Britain - Racism and the union machineries at Ford-Dagenham

Jan/Feb 2000

The Ford-Dagenham estate, in East London, made headline news last September and through October.

It all began in the papers' inside pages, with an unusual Industrial Tribunal decision: on 23 September, Ford was declared liable for the serious racist abuse of a Dagenham Engine plant worker, Sukhjit Parmar. Within a week, however, Ford-Dagenham jumped right into the media spotlight, when stoppages began to occur in the Assembly plant. On 30 September the Mirror reported: "Ford down tools over racism row", explaining there had been an alleged racist attack by a foreman on an Asian shop steward. "War at Ford's: 1,300 workers walk out as car plant racism row grows", the Mirror reported on 6 October. Then two days later: "New trouble at Ford plant" when workers at the Dagenham Engine plant walked out. On 9th October: "Ford votes on strike ballot". And on the 13th October: "Ford crisis: World Chief is Called In".

In fact - but this is not unusual when it comes to events concerning the working class - journalists had got their facts wrong, although it must be said that they were helped in their "reading" of events by some transport union officials. In reality, the walkouts and strike threat in the Assembly plant had nothing to do with a "racist" attack. These had been sparked by the bullying behaviour of a foreman, leading to demands against bullying and for equal treatment of workers and foremen in disciplinary procedures.

Had journalists bothered to follow up the story, they would have heard about the build-up of tension on the lines due to Ford's pressure on production workers, the constant insults of this foreman and his attempt at preventing the steward from doing his job. But what do journalists know (or want to know) about the day-to-day conditions of the working class? It was so much easier for them to grab on the words "Asian" and "white", draw a link with the Parmar case and... jump to the wrong conclusions.

However, with its usual cynicism, the Financial Times pointed to another reason for all this confusion. On 11 October, it devoted an editorial to "Ford's Example": "Dagenham used to be notorious for stoppages but now the plant is a model of high productivity and industrial peace. (..) What is happening now in a manual workforce where nearly half come from a non- white background cannot be dismissed as of marginal significance." It went on to invite Ford to show that it was also a "good employer with a concern for the well-being of every employee, whatever the colour of his or her skin"!

Of course! For the bosses' media, the racism angle was a convenient way to avoid admitting that, whatever Blair may say, the class struggle is still alive at Ford. This was also precisely the line adopted by the leader of the Transport union T&G, Bill Morris: for him, this was first of all a race issue and Ford was just bad at dealing with such issues. So Morris was preparing to meet the top Ford boss, Jacques Nasser, to sort this out, while other T&G officials demanded an enquiry by the Commission for Racial Equality.

However, the fact that the T&G leadership ignored so resolutely the issues that were behind the Dagenham walkouts exposes the real nature of its "anti-racist" stance - it was merely a publicity stunt designed to boost its image, not the expression of a policy aimed at defending the interests of the workforce as a whole.

Over the past years, such "anti- racist" posturing has been a recurring event in Dagenham. It has been used by the T&G machinery to cover its own failure to organise the fight against the company's attacks on workers' conditions, or as a weapon in the rivalry between the different unions. And this, regardless of the divisive impact that this posturing could have among the workforce.

Of course, this situation reflects a more general problem which is not specific to Ford-Dagenham. The policy of the union machineries (and, of course, this includes all the unions, not just the T&G) is not to strengthen the workers' ability to fight for their own interests, and, therefore, it is not aimed at reinforcing their unity. On the contrary, they are primarily concerned with defending the petty privileges of their respective trade- union shops. And the recent events at Ford-Dagenham, as well as those of the past few years, provide a graphic illustration of this policy.

The Dagenham workforce

The Ford-Dagenham estate consists of three main plants on the same site - Body, Assembly and Engine plants - plus the General Estate Services and Truck Fleet which are both attached to the Engine plant. There has been a significant erosion of conditions on the estate in the last dozen years. Whole sections have been given to outside subcontractors to run at a lower cost - such as janitoring, seat production, parts sequencing, paint mixing, baling of steel, some subassembly, etc.. As a result the directly-employed hourly-paid manual workforce has been cut by 50%, down to 6,000. In addition there are nearly a thousand manual workers employed by subcontractors who work either in these plants or in separate buildings, such as that specially built for seat manufacture and run by Johnsons Controls. Their conditions and wages are inferior to Ford workers', and while they are usually unionised, and may even be in the same union branches as Ford workers, they are not represented on any of the Ford shop steward bodies.

