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Rank and File, The (1971)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Lancashire, Spring 1970. A voiceover describes the drab industrial town and the family glassware company that dominates the area. The firm even extends control over the tame closed-shop union and this has ensured no industrial action for the previous 100 years.

Suddenly, however, a strike begins. The sheet workers walk out over a pay discrepancy and during a wider meeting other grievances come to light. The workers conclude that they have no faith in their own union, the General Municipal, and that direct action is the only option.

All six factories go on strike but the action quickly becomes isolated. Another meeting is convened and the union official announces that the national office has declared the strike unofficial. The workforce is angry and the men set up a Rank and File Strike Committee, headed by Eddie Marsden.

The committee meet and discuss methods of organisation including the need to access a duplicating machine and typewriter so that a strike newsletter can be issued. A captain of the picket is assigned, and a hardship fund is also discussed.

Following a meeting at the pub, one of the committee members, Les, gamely attempts to type out the latest strike bulletin while his wife looks on with annoyance. Suddenly a brick is thrown through the back window; Les chases the perpetrators, but his efforts are in vain.

The next strike committee meeting is interrupted by the news that the union have had a meeting with the company and accepted a 3% rise in pay. The committee are shocked and worry that the workforce will be tricked into accepting it. They call an emergency meeting.

Holtby, the leader of the national union, appears and Eddie asks him to address the meeting. He receives a hostile response, and a show of hands reveals overwhelming support for the strike. Holtby implies to the press that the Communist Party has infiltrated the workforce but the men fiercely deny this.

After witnessing some of the terrible deprivation caused by the strike, the men hold a demonstration in the town and march on the union headquarters in order to appropriate the hardship fund. They clash with the police and some of them are arrested. The remaining men discover a giant union banner hidden away since 1926, and they immediately unfurl it and march off, singing.

Les has been arrested, and so Eddie pays his wife Joan a visit. She is leaving because of the arrest and the vandalism to the house, for which she blames Eddie. Eddie tries to talk her around but eventually just asks her for the typewriter, which she grudgingly agrees to hand over.

After a scuffle with returning scabs during which one striker is hospitalised, the TUC invite the committee to meet in London to thrash out the differences between the rank and file and the official union. The strike committee takes the issue to the men and the majority vote for Eddie and a few others to attend the meeting and obtain written confirmation of the promises made by the union and the TUC. The committee travel down to London on the train.

They return with a signed document which states that there will be no victimisation once the men return to work. In fact, once the strike is over, the committee, especially Eddie, are ruthlessly isolated. They again go to London, but they are refused an official meeting and the union and TUC renege on their promises.

The victimisation leads to a three-day token strike which results in Eddie, Billy and the rest of the strike committee sacked and blacklisted. There is also a whitelist which includes Charlie, who, despite 43 years of service, is told that he will be taken on again only as a new starter, losing all of his pension rights.

Eddie describes the new Industrial Relations Act, which will rule out any future rank and file strike actions. He bemoans the lack of political leadership on the left and quotes Trotsky's vision of hope that the young will go on to make a brighter future.