Berwick Street Collective, Nightcleaners (film, 1975)

The following text was read out in advance of a screening of the film staged by LUX Scotland at the Glasgow Film Theatre in June 2016 and distributed at a further screening at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee in February 2017.


The film you’re about to see was made in the first half of the 1970s, coinciding with the Conservative government of Edward Heath, the end of the post-war boom and the period during which the Equal Pay Act came into effect. Inscribed in 1970 and fully implemented by 1975, the Act legislated for pay equality in cases ‘where the woman is employed on like work with a man in the same employment’.[1] As Nightcleaners succinctly shows, the legislation spectacularly failed to address work carried out exclusively by women, for which there was no male equivalent.

In the film, men’s demand of ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’ morphs into women’s wish for ‘an honest night’s work for an honest night’s pay’, the meekness of their desire for a few more pounds per week matched by the gruelling nature of the work in context. On and off camera, women provide hints about their labour-intensive lives – sending the children to school, cleaning the house, washing and ironing the clothes, buying the food, preparing the meals, collecting the children, feeding them, bathing them and putting them to bed, while trying to grab a couple of hours’ unbroken sleep before beginning a cleaning shift from 10pm until 7am, when the domestic routine begins again. Many women worked before they had children, some during the war, and now they regard night cleaning as the only option open to them as mothers of small children. Some of the women speak of their experience of night cleaning in grim retrospect, others in the present tense, utterly depleted by sleep deprivation.

During the first half of the 1970s, the number of women in the workforce rose to over 60%, but the majority of women’s work was part-time and their wages remained on average around 63% of those of their male counterparts.[2] Attempting to address the paradox at the heart of the Equal Pay Act were two main currents – the trade union movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement – both of which are strongly represented through the film.

Between 1968 and 1978, trade union membership among women increased as much as it had during the preceding three decades. In a handful of industries, women predominated; in unions where women remained in a minority, their concerns were often subordinated in favour of issues around full-time male labour. The Transport and General Workers Union (the ‘T&G’ mentioned in the film) contained only 16% of female members and not a single woman on the 39-strong national executive committee.[3] In the film, a member of the capitalist class signals his conditional cooperation with the unions on the basis of better worker control. The night cleaners express their contempt for the shop stewards who’ve been giving them the run-around. When one of the union men finally catches up with them, he seems defensive and unwilling to listen.

By contrast to the unions, diverse elements of the Women’s Liberation Movement looked beyond simple economics to family, law and tax reforms, childcare and abortion rights. In the film, we hear a middle-class movement activist contemplating the role of sexuality in the formation of consciousness and the manipulations of capitalism, and asserting that, in order to create a social movement and change society, we need to understand how sexual relations operate. In an incisive piece of research into the world of work for working-class housewives in the mid-1970s, Marilyn Porter makes the case that women’s experience of work differs fundamentally from that of men because of the social division of labour in the home.[4] In the film, we hear one of the bosses rhetorically asking the women who clean for him to replicate the work they’d normally undertake in their own houses, both reinforcing their place in the home and capitalising on it in the workplace. Porter finds that only when working class women feel they’ve adequately discharged their duties at home do they feel able to take on additional duties to supplement the meagre ‘family wage’ brought in by their husbands. This impression is backed up by the night cleaners, who describe how the money they make will not be used for luxuries but necessities – clothes and food for their children. Even then, Porter argues, women consider themselves socially deviant for working and are prepared to accept low pay and poor conditions as a form of sanction.

Between the approach of the trade unions and that of the Women’s Liberation Movement lies the dialectic between reform and revolution so ably articulated by Rosa Luxemburg as ‘The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order’ while keeping social revolution as the ultimate aim.[5] Working-class women have long been at the rearguard of what Marx and Engels called the ‘reserve army of labour’, and they are the first to feel the effects of recession. Nightcleaners depicts the growth of political consciousness and the building of synergies at a time when the women’s movement began to have an impact upon the policy issues, methods and structures of the union movement. In 1979, the Trades Union Congress adopted a charter addressing the participation and representation of women. The T&G began to provide special educational facilities, conferences, information and publicity materials for their women members and assigned officials to look after their interests. In turn, the evidence that women who were members of the union had better pay and conditions than those who were not became irrefutable.

In the 1970s, collective filmmaking provided a form of collaborative action that served as an alternative to trade union activity, and the work of working-class women was a recurring artistic trope of the period. As you’ll see, Nightcleaners is far from being a straightforward documentary. It drifts between realism and abstraction, resists a linear narrative and eludes simple comprehension, causing it to be written off as ‘unwatchable’ by certain contemporaneous commentators.[6] It rejects the objectivity that is so often claimed for documentary film and breaks down distinctions between observer and participant. It offers us fragments of unattributed thought, and demands that we – its audience – form a coherent position. There is a tactile quality to the film, its evocation of the endless surfaces in need of polishing, the institutional porcelain and the vintage vacuum. But the film goes far beyond mere nostalgia, connecting as it does to present-day struggles.

Following a wave of industrial action by night cleaners throughout London over the past few years, cleaners at Capita/Mitie – responsible for some of the larger office blocks in the Square Mile and affiliated with the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union – are currently undertaking strike action in support of the London Living Wage. While working-class women with children have been well represented among the strikers and demonstrators, the struggle is by no means confined to women or the English working class. A strong Latin American contingent has come to the fore with a potent message – La Lucha Continua [the struggle continues].

Director: Berwick Street Collective, UK 1975, 1h30m, 12+

[1] Equal Pay Act 1970, Chapter 41, clause (1)(2)(a).

[2] Institute for Employment Studies, Report summary: Women in the Labour Market, Two Decades of Change and Continuity.

[3] Information pertaining to the role of women in trade unions is taken from Judith Hunt, ‘A Woman’s Place is in Her Union’, Work, Women and the Labour Market (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 154–71.

[4] Marilyn Porter, ‘Standing on the Edge: Working Class Housewives and the World of Work’, Work, Women and the Labour Market (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 117–34.

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 1900, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/intro.htm

[6] Claire Johnston, ‘The Nightcleaners (part one): Rethinking political cinema’, Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 55-56. See http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/jc12-13folder/nightcleaners.html

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