The workforce comes from very diverse backgrounds - up to 27 different languages are spoken on the lines. Dagenham management claimed in a recent "equal opportunities report" that 41% of the hourly- paid workforce came from "ethnic minorities", but in some areas in the Body and Assembly plants, black workers are the majority - a rough estimate gives 60% Afro- Caribbean, African and Asian workers. The Engine Plant has relatively more white workers, however. As to the skilled workforce (maintenance and Toolroom) it is predominantly white (Ford's overall figure is 95%).

Despite the existence of "Equal Opportunities", black workers are more likely to be in lower wage grade jobs. The few opportunities for "promotion" offered to line workers have, in the last few years, consisted of upgrading to work in so-called "integrated management teams", aimed at maximising the flexibility of workers. This involves doing tests in numeracy, a certain amount of training to improve one's range of skills, but above all a test in English literacy (despite the fact that this mode of discrimination was outlawed as a result of the Race Relations Act as amended in 1976). Consequently, many African and Asian workers are excluded from "promotion". One of the very few ways left to get around this is for workers to train as fork-lift truck drivers, which does not involve an English test, but does allow them to move up one notch on the wage- grade structure - but obviously the numbers of drivers are limited anyway. This is what many older generation black workers, who were born and educated in Third World countries, have had to resort to in order to increase their pay, albeit by a small amount.

Of course, in the present context, all workers have lost out in terms of conditions and opportunities to improve their lot - but the worst off, and among them most black workers, have lost out more on average.

Union divisions and rivalries

What about the union organisation in Dagenham? It must be said first, that the image of Dagenham's "militant unions", which is still circulated today by the media, has always been a myth. Even in the heyday of Dagenham's militancy, the local union machinery always acted as a brake on the workers' struggles.

Today, at a time when militancy is as low in Ford as it is in the rest of industry, due to the general situation, the local union machineries are primarily involved in "partnership" type agreements, which Ford has used to get the unions to endorse the erosion of conditions. At the same time, conflicts and rivalries between the various union structures on the estate play a significant part in strengthening the hand of the company.

Each plant has its own separate shop- steward committee, which in turn elects an 8-strong Joint Works Committee (JWC), chaired by the plant convenor, which does the real day-to- day negotiation with the company - without any real control from the stewards, let alone the workforce.

The two main unions among manual workers are the T&G and the engineering union AEEU. The T&G organises most non-skilled workers in the three plants, with four branches based on the estate. Most of the AEEU membership is constituted by skilled toolmakers, electricians and mechanics. But, mainly for historical reasons, it also organises some non-skilled workers. However, unlike the T&G, it does not have a plant-based branch.

The long-standing rivalry between the T&G and AEEU machineries expresses itself in Ford union committees as well. In this rivalry, both play on sectional divisions between skilled and non-skilled workers, thereby widening the gap. And of course, the company knows how to pour oil on the fire.

For instance, in the Engine plant, the reduction in the number of shop stewards has led to an imbalance between skilled and non-skilled. A line of 170-200 workers has just one steward, but smaller skilled areas, such as toolmakers in the same plant, are allowed one steward each - even a tiny section of only 5 men. Besides making the job of line stewards nigh impossible, with so many workers to represent, this has led to a situation where stewards representing line workers - mainly from the T&G - who form the vast majority of the workforce making the engines, are in a minority on the shop stewards' committee and JWC, where there is a majority of skilled stewards - mainly from the AEEU. Were the two unions primarily concerned with the interests of the workforce as a whole, this would not need to be a problem - skilled stewards could just as well defend the interests of line workers and help them to organise. But given the sectional policy of the union machineries, line workers feel that they are ill-represented, and this widens the sectional gap.

There are also divisions within the T&G itself. Of the estate's four branches, the largest are the 1107 branch, which was originally the Assembly and Engine plant branch and the 667, organising mainly Body plant workers. But because Ford now has a free hand to move labour between plants, members of both branches are found all over the estate. Despite this, the two branches remain obstinately separate due to interpersonal rivalries between their leaderships, going back many years. In addition, there are internal rivalries within the 1107 branch itself. Over a decade ago, the Assembly plant activists of the branch staged a coup over their Engine Plant counterparts, taking control of the branch. This led to a great deal of resentment and as a result, stewards from the Engine Plant boycotted the branch meetings.

In these intra-union rivalries, another kind of sectional division is being whipped up - that between different plants. No information is circulated amongst the workforce about what goes on in the other plants. Joint meetings between stewards of the Body and Assembly plants are a rarity whereas joint meetings involving the Engine plants stewards just never happen. As to the members of the different plants, they are kept apart by the machineries on the basis that what happens in the next plant is not their concern.

