IWD2022: Women’s Activism on the Screen: Leeds – United! (1974) and the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike

by Frances C Galt

The 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike is memorialised in the BBC’s Play for Today, Leeds – United! (BBC1, 31 October 1974), which provides a dramatized account of the women-led dispute. Leeds – United! is a rare filmic representation of women’s industrial militancy in the UK, sitting alongside films such as Business as Usual (Dir. Lezli-An Barrett, 1987) and Made in Dagenham (Dir. Nigel Cole, 2010). In February 1970, a four-week-long unofficial strike in opposition to the terms of a National Agreement negotiated between the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (NUTGW) and the Clothing Manufacturers Federation started at John Collier’s and spread throughout the clothing industry in Leeds, as strikers used flying pickets to encourage others to strike. As part of the Gender Equalities at Work project, the Leeds Clothing Workers Strike will be situated within a timeline of equal pay disputes between 1964 and 1986 (discussed in an earlier post) alongside renowned strikes such as the 1968 Ford Sewing Machinists Strike and 1976 Trico Equal Pay Strike, as well as lesser-known disputes, to demonstrate trade union and women union activists’ engagement with the Equal Pay Act 1970. Drawing on key scenes from Leeds – United!, this post will explore: the demands advanced by the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike; the strategies adopted by women union activists; and divisions between women workers and the union leadership, which ultimately informed the outcome of the strike. This post will conclude with an overview of the production context of Leeds – United!


The National Agreement

Leeds – United! opens with women clothing workers commuting to John Black’s (a stand-in for the real-life John Collier’s), which provides exposition to contextualise the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike. In the opening shot, a woman walks to the bus stop in the early hours of the morning along the terraced streets of Leeds, accompanied by a voiceover which details her terms of employment at John Black’s. In the clothing industry, a National Agreement was negotiated between the NUTGW and the Clothing Manufacturers Federation in 1969 and introduced in 1970 without the approval of the NUTGW’s membership. This agreement provided a ‘low and discriminatory’ wage rise of 4d. per hour for women and 5d. for men and introduced payment by results as part of the industry’s first productivity agreement (Honeyman, 2000: 211). In the 1960s and 1970s productivity agreements were increasingly central to collective bargaining and to government policy (such as the incomes policy) in light of a wider discourse of economic decline in Britain (Banks, 1971; Tomlinson, 2002). The National Agreement followed a long period of decline in the clothing industry, widening the pay gap between clothing and other industrial workers and expanding the differentials between men and women clothing workers (Honeyman, 2000: 211).


In Leeds – United! the opening sequence continues on the bus, where women from John Black’s discuss their recent week-long strike in response to the National Agreement and their return to work for ‘fruitful negotiations’. Here, the audience is introduced to two of the play’s focal characters, Mollie (played by Lynne Perrie) and Sadie (Lori Wells). On the bus and in the factory toilets, Mollie and her co-workers express their frustration at the 4d. negotiated wage rise for women clothing workers and their exclusion from the negotiation process. In contrast, a union spokesperson praises the National Agreement as an ‘important milestone’ in a direct-to-camera address. The opening sequence culminates in a canteen meeting where shop steward, Harry Gridley (Bert Gaunt), reports on negotiations with John Black’s management to a female-dominated audience. In response to Gridley’s report, the crowd chants ‘Sod the union, give us the bob’, reflecting the strike’s central demands of an increase of a shilling an hour and no productivity agreements. While Leeds – United! positions the strike as an equal pay dispute, the demand was for an equal wage increase and reflected wider union negotiations preceding the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 (STUC, 1969). The NUTGW opposed the strike, stating that: ‘It is a negation of everything the trade union movement stands for to break an agreement so obviously beneficial to the vast majority of the membership covered’ (quoted in Leicester, 2009: 42).

Joyce Kennedy, Lynne Perrie and Olga Grahame as striking workers in Leeds – United! Reproduced with permission from the BBC Archives Photo Library

