I’d spent a bit of time in the UK before I realized the grotty industrial suburb at the end of the District Line was just plain “Dagenham” rather than “Bloody Dagenham,” the only way I’d ever heard it described.
Olivia, having spent a bit of time there after the war, had a recurring nightmare: that a reversal of fate would require her to spend her declining years “in bloody Dagenham.” As things turned out she was able to live her last 45 years in the heart of Notting Hill, watching it evolve from immigrant quarter to hippie haven to latte-sipping ground zero for the chatterati and the idle rich. But once in the mid-70s, when she was still driving, we passed through Dagenham en route to the Essex seaside. It was the only time I heard Olivia vary her term of abuse, dismissing it – with a casual, contemptuous wave of her cigarette hand – as “dreary” Dagenham before heading off on another tangent about the bloody people who lived there.
In subsequent years I’ve driven through several times on my own, and even gotten to know a few people who lived there, but perhaps warned off by Olivia’s vehemence, never paid a formal visit to the place. Her contempt seemed to be vindicated when Dagenham became a stronghold of the far-right British National Party, although it did partially redeem itself four years later by, as Billy Bragg put it, “seeing off” the entire slate of local BNP officials.
It’s a hard luck and hardscrabble sort of place, Dagenham, and its dependence on the automobile industry made it subject to the same forces that ripped apart America’s Rust Belt. But it wasn’t always thus; the Dagenham that Olivia scorned and that I first saw was a prosperous town, rather like Detroit before the riots and the energy crisis and the Japanese car invasion. Prosperous, that is, in the sense that there was work for all who wanted it and that any marginally competent employee could earn enough to pay his way in the world, though maybe not a whole lot more than that.
Dagenham, like Detroit, was a union town, as is made eminently clear in the recent film Made In Dagenham, which tells the story, “based on true events,” of a 1968 strike by women machinists that escalated from a dispute over pay grades and working conditions into an industry-wide push for equal pay regardless of gender. The film is entertaining, touching and inspiring, a very worthy enterprise – you’d expect nothing less with the likes of Bob Hoskins and Miranda Richardson involved – that of course almost no one will see.
I caught a late night showing at the only cinema in the city where it’s still playing and had the place entirely to myself apart from a sweet lesbian couple who sat in the back row and laughed and cheered at the same spots I did. And yes, the film might be accused of being slightly formulaic, but it’s a good formula. When the posh-but-oppressed Cambridge honors grad, now reduced to making tea and picking up after her auto exec husband, tells feisty but unsophisticated strike leader Rita O’Grady that she admires her for “making history,” you almost want Aaron Copland to march in with the “Fanfare For The Common Man.” Except that it would be way too American for this film, which is as English as a Smiths album (Smiths cover star and collaborator Sandie Shaw, a Dagenham girl herself, sings the title song), and that the common man here is a woman, or, more precisely, a whole bunch of them.
The film’s conclusion, in which the women not only win their own struggle but set in motion the forces leading to Parliament’s passage of the Equal Pay Act two years later, is suitably triumphant, but also bittersweet when looked at in the rear view mirror. In both Britain and the USA the unions won most of the battles but still managed to lose the war; today trade unions are an unfamiliar relic to most Americans and, while they still wield considerable power in the UK, are but a shadow of their former selves.
Growing up in Detroit when I did, I was of course a union member myself; in fact, because I tended not to hang on to jobs for long, I wound up being a member of three: the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While some men regret never having had the opportunity to go to war; I felt hard done by because I never got to go on strike. By the time I entered the work force, unions had become a smoothly oiled operation, almost a second branch of management. In exchange for the dues automatically deducted from our checks, they made sure we enjoyed pay and working conditions clearly superior to those of almost any non-union shop.
Working on the assembly line was still no romp in the park – it was noisy, dirty, smelly, and sometimes backbreaking work – but to all but a few malcontents like myself, the compensation and the benefits were reasonable. A kid fresh out of high school could walk into the auto plant or the steel mill and earn enough to buy a house and car and support a wife and kids. Try doing that on most entry-level jobs today.
But in at least one way the unions’ success proved to be their undoing; while the first unions saw themselves as part of an international vanguard looking after the interests of all working people, latter-day unions became special interest groups, concerned almost exclusively with the well-being of their own individual members, regardless of what impact that might have on society at large. Detroit’s insistence on churning out unreliable gas-guzzling dinosaurs while the Japanese steadily stripped away their market share is usually laid at the doorstep of a benighted and ossified management, but the unions also had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The closest I came to being involved in a labor dispute was not about money at all. In fact it was about my hair. I was working for Great Lakes Steel when I received a warning that I’d be fired if I didn’t cut my shoulder-length hair. It was “a fire danger,” management claimed, though it seemed obvious that they just didn’t want people at the mill looking like hippies. My fellow workers hated my hair worse than the bosses did; many of them were just back from Vietnam, and to them long hair meant war protesters, drug addicts, and homosexuals. I was harassed on a daily basis, and nearly got in a couple fights over it.
Yet when the news broke about the company threatening to fire me, our shop steward announced that the whole plant – we’re talking several thousand workers – would walk out if management didn’t let me keep my hair the way I wanted it. And that was that; my hair grew halfway down my back and the boss never said another word about it.
It seems so far away now: would anyone even care how long an employee’s hair was, let alone be willing to shut down an entire industry over it? Solidarity as practiced today seems more concerned with minimizing pay cuts and job losses – worthy goals, no doubt, but a far cry from the heady days of union ascendancy. Never mind, though; go see Made In Dagenham if you want to see what things used to be like, or if you just want to see a really good movie. But hurry. This film will disappear from cinemas even faster than the brave women and men it celebrates are vanishing from history.