The film opens with some facts and figures about the Ford Dagenham factory and the number of people employed – a fraction of whom were women.
Against a background of Desmond Dekkar’s ‘The Israelites’ the opening shot shows the sewing room where the seat covers and door panels are hand sewn by women on individual sewing machines. Many of the women are striped down to their underwear, presumably because of the hot working conditions.
The union shop steward, Albert, played by Bob Hoskins, walks in to the room, he has to shield his eyes in embarrassment from the half-undressed women. He tells them that the only way for the women to progress their claim against being regarded as unskilled workers is to take industrial action. They all agree to an overtime ban and one day strike.
The women are then seen at a party celebrating a birthday, one of the girls slips out and is seen having sex in the back of a car (a Ford Corsair). She returns and they get rapidly drunk before staggering home.
Rita is then shown having breakfast with her family, husband Eddie has to be roused out of bed by Rita with a splash of cold water on his back! Rita’s son complains that the teacher has hit him, Rita resolves to sort it out. She goes to the school to see the teacher, Mr Clark who is dressed in academic robe. He explains that he forgot his protractor on numerous occasions and was caned, he explains in a patronising way that children from the council estate sometimes couldn’t cope and needed reminding on how to behave and not forget things. Rita is furious, leaves the classroom and bumps into another parent (later identified as Lisa) who, when she asks if she is OK, she tells to ‘F…. off’.
Back at the factory we see all the women working, there’s a leak in the roof, Connie points out that Sandra should be reminded about her workmanship. Albert comes and announces that there’s to be a meeting at Ford HQ in Warley, and that 2 of the women should go, they nominate Connie, who is the shop steward, and Rita.
At home Rita’s family are watching Black & White TV, there’s a news bulletin about a demo in London (Red Lion Square demo against Vietnam war) and then Sooty with Harry H. Corbett. We learn that Eddie also works at Fords.
They’re going to the meeting, on the way they at a Berni Inn for a steak dinner, apparently this is normal practice, we are introduced to Monty Taylor, the works convener, a stereotypical union representative. He tells them not to say anything and nod at everything he says. At the meeting the women, and Albert, quickly cotton on the fact that the union is selling them out. Rita intervenes and explains to the management the skills involved in their work. She lays down the women’s terms to avoid industrial action – semi-skilled status for the women. The management are taken aback. Back at the factory Rita explains how the women are being fobbed off. ‘Everybody out’ is the cry!
In parliament we are introduced to Barbara Castle, Employment Secretary in the Labour Government. She is speaking to her young male ‘officials’ complaining how they’ve done nothing to improve industrial relations. Strikes were up, productivity was down. Back at the factory we see the women on their picket line with placards. In the factory they are running low on seats. Ford HQ in Michigan USA are involved, they are told ‘It’s the women’. Out on the picket line it starts to rain, the women are soaked, they are all smartly dressed in skirts – no jeans! Afterwards Rita meets Albert in a cafe, he tells them it’s not about skills, it’s because they’re women. What they need is equal pay with the men. Albert explains his own family background, brought up by his mum who struggled earning half what the men got in wages. Someone must stop this exploitation. He proposes that Rita should take over from shop steward from Connie, whose husband is ill.
Outside, Rita, dripping wet, is invited in to a car, where she meets the woman she met in the school, who explains that Mr Clark is a bully and she has also complained about him. They have formally complained about his use of the cane. The woman is clearly more educated – and better off than Rita. Rita admires her dress. ‘It’s from Biba’ she said. Ah well, it’s still gorgeous’ Rita says.
Back in the factory, Sandra arrives in skimpy hot pants. Inside a man arrives to dish out letters threatening letters from the management. Rita makes an inspiring speech, they need a level playing field! The strike was no longer about skill levels, now they wanted equal pay or nothing! Monty is with Monty and the other union leaders, who quote Marx, he quotes Marx back, but it’s more relevant. Against a background of the Small Faces Rita leads a demonstration, back at home Eddie isn’t coping very well. Rita goes to Liverpool to meet the workers at Ford’s Halewood factory, she gets home late and finds Eddie washing up. Next day Eddie has to take the kids to school, tension is rising between Eddie and Rita. Eddie is down to his last clean shirt!