And again, Ford plays on these divisions and on the fact that the union machineries are more concerned about their rivalries than about workers' interests. Indeed, due to these divisions, Ford chose to use the Engine plant as its testing ground, for example to introduce temporary workers on to the estate for the first time. In 1997, a deal was signed allowing Ford to employ workers in the Engine plant on six- month contracts, whereas, until last year, the stewards opposed it in the other two plants. Since union officials of the other plants made a point of washing their hands of what happened in the Engine plant, they made no effort to oppose this deal. Instead, they saw it as another opportunity to score points against the Engine plant JWC. But this did not prevent them, two years later, from signing an agreement (the so- called "Modern Operating Agreement") which opened the door, among other things, to temporary labour in the two other plants too!

From Ford's red face to ....

The inter-union and intra- union rivalries described above provide the background to much of the "anti-racist" posturing of the union machineries in Dagenham.

In February 1996, Ford was confronted with a very embarrassing incident. It involved a poster which had been used in an advertising campaign in 1991 - "Everything we do is driven by you" - which was a joint union-management initiative in the Assembly plant. Workers from the Assembly plant were given the "chance" to appear on the poster, happily smiling in a long row, to promote Ford sales. As the Assembly plant convenor explained later, "Everyone saw it as being very positive". Well, perhaps - at least there was time off work for the photo shoot. Unfortunately Ford then went and spoilt it all. When the company launched a poster campaign in Poland, years later, it was cheaper to use this old photo. But Ford's agency chose to "white out" five of the black workers' faces, apparently to allow Polish people to "identify more easily" with the company image...

When this was discovered, purely by chance, by one of the black workers who had been turned white, he told the others involved and a stoppage resulted in his area in the Assembly plant for a few hours. The local T&G stepped in, after the press had hyped up the story and accused the company of racism. Senior management was told to apologise, each of the five was given £1,500 in compensation and Bill Morris demanded a meeting with the then Ford Britain chief, over equal opportunities. In a joint statement the two sides agreed that measures were now in place to ensure there would be "no repetition of such an incident". The T&G leader and the Ford chairman were to regularly review "positive initiatives on equal opportunities being actioned jointly by the company and unions", as the T&G's journal reported.

There was "no repetition of the incident". Though it is hard to see how there could have been, since it was so bizarre. Ford got a red face and as a result the T&G came out of the affair looking good and boasting of its "anti- racist" record, which they saw as good publicity for recruitment. But, contrary to Morris' claims, it did not improve the situation of the workforce, black or not.

But another issue, later the same year proved that discrimination still existed in Dagenham, despite the T&G's regular meetings with Ford on equal opportunity. And the way it was handled illustrated how the anti- racist posturing of the union machineries at local and national level could do more harm than good. In effect they helped to widen the existing gulf between sections of workers on the estate.

.. the truck fleet disaster

At Dagenham, drivers' jobs in the Truck Fleet are much sought after because of the relatively high pay compared to all other manual jobs on the estate. This requires having a class 1 heavy duty driving license. Many years ago, drivers won the right to run Ford's vetting test themselves, so that the assessors are senior drivers. Over the years, this has allowed them to operate an unofficial "family first" recruitment policy. There was never any vocal objection to this, nor to the fact that, as a result of this scheme, only 3 of the 300 drivers were black - neither from management, who washed their hands of the situation as long as it cost them nothing, and least of all from the Engine plant T&G, which organised all the drivers and did not want to take the risk of confronting the drivers' sectionalism.

Towards the end of 1996, for the first time in many years, a large number of vacancies for drivers were advertised internally. 85 workers from the Body and Assembly plants applied. Applicants were ranked according to seniority, and then they had to pass the vetting test. Among them, 40 were black workers who almost all fell into the top half of the list because they had the most seniority. But in the end not one of them was offered a job. Seven of the 40 black applicants decided to contest the outcome. Their case was taken to industrial tribunal by the T&G for racial discrimination. There, evidence was given that two of the assessors had been heard to say that it was not their fault "if Pakis can't drive". The T&G demanded compensation from Ford at tribunal for its seven black members and got it, to the tune of £10,000 each.

The whole affair could have been sorted out at that point by getting Ford to pay for the mess. The recruitment policy - which was really a sectional scheme which had gone badly wrong, rather than a case of "racist" discrimination - could have been resolved by appealing to the drivers to work out a fairer scheme and control it collectively. In any case, it was worth trying.

