the men of the left and their own men in Dagenham, weren't actually interested in them. They were foxed by the Ford women. So, they didn't learn from them.

Woolley and Karlsen took a strategic decision to mount a comedic Dagenham. They want their film to be popular. I would favour more edge, a touch of House of Cards or Mad Men – though there is an exquisite gesture in that direction: the trophy wife of a boss, Lisa (Rosamund Pike) relinquishes her poise, momentarily, and seeks affinity with Rita O'Grady, the strike leader. "Do you know who I am?" she asks. Her husband treats her like a fool, but she has a first-class Cambridge degree in history and adores reading about people making history. "That's what you are doing," she tells O'Grady. "Tell me what it feels like when you've done it." This is an elegant and clever moment where gender transcends class, and it provokes tears in the audience.

Made in Dagenham stirred my class hatred: we witness the contempt for these women not just in the bosses' tone and voice, but in the peeling, windy, sweating cavern in which they were employed. It doesn't exist now and Ford is reformed.

The Ford sewing machinists changed my life. I was a young journalist; I didn't get on to the newsdesk for three or four years, until the retirement in the early 70s of the news editor, fondly known as "the bosun", whose favoured maxim was "My arse is a teacake". He wouldn't let me be a reporter because he already had one woman on the newsdesk and one was enough. This was the Morning Star – formerly known as the Daily Worker.

I came alive in the 70s, in the excitement of the women's liberation movement and reporting on a tumultuous decade. In 1976 the Ford unions submitted, with the help of experts at Ruskin College, an annual pay claim that for the first time seemed to embrace not only wages but also life. It addressed pensions, access to adult education, sabbatical leave – Ford employed workers from India, the West Indies, for whom two weeks off in the summer was no use.

In the context of the first phase of the social contract between the government and the unions – which for the first time prioritised the low-paid, ie women – this was interesting. I wanted to write a story about the sewing machinists' reaction – where had they got with their own claim, not just for equal pay (on the bottom unskilled grade) but also for regrading as semi-skilled? One of the convenors spoke to me. "They're great, the women," he said. "Oh yes, and they're militant. But ..." Sucking his teeth: "I dunno, can't explain it ..." More sucking of teeth. They were an enigma. "You'll see," he said.

I did see. I asked what were their priorities in this claim? The money mattered, they said, but their greatest concern was control over their time. They wanted paid time to work with, rather than against, the demands of daily life. They wanted "facilities" at the workplace. I wrote their story. The industrial editor read it. "Crap," he said. "Wrong."

Lest we forget: the trade union movement's century-old historic compromise with capitalism was at the expense of women – trade unions fought for the expulsion of women from waged work; even as late as the 1930s they campaigned to ban married women, or all women, from the workplace.

During the second world war more than 7 million women worked in factories. They earned 53% of the men's pay. At the end of the war the Labour government, backed by the Trades Union Congress, closed nurseries and resolved that equal pay for women was "inappropriate".

Britain did not become a member of the European Union, whose Treaty of Rome affirmed equal pay. Towards the end of the 70s my own women's group, Red Rag, which published a feminist and Marxist journal, advocated an "alternative feminist economic agenda". It was provoked by a crisis. One of us had separated from the father of her young children. How would she manage? We investigated the ingredients of the pay gap – men's bonuses just for being men, men's hours, men's absence from home and the work of care; we proposed the abolition of the breadwinner (still in those days enshrined in the wages and benefits system) and a child benefit that corresponded to the costs of children; we suggested a new politics of time, instead of the polarisation between men and women's time that institutionalised inequality, a 30-hour week for all, and working time that synchronised with the seasons of daily life and children's time. Fashion an economic strategy around a woman worker, a "part-time" worker, we said, and you've sorted out stuff for everyone.

We have the opportunity, on the screen, to revisit those wonderful sewing machinists: to listen to their stories that are never only about the strike and always about life. Woolley and Karlsen have done something important and their film is radiating in the zeitgeist: feminism is stirring again and the chronicle of those nice, dangerous women is being aired all over the place – in cinemas, schools, blogs and on the streets. They are a reminder of what could have been: a labour movement in the image and interests of women. Revolutionary.

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