What common cause could teachers, corrections officers, snowplow drivers and other public employees in Wisconsin have with a small band of female auto workers in 1960s England?
“Made in Dagenham” tells the inspiring true tale of about 200 women who went on strike at the Ford motor plant in the city of Dagenham in 1968. While Nigel Cole’s film undeniably romanticizes and sanitizes the actual struggle, it’s a rousing film nonetheless. You want to see how determined working-class citizens can band together and defeat powerful interests? This is your movie.
The women are the only female employees among the 55,000 workers at the Ford plant, responsible for stitching the upholstery in the cars. While their part in the assembly line is just as vital as anybody else’s, they’re paid less than the men, their work categorized as “unskilled.” For their shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins), that’s unacceptable.
Albert invites Rita (Sally Hawkins), one of the workers, along to a negotiation meeting between the union and Ford executives. Rita is initially just flattered to be asked along, but when she sees both union brass and company executives waving away the women’s concerns, she gets angry. She and Albert urge the women to go on strike, and what is originally conceived as a one-day walkout blossoms into a nationwide campaign for equal pay.
Rita’s husband and the other male workers at the plant initially support the women’s crusade — until Ford ratchets up the pressure by shutting down the plant, putting everybody out of work. (Trying to divide workers and pit them against each other — now where have I read about that strategy lately?) When the women won’t budge, the British Ford executives bring in an American executive skilled at union-busting (Richard Schiff, who played Toby on “The West Wing”) to play hardball.
Hawkins, who played the incurable optimist in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” anchors the film, playing a virtuous woman who’s not immune to the pressures at work and at home. We see her hesitate and doubt herself, then surge forward and do what needs to be done.
The screenplay plays fast and loose with some of the facts — it’s hard to swallow that Rita would accidentally befriend another mom at her children’s school (Rosamund Pike) who happens to be the wife of one of the executives. But the movie is attuned to the details of the workers’ lives, from the ’60s pop blaring on their radios to the irony of them commuting by bicycle to work at the auto plant every day. They can’t afford to drive the cars they build.
The events in Wisconsin over the last couple of weeks have shown that standing up for workers’ rights is a lot harder than just giving the right speech at the right time. But “Made in Dagenham,” although overly familiar in parts, shows that every once in a while, the little guy (or the little lass) can win one. That’s a message that will fall on a lot of welcome ears around these parts.