Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Union Jackie

‘I’m Alright Jack’ (1959) is perhaps one of the Boulting Brothers’ best known films.  It features so many famous faces that it’s hard to pick out just one actor or actress to focus on.  It is one of Peter Sellers’ best known roles, but how can you single him out over Dennis Price, Ian Carmichael and Richard Attenborough?  There are also fine performances from Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl and Liz Fraser.  It was reading Liz Fraser’s autobiography which reminded me of the film – she has such fond memories of her time on this set, the actors seem to have had fun, which shines through in their performances.
Sellers as Kite by @aitchteee

The film is of course well known for its acerbic take on industrial relations in post war Britain.  As well as industrialists being portrayed as a bunch of sly old robbers, the trade unionists are shown in a highly unflattering light.  I was particularly interested in this side of the storyline.  My old day job for an anti-poverty group brought me into contact with a lot of trade unionist types and I have spent many an hour hanging around the TUC HQ in London, and at various conferences.  In fact, I was at the TUC conference when the 9/11 attacks occurred, which put me in the highly disconcerting position of being in the same building as the Prime Minister as the country went into red alert.  I won’t forget that day in a hurry.  So this puts me in a position of being able to compare and contrast modern trade unionism with that depicted on the screen as being typical of the 1950s.  It would be obvious to say that we can conclude that there has been a significant loss of power and membership.  Also that this film, even if it is an exaggeration, shows the reasons why certain people determined to strip unions of every power.  But the aspect that I was most drawn to was the gender balance.

In ‘I’m Alright Jack’ the union is portrayed as a kind of working class gentlemens' club.  Sellers’ character as shop steward leads a gang of all male committee members/hangers on.  No women are shown as union members, and if their activity has any effect on women, it is to inconvenience them and give them opportunity to roll their eyes and indulge their menfolk.  This demographic is changing considerably.  At the beginning of the 21st century, the number of female trade union members overtook the number of males and the gap is steadily getting wider.  This is yet to be reflected in the higher echelons perhaps – there are few female General Secretaries out there among the individual unions.  But as of this year, the TUC is being led by its first female General Secretary in its long history.  Trade unions are truly moving on from their image of a fusty old male’s domain.

But aside from all this positivity, we must question why more women now feel the need to join a union.  Is it because we still feel that we need protection from unscrupulous employers and that our working conditions are not as they should be?  Is it because women do all the worst jobs? Or have we now just got more nous when it comes to standing up for ourselves than we ever had before?

‘I’m Alright Jack’ shows us that in fact, although women have muscled their way in to the workplace since 1959, there is still plenty of reasons for us to join together and call for continued progress.  Sadly, we’re not there yet.  

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