Shortly after I wrote about the PAL flight attendants’ shock and awe at the Court of Appeals’ decision to roll back their retirement ages to 60 for men and 55 for women, I remembered a movie I had seen a couple of years ago that dwelled on this theme. That movie was “Made in Dagenham.” It tells of a strike by a group of women in a Ford factory in Dagenham, England. It’s one of the best movies of 2010 and should be seen not just by advocates of women’s rights and striking men and women but by everyone who believes the truth shall set you free.
It is a true story, and an inspiring one. The women of Ford Dagenham, a tiny minority of 187, sewing upholstery for the company’s cars alongside 55,000 men, decide to walk out one day to protest abysmal working conditions. The walkout soon turns into a full-blown strike after nearly everyone votes for it, which gets the support of the union. Indeed, the call for better working conditions soon turns to a call for equal pay for men and women, the women just getting a fraction of the men’s, which does not get the support of the union.
This is 1968, and the women’s demand is universally seen as unreasonable. It is seen as so by management which scoffs at the idea; women have always received less than men and will always receive less than men. You give them equal pay and industry would collapse. It is seen as so by their union, which regards it as too radical. Maybe equal pay for men and women will come, but it will come only in time, and 1968 was not the time. It is seen as so by their husbands who lose their paychecks as the factory decides to temporarily lay them off, and by their children who get no milk at breakfast. And it is seen as so by the public: Whoever heard of such nonsense as equal pay for men and women?
The women persevere, and the strike, catching the attention of the press more for its novelty than importance, eventually reaches Whitehall. There, the employment minister, herself a woman though a fairly conservative one, invites them over. Determined to knock some sense into them, she is instead swayed by the simplicity and force of their argument. It is the just thing to do, it is the fair thing to do. Why should women with the same skills doing the same amount of work be paid less than men?
The employment minister takes their side, agreeing immediately to add more women to the workforce and give them 92 percent of the men’s pay. Two years later, Britain passes the Equal Pay Act. Other industrial countries quickly follow suit. What began as a small protest ends as an earthshaking event.
When I saw this movie, I was amazed to realize how the concept of equal pay became a reality only in 1970. I had always thought it dated much earlier. The year, 1968, is a banner year in modern history, when epic marches and protest strikes broke out in many parts of the world—against the Vietnam War, against inequality, against imperialism. I didn’t know another revolution took place in a fairly obscure part of the world, much quieter, away from the glare of world opinion, but one which would have profounder effects. Indeed, which would prove more immensely successful.
Clearly though, its effects have not entirely reached these shores.
Arguably, PAL’s appeal and its appeal to the Court of Appeals which granted it, is not about pay but about retirement ages. But equal benefits, which equal retirement ages are part of, are just as vital as equal pay and strike at the heart of fairness and justice. Why should women have less labor benefits than men? Why should PAL’s women flight attendants have earlier retirement ages than men?
The courts can go through all sorts of legal contortions to justify the unjustifiable, but at bottom that’s what it comes down to. It is a gender issue. It is an equal-work-equal-pay issue, “pay” in its larger sense. It is a discrimination issue. There is no medical finding that says women are less durable than men in carrying out flight attendant duties. There’s no scientific finding that says women compromise air safety by staying in the air for a far longer time than men. Certainly, there’s no psychological finding that says women get crabbier, or testier, or ruder to passengers at past 55. If anything, they can always argue that maternal instincts make them more maaruga than men, though that would be a specious argument too.
There’s simply no getting around it. What makes PAL’s appeal for the courts to scrap Luzviminda Baldoz’s enlightened and already belated decision to equalize the retirement ages of flight attendants to 60 even more unfair is the composition of the flight attendants. The Dagenham women were only 187 compared to 55,000 men, PAL’s flight attendants outnumber the men by 70 percent to 30 percent. That’s a more patent case of iniquity, in quantity at least if not in quality.
I’m glad the Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines is making a fuss over this. Some things are worth making a fuss over, whether they create earthshaking ripples or not. Some things are self-evident, even if they are not readily evident to the nagbubulag-bulagan. Fairness is one of them. Decency is another.
While at this, some things do have happy endings. In the Dagenham case, despite Ford’s threats that it would pull out of Britain if its government didn’t scuttle the strike, despite its warnings that industry would buckle under if men and women got equal treatment, nothing of the kind happened. Industry did not fall, it rose. And Ford did not pull out, it continued to make money after Britain and other countries passed the Equal Pay Law. Indeed, quite ironically, soon after this, Ford itself began to change its labor policies and is now widely regarded as an example of a good-practice employer.
PAL may wish to learn from that.