November 24, 2010 by Ilene H. Lang
What’s the source of my unabashed optimism? A movie.
Made in Dagenham opened in New York City two days after the Paycheck Fairness bill failed on Capitol Hill. The film depicts the pivotal 1968 strike of women machinists at a Ford production plant in Dagenham, a London suburb. The women walked out when their painstaking stitching work was re-classified by management as a low-paying “less-skilled” production job, and a new pay scale was introduced that awarded them 15% less than what the men in the same skill grade earned.
The film follows Rita O’Grady as she becomes the unlikely leader of the strike, which grew into a national movement that forced passage of the UK Equal Pay Act of 1970. In the end, the women received a deal that immediately put them within 8 percent of male pay for their skill grade, and at equal pay within two years.
Rita takes her lumps along the way. The walk-out leads to production shut-downs at the plant, and the once supportive men in Dagenham lash out at her. At one stage, Rita is confronted by her husband with a roundabout plea to stop the strike. He tells her that she already has a good life because, unlike the other men in town, he doesn’t drink or hit her. Rita grows incensed. Like fair pay, these two things are “rights, not privileges” she shouts—and she becomes even more emboldened on her mission.
Those words—“rights, not privileges”—resonated with me because it seems so clear that in 2010 it is not a privilege for women to be paid the same salaries as men who do the same work, but a right.
Success did not come overnight for Rita and her fellow machinists, but through a long protracted struggle. They were finally reclassified by Ford as “more-skilled” workers following another strike in 1984 (not depicted in the film). And since the UK Equal Pay Act was first passed, the pay gap in England has narrowed from 31 percent in 1970 to roughly 17 percent today—not perfect, but better.
The Dagenham women sparked a global movement fueled by a just cause. Setbacks may occur in the fight for paycheck fairness now, but let them not distract us from what is our right!