The work stoppage was triggered by an incident the previous week in which a senior foreman forcibly pushed shop steward Jaswir Teja on day shift. This added fuel to an already tense situation. In late September cars were damaged and Ford called police when some workers vented their anger at day-shift workers being brought onto the night shift and at having to work on what had been designated a "down" shift.
In a separate dispute, 430 toolmakers held a one-day strike September 15 in protest at not receiving a "recognition of skills" allowance that other workers of the same grade are paid. Also in September, Ford admitted liability in the case of Sukhjit Parmar, a worker from the Indian subcontinent who was subjected to four years of racist abuse, led by a foreman and a group leader, in the company's Dagenham Engine plant.
As they walked out the gate the night of October 5, most workers were in high spirits. "It's about time," one told Militant reporters. "I've been here 23 years and we used to walk out. Now things are worse, and we're walking out again." A worker on the Main Line remarked, "Its good, at least we're showing some unity at last." "We're happy, very happy," said a worker from the Front Struts section the next day.
Workers in the area of the Main Line walked off the job almost immediately after Teja was shoved, demanding the suspension of the foreman involved pending an investigation, and refusing to work with another foreman known for bullying. Most of the assembly-line workers are members of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU).
Workers from other areas of the plant who joined the meetings on the Main Line that morning had their names threateningly taken down by senior managers. The stoppage halted production in the Paint, Trim, and Assembly plant for about an hour and a half in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, when workers met with union officials.
All day the atmosphere in the plant was tense, as workers in other sections stopped work and jeered at the second foreman as he went about the plant. Signs went up on the Main Line saying, "Enough is Enough"; "Zero Tolerance"; and "Ford workers demand justice and respect." The foreman who pushed the steward was taken off the shop floor for a few days, but Ford refused to suspend him.
A year ago, a Black worker with many years seniority in the Front Struts section was assaulted by the same foreman, who aggressively pushed a disciplinary letter into his stomach. Ford has claimed there is no case to answer, and dismissed the evidence of the many witnesses as unreliable. The foreman was not suspended, instead the company recently promoted him.
But when a foreman recently accused a worker of threatening him, the worker was immediately suspended (with pay) and not allowed to work for several weeks.
TGWU officials sent a letter and report detailing the racist abuse against Sukhjit Parmar to all of the union's members at Ford October 1. The report detailed how the abuse began almost as soon as Parmar started work at Ford, much of it by his group leader and foreman. Incidents included:
"a) In response to a request for a toilet break, he was told to 'f -off Paki.'
"b) While eating with a colleague, food was kicked from his hands, followed by the statement, 'if I had control I wouldn't allow Indian food inside.'
"c) He was directly accused by his group leader of deliberately rejecting engines with no fault, an action that could have led to his dismissal. On investigation it was shown that it was in fact the group leader himself who had rejected the engines.
"d) He was directly threatened on several occasions with serious physical violence if he complained or named the harasser.
"e) He was physically assaulted."
Parmar also related twice being forced by his foreman to work inside an enclosed spray booth without protective equipment until he vomited so violently he needed medical treatment. Ford management either ignored his complaints or refused to get involved. When the company did agree to an investigation, it refused to suspend either the foreman or the group leader pending its outcome, as is normal with those accused of conduct that could result in a charge of gross misconduct. The company eventually fired the group leader, but only demoted the foreman.
Incidents continued during the investigation and although arrests were made, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to act on them due to "time delays."
"We did think it was really bad," said a worker who is white who showed the letter from the union to his family. About 44 percent of workers in the plant are Black or Asian. Resentment at increasingly thuggish and abusive company tactics has been growing for a couple of years. "People have had it up to here" said one young worker at the plant. Appeals and grievances that workers put into the company system are not dealt with, often for years.
The increasing clampdown by Ford against its workforce is part of an effort to cut costs in the context of a European car market where manufacturers' profit rates are falling. In the late 1980s, industry profit margins in the United Kingdom were 11 percent. By 1997 they had dropped to an average of 1 percent. Ford posted European earnings of $254 million for the first half of 1999. This includes a $125 million cost for the purchase of Volvo Car and a $165 million gain from the sale of AutoEuropa and compares to earnings of $540 million a year ago.
"Restoring our profits in the region will take . a continued focus on great products, quality, and lower costs," said Ford president and CEO Jac Nasser. The company announced production cuts at Dagenham in September 1998, due to a drop in demand, only running four out of five weekly day shifts and periodically downing other shifts.
Full production has still not been restored. All motor manufacturers in the UK are facing further price squeezes as a govern-ment competition commission proposed sug-gestions to reduce a gap between car prices in the UK and continental Europe by up to 40 percent.
Last November, outgoing Ford chairman Alex Trotman predicted that the world motor industry would shrink to six manufacturers, as a "global dogfight" forced the existing 40 manufacturers to "rationalize." The company, he said, would be stepping up efforts to narrow a 20 percent productivity gap between Ford's UK plants and those in Europe and the United States.
A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit last August had found that Dagenham was Ford's most productive center in Europe. The survey analyses assembly lines and other production operations.
The company plans to increase capacity at Dagenham from 272,000 to 300,000 a year by early in the next decade through increased productivity, not hiring. Last year workers in the plant produced 190,000 cars.
The day after the strike, Ford issued a letter to workers threatening that "if [disruption] continues, it will inevitably lead to a situation where layoffs, without pay, will become unavoidable across the Operation." The company made a thinly veiled threat to close the plant.
At a mass meeting attended by the vast majority of workers in the plant October 8, the handmade signs calling for justice and "Enough is Enough" were back, this time stuck up by workers on the speakers' platform. Workers voted overwhelmingly to ballot for industrial action over company implementation of the grievance procedure and equal opportunities policy, and for equal access for all workers to jobs on the Dagenham estate. Whatever unfolds, it's clear the fight isn't over.
Caroline Bellamy is a member of the TGWU at Ford Dagenham.
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