It requires superhuman strength to leave Made in Dagenham, the new film about a 1968 strike by female machinists at the Ford plant in London, England, without a tear in your eye. The beehived workers use their smart mouths to prove that they are worth as much as the men in the next shop: "It's about fairness," their leader says fiercely. Really, you'd have to be dead, or Margaret Thatcher, not to be moved.
For those of us who have been active in unions, the film is both a warm, nostalgic glance at the past and a cold, threatening eye on the future. Or maybe I felt this because I watched the film in London with my mother, one of the founding members of the Ontario nurses' union, who took me picketing when I was 9 and they were striking for higher pay. "Go back to work!" a man screamed at us from his car as we marched next to St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "Florence Nightingale would turn in her grave!" My brother made a picket sign that read, "We save lives, not money."
Made in Dagenham is a British film, and the British have always had a soft spot, on stage and screen especially, for a bit of working-class rebellion: From the Tolpuddle martyrs, shipped off to Australia, to the starving urchins trying to keep their fingers out of the looms in Elizabeth Gaskell's Victorian novel North and South, to Billy Elliot the Musical, in which the embattled miners offer their meagre strike pay to Billy so he can get to London for a dance audition. They are doomed, trapped: Why shouldn't he escape their fate?
Unfortunately, that warm and fuzzy feeling dissipates in the cold air of the current economic chill. You only had to stand in a bus queue listening to commuters complaining bitterly about this week's one-day strike on the London Underground. Work stoppages are now such a rare event in the capital that even a minor inconvenience seemed intolerable. Londoners get moist-eyed over the Blitz spirit shown by their grandparents, but this was more the quits spirit: Any sympathy commuters may have had for fellow workers evaporated in the extra half-hour it took to get to work. They didn't have to dodge falling bombs, but it's possible they had to listen to the same song twice on their iPods.
This strike, over the issue of 800 ticket-office jobs being axed, coincided with the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. London's mop-top mayor Boris Johnson considered the timing to be a political act, and saw red - not in a way that would make Marx happy, either. "The death eaters of union militancy [are]on the march, prepared to suck the life out of British industry," he told the conference, his rhetorical kettle, as usual, at full boil.
The new Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, has already been branded "union stooge" by the right-wing press. It was a block of union votes that gave him a narrow victory, largely owing to his party's Byzantine voting practices. Unions, in the popular view, seem to have gone from being the saviour of working people to their oppressor. (Perhaps there would be more sympathy if membership hadn't been falling steadily in Britain since a peak in 1979; now only a quarter of the work force belongs to a union.)
Fighting words are in the air, and there's a real chance words may become actions. The Trades Union Congress, which represents more than six million British workers, is dusting off its siege engines and preparing for a mass rally on Oct. 19, the day before the government's drastic spending cuts are announced. I asked Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, whether there was a season of unrest ahead: "These are very different times to 1978-79, the famous winter of discontent," he said. "This is a big test for the trades unions. They will want to set up a reaction to the cuts, but they'll have to bring their members with them, and their members are much less militant than they used to be."
His LSE colleague Patrick Dunleavy said the potentially unsettled period would come a year from now, when the combination of job cuts and a public-sector wage freeze plus rising inflation and increased tax on consumer goods could force angry workers out into the streets. "But [unions]will need their members to be sufficiently down on incomes to support action."
There are three more one-day strikes planned on the London Underground before the end of the year. That's millions of grumbling, cold, furious Londoners inching their way to work. If they go see Made in Dagenham during one of those strikes, I wonder how many of them will remember the hard-fought breakthroughs in safety and pay equity that the labour movement has fought for, or the stories their grandfathers told them about terrible working conditions and starvation pay. Mainly, I fear, they're just going to curse the cold walk home.