Racism at Fords


‘Wildcat strikes’ have finally persuaded Ford’s overwhelmingly white management to do something about the racist practices, directed against black workers, that permeate its operation at Dagenham, Essex. According to the

Financial Times

of 23 October 1999


Fords were pioneers of equal opportunities:

“Ford has in some ways been ahead of its time. The issue of equality of opportunity was first written into labour contracts in the US motor industry in the 1940s, long before the civil rights movement. Race was specifically mentioned in labour contracts signed by the United Auto Workers union in 1958, and matters such as sex and age were added at the time of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Yet despite all the fancy words, both sexism and racism have been rife at Fords both in America and in the UK. For instance, back in 1968 a strike of women machinists at Fords Dagenham for equal pay with men of equivalent skills became a cause célébre, leading to the passing of the 1975 Equal Pay Act. In the US the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has recently brought proceedings against Ford as a result of evidence that

“women were routinely groped and harassed by male employees, supervisors and managers at the two plants

[Chicago and Chicago Heights]”. In September this year the case was settled by Ford agreeing to hand over $7.5 million to a fund for payment of compensation to workers affected. Although the case was based on sexism, the EEOC nevertheless noted that black workers at these plants were subjected to racially offensive graffiti. This is after nine Chicago workers filed complaints of sexual and racial harassment in the mid-1990s. According to the

Financial Times, (ibid.): “The alleged racial harassment ranged from name-calling – including the terms ‘nigger, ‘buckwheat’ and ‘Aunt Jemima’ – to allegations that African-American employees were given ‘different and less desirable’ work assignments.”

Back in Dagenham, the situation of systemic racism came to light with proceedings brought in an industrial tribunal by an Asian worker, 34-year old Sukhjit Parmar, who suffered four years of insults and discrimination, including having ‘Paki’ written across his pay slip. Despite his complaints, absolutely no action was taken by the management to identify and punish the culprits.

With 40% of the Dagenham workforce being black, Parmar’s case is obviously not an isolated incident. On 5 October 1999 work at Dagenham stopped for 24 hours following the physical abuse of an Asian worker at the hands of a white supervisor who was left unpunished.

Quite apart from management’s total failure to intervene to ensure a working environment free of racism and sexism, Ford’s employment statistics speak for themselves:

“At Dagenham … only 8% of salaried staff are either black or Asian, compared with 44% of manual workers”,

says the

Financial Times

of 23 October. While:

“In the US, Ford’s numbers are little better. Last year African-Americans accounted for only between 7 and 9 per cent of technicians, professionals and managers. In contrast, they made up between 25 and 30 percent of semi-skilled, non-skilled and service workers.”

So long as workers confine themselves to complaints and grievance procedures, it is clear that nothing happens to put an end to even the worst abuses. Not even Mr Parmar’s success at the Industrial Tribunal appears to have done much to prod the company into activity on the anti-racist front. The ‘wildcat strikes’, however, combined with the threat of official strike action immediately led Ford’s Chief Executive, Jacques Nasser, to leap on the next plane from Detroit and get himself to Dagenham to read the Riot Act to the Dagenham management. Nasser is quoted in the Canadian

Financial Post

as saying:

“I feel very strongly about [discrimination]

because it is a waste of talent and because it just isn’t right”,

pointing out that Nasser was

“born in Lebanon, and grew up in Australia, where, he said, he was a target of bigotry.”

The result of Nasser’s personal intervention is that agreement has been reached with the four unions involved to form a steering group of union officials and management with a remit to report within 90 days:

“An assessment review procedure would be introduced covering policy and planning, selection of staff, the development and retention of employees, communication and corporate image, corporate citizenship and a race equality audit.

Ford would appoint an employee diversity senior manager as well as a joint national committee made up of union and management representatives to implement equal opportunity and diversity. Similar committees would be formed at every UK plant …

Union leaders believe it is significant their plan will be implemented under the direction of Mr Scheele

[Ford’s chairman of European operations]

and not the company’s UK management, who have suggested the Parmar affair was exaggerated by the media. The union leaders see this as an implied criticism by Mr Nasser of Ford’s UK senior managers for the way they handled the issue”. Financial Times,

26 October 1999).

One can nevertheless expect all these grandiose committees and commissions to slip back into sleepy indifference, like all their predecessors with responsibility for combating racial and sexual discrimination and harassment, unless workers themselves maintain the pressure to have these evils rooted out. It is only zero tolerance of racist and sexist incidents by the workers themselves, combined with the determination to fight back against them in whatever guise they show themselves that will persuade management, or even the unions, actually to enforce a zero tolerance regime in the interests of good industrial relations.