11 Oct 2010

Still no equal pay and cuts loom – but will people protest?

The serendipitous timing of the release of “Made in Dagenham” could prove awkward, especially with any student audience. Not long after the 187 women machinists struck at the Ford plant, my student generation were on the streets protesting anything we could think of.

I think I did Biafra in Liverpool, Vietnam in London, and an anti Springbok Rugby number in Manchester. Heaven was it to be alive. We had not a care in the world except that we were convinced that we alone had every care for the world, and those around us.

One senses the fire has gone out of protest since the Iraq war “million march”, as if that was the moment that it was discovered that it didn’t work – protest, I mean. And of course although it looked as if it worked at the Ford plant in the 1960s, the bid by the women to be paid equal wages to the men didn’t work either.

What the film fails to point out is that despite Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act, the majority of women are still paid less than men for equivalent work.

A report out today concludes that progress in closing the gender pay gap is “grinding to a halt”. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that on average women earn 16 per cent less than men, widening to 27 per cent for women aged 40. There’s little likelihood of any Dagenham-style action on this front however. Hence the question posed by the threat to student well-being by tomorrow’s report by Lord Browne into university funding.

If the rejigging of student fees goes by without major protest; if the cuts on October 20th go by without French style protest in the streets, we shall be able to say with certainty that the “Dagenham age” is over. Some will also be able to claim that Britain is a quiescent state in which the public accept that the welfare system is too generous, that we don’t need (in the military jargon) to punch above our weight, and that university student populations need to be cut back because we can’t afford them.

But if “Made in Dagenham” doesn’t turn them on, and reveal – as the film does – some bitter truths about “union fat cats”, then very little else will.

It’s a stunning period piece – the lead character, Rita, is a sensation. The casting generally is fabulous, the plot excellent, and the direction magical. I regretted finding no tissues in my pocket. The film deserves an Oscar, will probably get nominated for “Best Foreign Film”, and, like today’s female worker, won’t get it.

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