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The Made in Dagenham Method

June 7th, 2011     by Meg Pirie     Comments

When I was trying to figure out how to write about organizing collectively, several issues jumped out at me: 1) I have little experience making broad demands to my employer and 2) I have never had to go on strike. What I can tell you is how to ensure your manager purchases a new kettle for the staff room or making sure you are not shamed into taking 38 minutes for lunch instead of the allotted hour. “But Meg, I want to overthrow the system,” you think.

Alas, don’t we all? Nevertheless, there are some useful places to start and it took a recent viewing of Made in Dagenham to reveal the ways in which large-scale labour actions and seemingly benign quotidian confrontations are, in fact, interconnected.

As a brief aside, if you have yet to see this film, you must. Aside from a couple vomit-inducing moments that can only be described as cheez and some minor- to medium-sized historical inaccuracies, Made in Dagenham is enjoyable from start to finish. The film tells the story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists strike in England. Ultimately successful, the strike leads to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 by the then-Labour government. Besides stellar performances from Sally Hawkins and Rosamund Pike, Dagenham balances contagious optimism with realistic observations concerning group dynamics, ruptures between labour policies and gender that are still felt today, and that in spite of a movement’s surface-level coherence, resistance is often fraught with internal schisms. Rating: 3 beehive hairdos out of 5.

But I digress. Nodes of power and resistance, while sometimes hard to spot when you’re going through the daily grind, are always there. I firmly believe that we are most capable of accessing our inner reservoirs of creativity when we least expect it … like when we’re engaged in seemingly banal activities, Working on the fry line, taking coffee orders, or like Rita O’Grady (a composite character played by Sally Hawkins) sewing car seats together in a blisteringly hot factory … these are those moments when the Eureka deities are at their most powerful.

So, whether you are working on a bargaining committee or working with your part-time co-workers to improve the conditions of your staff room, there are some important lessons that Made in Dagenham presents:

The importance of unity. What is your goal? How will you achieve it? Unity is significant because it leads to coherence and a sense of community. It also demands trust and a willingness to accept some degree of vulnerability. After all, you and your peers are entering uncharted territory with an unknown outcome. We see this in Made in Dagenham when Rita O’Grady (played by Sally Hawkins) and her colleagues come together to air grievances. When they realize their union is being run by a bunch of patronizing chauvinists who are unable to think out of the box, they take matters into their own hands and stage a walk-out in the interest of their demand: equal pay.

Well, to feel unified and focused requires this: a safe space. When you meet with your fellow rabble rousers, do so outside of work, away from prying eyes and the potential for internalized surveillance and self-censorship. In Dagenham, the women pass notes in their factory and actually use the din of machinery as a cover to make plans and air their grievances to one another.

This isn’t always the case. When I was living the high life as a catering waitress, prying, anti-labour eyes were omnipresent. Organizing would have required meeting outside of work, which would require co-ordinating schedules–tricky on shift work, but necessary in an environment where surveillance is used to modify behaviour and keep opinions in check.

And here’s a biggie: Unity, goals, and meetings emerge through dialogue. When I say dialogue, I mean open, honest discussions that respect dissent and alternative views, experiences, and opinions as much as agreement. Dialogue is hard. Dialogue demands respect and a level of maturity and selflessness that allots equal time to everyone to voice their observations and concerns, but also demands organization. I emphasize this lesson so much because we all have different deal breakers, a fact made clear in Dagenham. Name-calling, finger-pointing, and grudges … check those non-starters at the door.

So you’re committed, you treat dialogue like the learning process it is, and y’all articulate your objectives with the utmost clarity. Now, no matter what you are lobbying for, your planning won’t bear fruit if you’re missing something. At this point, I can’t stress the importance of documentation enough. This sounds dry because it is. Keep track of your grievances and those of your peers so that when you come forward as a group, you have legs to stand on … legs made of reams of glorious paperwork upon which to stand and let loose your mighty roar of justice!

One of my favourite scenes from Dagenham is when representatives from the machinists strike finally meet with Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). I love this scene so much because the women, in spite of their varied class backgrounds, are able to come together with mutual respect and share comparable struggles with sexism. Beyond functioning as record keeping, documentation and preparedness signals something else. None of the parties involved at this point in the film–neither labour, nor government–entered the meeting unprepared because they respected one another.

You might loathe your employer’s labour practices, but respecting the process in which you’re now embroiled and the people with whom you will be bargaining is important. Whether or not your adversaries extend this courtesy is their choice. But the more prepared you are, the more research you have done, the more documentation you can provide all works in your favour.

Notice that I didn’t mention “winning”?

When we stand at these precipices–even for, what appears on the surface, to be the most simplest of demands–it is often easy to find reasons to rationalize a position of non-participation and back away from the fire. Resist this urge! Sometimes the outcome will be exactly the opposite of what you’d hoped for. Sometimes the dispute will be long, seemingly interminable, and taxing on every level.

Coming together to improve labour conditions or challenge certain practices is hard work. You might see a rupture between labour and gender, you might see intersections between labour and race and gender and class, but persistence is critical. When you need a boost, watch films like Made in Dagenham, but understand that unlike films, real life might lack a neat and tidy conclusion. Instead, you get to be a dynamic agent of change, living out that awesome Emma Goldman quote: “no real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution … revolution is but thought carried into action.”

“But I want a coffee maker in our break room,” you say. “That’s not revolutionary.”

Maybe not, but it’s a start. And know what else Emma Goldman said? “When we can’t dream any longer we die.” Dreams, big ideas, and goals labeled as “lofty” all start somewhere … even a staff room coffeemaker.

Tags: film reel, on the job

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