Flying Pickets

A significant proportion of Leeds – United!’s runtime is dedicated to the depiction of flying pickets, as women march from factory to factory to call fellow clothing workers out on strike. The strikers from John Black’s, with Mollie at the forefront, march to a nearby factory where Sadie leads the workforce out with a cheer of ‘Let’s go girls, we’re right behind you’. The audience is introduced to shop steward Maggie (Elizabeth Spriggs) as her bus approaches the strikers and she joins the march. These scenes convey the collective strength of the women strikers, with protest songs (including ‘we shall not be moved’) playing a particularly important role. In Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, Sheila Rowbotham emphasises the ground-breaking nature of the flying pickets, stating that the Leeds strikers ‘pioneer[ed] the mass picket before Arthur Scargill and Saltley Gates’ (2019: 229). These scenes also act to demonstrate the poor working conditions of the clothing industry. As the marchers approach one factory, the owner is heard saying ‘factory inspectors, they drive past here, they think it’s a derelict building’, while one worker complains about ‘rat shit on the benches’. In the national press, gendered language was often used to describe the pickets; for instance, a Guardian article commented on ‘some effective infighting with brollies and handbags by women pickets’ (Parkin, 1970). This mirrors the gendered and racialised language used towards other women involved in industrial disputes, such as ‘headscarf revolutionaries’ to denote the women involved in the Hull Fisherman’s Wives Campaign, ‘petticoat rebels’ during the Lee Jeans factory occupation and ‘strikers in saris’ to describe the Grunwick strikers.


Mass Meeting/Strike Committee

In the closing sequence of the play, a mass meeting of strikers on Woodhouse Moor is juxtaposed with the final meeting of the strike committee to emphasise the union’s betrayal of women workers. The passion and determination of the strikers is contrasted with the quiet formality of the strike committee, with chants of ‘out, out, out’ set against the hesitant raising of hands in the vote to return to work. Maggie’s address to the crowd is contrasted with the male-dominated platform of the strike committee, while the male shop stewards are shown to turn on their words between the two meetings. The betrayal is driven home by Mollie’s shocked expression, Sadie’s tears, and the slap Mollie administers to Maggie’s husband in the final scene as he asserts that ‘politics is the art of the attainable’. In a voiceover accompanied by photographs from the dispute, Mollie proclaims:

‘Yes, I hit him. I belted him for all of us. We had it won, another two weeks and we’d have finished it… But they packed it in and led us back to it for us money in bloody instalments and then come speed ups and layoffs, bloody galore… They’ll take them on again, these lasses, don’t you fret. And when we do, next time, we’ll make flaming sure we take our leave from them as won’t sell us short’ (Leeds – United! BBC1, 31 October 1974)


The NUTGW arranged meetings in individual workplaces to encourage a return to work, splitting the strikers and undermining the dispute. After four weeks, the strike concluded with the negotiation of an increase of 8d. per hour for men and 10d. for women, on top of the previously negotiated increase of 5d. and 4d. respectively. These increases were to be paid in two stages in April and September 1970. However, inflation rapidly diminished the value of this wage rise, as Mollie’s final voiceover illustrates: ‘That bob won’t buy us a dab of sherbet now’. Employers further sought to undermine the wage rise through the extended application of productivity agreements and payment by results. In the aftermath of the strike, employers manoeuvred to weaken the collective strength of the rank-and-file by moving production from ‘strike-prone’ Leeds to Middlesbrough and permanently reclassifying women’s work as unskilled to circumvent the recently introduced Equal Pay Act 1970 (Honeyman, 2000: 222-223). Male cutters at John Colliers also acted to undermine worker solidarity by privately negotiating a higher wage rise after the strike (Honeyman, 2000: 223).


Production Context

Leeds – United! was a product of both heightened industrial militancy within Britain – with the number of days lost to strike action rising from less than 5 million in 1968 to 23.9 million in 1972 (Cohen, 2008: 396) – and a commitment to political filmmaking during the 1970s. The inner lives of the working class, including the politics of the workplace, were central to many plays featured in the BBC’s Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), and its predecessor The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70), including The Big Flame (BBC1, 19 February 1969), The Rank and File (BBC1, 20 May 1971), and Stocker’s Copper (BBC1, 20 January 1972). There was a particular proliferation of politically committed plays during 1974-5, such as All Good Men (BBC1, 31 January 1974) and The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (BBC1, 6 June 1974), as well as the stand-alone four-part mini-series Days of Hope (BBC1, September-October 1975) (Hill, 2013: 131).


The director of Leeds – United!, Roy Battersby, was a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (formerly the Socialist Labour League) – a Trotskyist organisation which had ‘a significant foothold amongst those working in film, theatre and television’ in the early 1970s (Hill, 2013: 131). The play’s narrative of betrayal at the hands of the union leadership reflects Battersby’s political viewpoint, as John Hill notes that Leeds – United! ‘concur[s] with the WRP’s analysis of a ‘crisis of leadership’ within the Labour movement’ (2013: 148 n.30). The Communist Party – represented by shop steward Harry Gridley – is seen to be particularly responsible for the defeat. However, Leeds – United! was based on striker testimonies collected by Colin Welland, whose mother-in-law participated in the dispute, and strikers were involved in the filming of scenes with large crowds, such as the marches and mass meetings, grounding the play in the lived experiences of women workers.