But the union machineries showed no such concern - in fact they proved neither concerned with the drivers' interests nor with that of future applicants to jobs in the Truck Fleet. On the contrary, the Body and Assembly plants T&G saw this as an opportunity to score points against their rivals in the Engine plant, whose AEEU convenor de facto backed the recruitment scheme. With the T&G national officials behind them, they entered this dispute on behalf of their black members with their anti- racist rhetoric blazing, and immediately got the hackles of the drivers up. Many of the drivers were not prepared to be lectured - let alone accused of racism - by full- time officials from a union which they felt had let them down on numerous occasions in the past. After all, it was without the T&G's official backing that they had successfully prevented Ford from going ahead with plans to outsource their jobs to a subcontractor in 1993, when they threatened to strike.

But by then, the national T&G was out to gain maximum publicity for their union as the anti-racist union. If it came to alienating the truck fleet drivers and losing their membership dues, well, as far as Bill Morris was concerned, they were "only" a small section.

This was exactly what happened. The anti-racist posturing of the T&G officials gave some of the Truck Fleet stewards an easy ride taking most of the drivers into the United Road Transport Union (URTU). However, under pressure from the T&G, Ford refused to recognise the URTU. As a result, the URTU drivers could no longer be officially represented by their own stewards. As for the small number of drivers who decided to make a stand and remained in the T&G, they were denied representation at plant level and excluded from any meetings which might involve their interests, without the Dagenham or national T&G being prepared to do anything about it.

Since then, the URTU drivers have made tentative approaches to be readmitted to a recognised union. But none of the union officials would touch them with a barge pole. Yet what good does this do, from the point of view of the interests of the Dagenham workforce, to treat the drivers as pariahs and to isolate them from the rest of the estate? None whatsoever, except to allow some union officials to boast of how "firm" they are on "principles" - that is, of course, as long as it does not involve a serious confrontation with Ford.

The Parmar case

So against this background, what has been the impact of Sukhjit Parmar's case?

It was initially from the press that most of the Dagenham workforce heard about the details of his abuse, lasting four years, at the hands of his foreman and group leader. The T&G had chosen to keep the case away from the knowledge of the workforce while they prepared for the industrial tribunal hearing.

Once the case was won, however, the T&G's silence turned into a boastful flood. An unprecedented four-page letter (dated 1 October 1999) from the T&G's district organiser, detailing the T&G's role in the case, was sent out to every single Dagenham T&G member in all the plants - and it was read. In it the T&G pointed a finger at the Engine plant JWC for their inaction over Sukhjit Parmar's complaints.

The Engine plant JWC retaliated with a written statement asserting their innocence, accusing the T&G in turn of lying, pledging loyalty to Ford's "good reputation" (which the T&G was damaging in their view) and expressing their concern for Ford's profits! About 60 (over half) of the 2.5 diesel engine workers then walked out in disgust at such a stance on 7 October. The Engine plant JWC had been acting for some time as a conveyor belt of managements' policies and most of the semi-skilled workers on the lines were heartily fed up with it. In fact the deputy convenor, having heard of intentions to stage a walkout over the JWC's statement, held pre-emptive meetings with management's help, on every line (much to the surprise of the workers, many of whom had never seen him before) in order to dissuade them from such actions. But what he also did (while being booed by many of the workers) was to tell them that they should leave the T&G and join the AEEU. This cut little ice with most workers. But some workers were alarmed, seeing the risk of all these manoeuvres resulting in the plant being split in two, with the black workers in the T&G and white workers in the AEEU. And many argued that the JWC should be made to resign.

The Engine plant walkout was therefore indirectly connected with the Parmar case, but primarily directed at the union bureaucrats' manoeuvres. But the preceding walkouts in the Assembly plant were not in any way "connected" to Sukhjit Parmar's case if only because of the lack of contact between the plants. Nevertheless, the T&G leader, Bill Morris was keen to merge the Assembly plant walkouts with the Parmar case. Not only did it reinforce the "anti- racist" image of his union, but by implication it allowed him to pre- empt any suggestion that the T&G's partnership with Ford might have been disowned by workers taking unofficial action.

So what is the "victory" that the T&G is boasting about this time, apart from the court case itself?

Ford UK already had adopted a so- called "zero tolerance" policy some years ago. This meant, on paper at least, that it did not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment on grounds of race, gender, or sexuality. This was not a new policy either. Equal Opportunities committees set up on this basis have existed at plant level for many years, jointly run by the unions and management. Indeed every worker is issued with a little card which outlines Ford's "Equal Opportunities" policy. But everyone knows very well, from experience, that this card is not worth the laminated plastic it is written on.

