Made in San Francisco

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Written by Hazel Weiser

Members of Local 2 at Labor Teach-In
Members of Local 2 at Labor Teach-In

Despite the blustery winter winds, a group of law professors and librarians joined the picket lines that surrounded the San Francisco Hilton Hotel during the AALS Annual Meeting last week.  (Read the article about the picketing and rally.) It was invigorating to march, sign in hand, to the calls of the UniteHERE Local 2 organizer and the harsh sounds of a drum, saxophone, and trumpet.  Although as advantaged law professors, some of whom were wearing cashmere coats, we could leave the line and return to our comfortable hotel rooms, the workers are fighting for their futures: health benefits, work rules, retirement, and pride.

To hear a chef describe what is happening in her kitchen—tasks taken away from workers so that their pay can be cut and their jobs turned from skilled to unskilled–one has to immediately understand that Naomi Klein was prescient in The Shock Doctrine (June 2008).  Even before the 2008 meltdown, she predicted a jobless recovery as had happened in country after country under the watchful eyes of both neo-conservative and neo-liberal economists.  Why pay a worker to chop vegetables when one can buy already chopped bags of celery, onions, and carrots?  Eliminate a sous chef!   Henry Ford, the guy who invented the assembly line, understood that he had to pay workers enough so that they could afford to buy a car themselves someday.  That sensibility seems to be lost on modern corporate leaders.  With jobs losing their permanent status, and consequently with that loss of status, the availability of health care benefits, sick days, professional development, and retirement, across the strata, what does the future hold for any of us except for the uber-rich?  Read the January-February 2011 The Atlantic Monthly’s “Rise of the New Global Elite” by Chrystia Freeland for an in-depth discussion of the equity gap, the loss of nationalism, and the demise of the middle classes throughout the world, especially here in the United States.

The workers from Local 2 of UniteHERE were not despairing, not on the picket lines and not during the SALT Labor Teach-In, held at Golden Gate University School of Law the day before.  (Check out the photo gallery on Facebook.)

Where did they get their enthusiasm and hope?

To find out, I went to see Made in Dagenham last night.  It is a fictionalized account of the 1968 strike by women workers—all 187 of them—who worked at the largest Ford plant in England.  The women who sewed the upholstery for the car seats were improperly categorized as unskilled to keep their incomes down, and they struck for wages that were equal to men’s.  It was the first strike by women for equal pay, and the women wouldn’t go back to work, after the entire plant closed down, until they received 90% of men’s wages.

The film portrays a pleasantly naïve commitment to the authentic role of the union to protect all workers’ rights, as the women defied union leadership in continuing their strike.  Here is a synopsis of the plot. The film won’t win an Oscar nomination although Sally Hawkins and Bob Hoskins give delightful performances, and there are individual scenes of incredible humanity and depth.

As the credits begin at the close of the film, we meet some of the actual Dagenham women, in original media footage and in contemporary interviews.  These women, the real ones and as they were portrayed by the actors, are ordinary people yet heroes, displaying the same commitment to the power of the collective that we experienced on the picket lines in San Francisco.  We cannot forget the power that derives from understanding how a law professor and a hotel housekeeper are truly connected and to act in our collective interests.