Initially commissioned by the ITV company Granada, whose withdrawal was attributed to both the cost of production and the political content of the play (Rolinson, 2014a), Leeds – United! was picked up by the BBC in 1972. At the BBC, concerns about providing ‘balanced’ programming under its Public Service Broadcasting remit plagued the play as, firstly, the play made use of documentary filmmaking techniques which raised questions about the clarity of its fictional status, and secondly, the play was scheduled for release following the 1974 Miners’ Strike which had brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government (Hill, 2013: 142-144).


An audience research report conducted by the BBC indicates a generally favourable response to the play, with comments emphasising the honest and realistic depiction of the dispute and the sympathy this evoked (BBC, 1974). However, considerable media attention (both locally and nationally) was dedicated to the women’s use of bad language throughout the play. In an episode of the discussion programme In Vision on Leeds – United! (BBC1, 1 November 1974), the women panellists are first addressed 13 minutes into the programme on the subject of swearing (Rolinson, 2014b). Here, shop steward Gertie Roche defends the play, arguing that the bad language reflected the ‘frustrations and fury’ of the women, and criticises the attention given to ‘obscene language’ at the expense of ‘the obscenity of people having to work in these awful sweatshops’ (quoted in Rolinson, 2014b). The play further elicited controversy among trade unions, the Communist Party and employers.


Following Leeds – United!, Battersby and producer Kenneth Trodd were blacklisted from the BBC, as the Corporation refused to employ members of the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, and Workers Revolutionary Party (Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, BBC4, 12 October 2020). From the mid-1970s, the BBC were increasingly cautious ‘in the face of uncertainties surrounding the future of broadcasting’ (Hill, 2013: 146), marking a shift from the production context that had facilitated Leeds – United!

Lynne Perrie in Leeds – United! Reproduced with permission from the BBC Archives Photo Library


Leeds – United! is an incredibly valuable source on the 1970 Leeds Clothing Workers Strike, both for its insights into the dispute and the political context of its production. While the feel-good tone of Made in Dagenham (Dir. Nigel Cole, 2010) shies away from the strikers’ pre-existing political militancy, reflecting the neoliberal climate of the late 2000s, Leeds – United! – a product of the heightened industrial militancy of the 1970s – is confident in its depiction of women’s political radicalism.



Many thanks to the ‘Gender Equalities at Work’ project team and advisory group for their observations at a workshop on Leeds – United! (1974) in July 2021, which have informed this post.



Banks, Robert F. (1971) ‘British Collective Bargaining: The Challenges of the 1970s’, Industrial Relations 26:3, pp. 642-691.

BBC (1974) An Audience Research Report – Play for Today: Leeds United! [Document] BBC Written Archives, R9-7-131.

Cohen, Sheila (2008) ‘The 1968-1974 labour upsurge in Britain and America: a critical history, and a look at what might have been’, Labor History 49:4, pp. 395-416.

Hill, John (2013) ‘From Five Women to Leeds United!: Roy Battersby and the Politics of ‘Radical’ Television Drama’, Journal of British Cinema and Television 10:1, pp.130-150.

Honeyman, Katrina (2000) Well Suited: A History of the Leeds Clothing Industry, 1850-1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leicester, Liz (2009) ‘The 1970 Leeds’ Clothing Workers’ Strike: representations and refractions’, Scottish Labour History 44, pp. 40-55

Parkin, Michael (1970) ‘20th-century match girls of the clothing industry’, The Guardian, 20 February, p. 5.

Rolinson, David (2014a) ‘Women and Work: Leeds United! (1974) Part 1 of 3’, British Television Drama [Online] 28 February. Available via: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=4110 [Accessed 28/02/2022]

Rolinson, David (2014b) ‘Women and Work: Leeds United! (1974) Part 3 of 3’, British Television Drama [Online] 1 April. Available via: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=4597 [Accessed 28/02/2022]

Rowbotham, Sheila (2019) Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, Reprint, London: Verso (Original work published in 2000).

STUC (1969) Scottish Trades Union Congress: 72nd Annual Report [document] Glasgow Caledonian University: STUC Archives.

Tomlinson, Jim (2002) ‘The British ‘Productivity Problem’ in the 1960s’, Past and Present 175, pp. 188-210.


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