The women go on a trip to London to demonstrate outside parliament, they unfurl their banner which says ‘We want Sex’. Barbara Castle looks out – ‘I know the feeling…’ she says, they then unfurl it to read ‘We want sex equality’. Eddie is in the pub watching the news bulletins with George – Connie’s husband. George says that they need to settle it.
In the factory they run out of seats. The production lines stop and all the workers are laid off. Back at home Eddie complains that Rita’s action is causing hardship all round. Ford of US are telling the Dagenham management that they need to sort it. Barbara Castle talks to Harold Wilson. He patronises her, calling her ‘the best man in his cabinet’. He says that she should get Jack Scamp in to get everyone round the table with beer and pork pies, that would sort it.
Ford bosses fly in from America, he goes to the Ford manager, Peter Hopkin’s house, where we now realise that Lisa, the woman who spoke to Rita about the school teacher, is also the wife of Peter Hopkins. He asks her what she thinks, it turns out that she is a highly educated woman, and she tells him how GM don’t have industrial relations problems because they have a more collaborative approach. Peter is embarrassed and tells her to fetch more cheese!
Rita is giving out strike pay – £3 each. She goes to see Connie. Connie says that she cannot come to any meetings because George is ill – he’s ‘touched’ she says. We see George and Connie in bed, George is having a nightmare and wets the bed. The union leaders are threatening Monty, saying they cannot give women equal pay. Tension is rising at home where Rita’s fridge is repossessed because they haven’t paid the HP. Sandra gets a phone call, and goes into the factory to appear in a photo shoot for the new car. Rita finds her, tells her that she deserves to become a model, and that she hasn’t broken the strike. This makes Sandra think, in the next shot she is wearing a skimpy bikini – she has daubed ‘equal pay‘ on her midriff. Connie leaves for work, George tells her he’s proud of her and loves her. Barbara Castle is told by her officials that they have been assured by the unions that the ‘girls will do as they’re told’. At a meeting with the union bosses Albert Rita and Connie are told that there will e a vote at the union conference on whether to back the women. Connie goes home and finds George has hung himself. At the funeral Connie and the women are distraught. That evening Lisa Hopkins goes to see Rita at her flat to tell her that the Mr Clark has been asked to leave the school. She admits who she is – the wife of Peter Hopkins, who she says treats her like a fool. She wishes Rita well – ‘don’t let me down’ she says.
Rita and Eddie confront each other, Eddie complains that he hasn’t been a bad husband, but Rita dismisses him. She should have rights – not privileges. They take the coach to Eastbourne, Eddie follows on his motor cycle. In the conference hall, Monty starts to address the delegates, he is interrupted by Rita and the other women, Rita addresses the delegates and seems to win them over. Eddie has turned up to apologise, Rita and Eddie make it up. The vote goes 79-48 to support the women.
Barbara Castle rants at her officials when they say they can’t set up a meeting with the striking women. She demands that that they follow her instructions. Ford bosses start to pull strings with Harold Wilson, Wilson says they mustn’t upset Ford because they’re such a big employer. Rita goes to see Lisa – her husband is amazed that they are on first name terms. Rita borrows Lisa’s Biba dress to wear at the meeting with Barbara Castle. Outside the government offices they have a press conference. The press ask them how they are coping. ‘We’re women’ says Rita. ‘don’t ask such stupid questions!’
We see the Ford boss Robert Tooley threatening Barbara Castle that if she gives in to equal pay demands they will move their factories elsewhere. The women meet Barbara Castle, she is won over, and tries to contact Wilson but is told he’s on a plane. She decides to negotiate directly with Tooley, they agree to give the women 92% of male pay rates, and to introduce equal pay legislation into parliament. They’ve won! Outside they meet the press. Barbara Castle compliments Rita on her Biba dress, Rita explains how it’s got to be returned that day, and returns the compliment to Barbara on her C&A outfit. To the sound of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘You can get it if you really want’ we see the workers returning to the factory, followed by a montage of actual 1960s news footage of the real characters.