As a result of the Sukhjit Parmar case, Ford and the main unions involved in its British plants have sealed a new deal, after an unprecedented summit meeting - for which Jacques Nasser, the top Ford boss jetted over specially. Predictably, they came up with yet another set of joint committees to implement a "new" policy called the "DEAR" strategy (Diversity and Equalities Assessment Review).

So what is "DEAR"? This is a six-point plan, covering Ford UK which apparently derived from an existing Ford plan called "Diversity Vision". The six points come under the headings of "policy and planning", "selection", "developing and retaining employees", "communication and corporate image", "corporate citizenship" and "auditing for equality". "Diversity in the workplace includes all differences that define us as individuals", reads the blurb. DEAR will allow for the appointment of a "national equality officer". There will be a new committee, set up in every plant, now to be called a "joint equal opportunities and diversity committee", and a joint national committee. In the end the workplace will be one in which, we are told, "diversity is valued and which is free from harassment of any kind".

Of course, this zero-tolerance on harassment will not include the right for line workers to go to the toilet when they need to, to stay at home when they are sick without being paid a visit by a company snooper, nor the end of the "three strikes and you're out" disciplinary procedure which applies to lateness, absence and other "misconduct" (like going to the toilet without permission).

And that is precisely the point. All that gibberish taken straight out of "Human Resources Management" textbooks is a smokescreen. Ford and Bill Morris are working hand in hand to pull wool over the workers' eyes, so that Morris can boast of a "victory" which costs nothing to Ford and will change nothing to workers' lives - whether black or white. But as a result of blowing the issue of racism out of proportion, while sweeping under the carpet the issue of Ford's attacks on conditions (which affect all workers), Morris only contributes to creating a sense division on the shopfloor, which can weaken workers.

Reliance on the system

Other than posturing, what do the union machineries do about racism at work? The same things that they do about any other issue related to exploitation. They rely on the system's institutions - those inside the workplace and those outside - but never on the collective action and consciousness of workers. If they have a policy, it is confined to dealing with individual cases through the courts, as in the examples mentioned above, and with the general problems through the aforementioned equal opportunities committees in larger workplaces.

But how useful are the laws and the courts? The Race Relations Act, which was passed 30 years ago, in 1968, was the first UK legislation to outlaw race discrimination in employment. The Race Relations Board was appointed as arbiter and conciliator. Three years after the passing of the Act, an assessment of its operation was made by one of its members after he had resigned. As he explained: "The Race Relations Act allows employment complaints to be investigated not only by the Board but also by special committees set up by employers and trade unions. Not all industries exercise their right to set up such "industry machinery", but the National Health Service, British Rail, London Transport and the banking, rubber and chemical industries all have this "do-it- yourself" investigation system. They have managed to exonerate themselves from every charge of racial discrimination made against them. In the last two years this industry machinery has considered over 250 complaints. - and has rejected all but four. In all four the complainants were white."

It is worth recalling here though, that at the end of the 1980s for instance, some British Rail Social Clubs, which were managed by union members, still operated a colour bar. The unions may have been relying on the institutions and the law, but they did not try to implement it even with their own members.

The Act was strengthened in 1976, making discrimination in employment its main focus. At this time the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) was formed. Over the years it has been expanded and given a larger budget. Bodies such as the CRE are now run by black people. And probably today they do express black people's aspirations to equal rights. But expressing them does not bring them into being. Racism is both an instrument of exploitation and the expression of an exploitative society. And no commission, however well-meaning it may be, can do away with capitalist exploitation.

Thirty years on black workers are still twice as likely to be unemployed than whites. Unemployment rates for black African and Pakistani workers are three times as high. So what difference have these laws and these statutory bodies made?

The number of cases of race discrimination or harassment which go to court under the Act has been increasing sharply (in 1985/6 there were 1,000 cases and in 1995/6, there were 2,000), but only 15% of these cases succeed. These bodies and laws perhaps encourage some black people to speak out, but the pay-outs are mostly derisory and certainly not a deterrent for bosses.

As to the workplace institutions - usually joint union-management committees - they are not more efficient. Going back to the example of Ford, there have been joint statement on equal opportunities between the company and unions in 1976, 1980 and then again in 1988. The last one involved the setting up of a joint monitoring committee, which has been in existence ever since. But apart from getting a few union officials to have yet more meetings with managers, this has changed nothing in the real world, except getting some white workers to think that the union machineries are doing more for black workers than for them - which is of course an illusion, but a potentially divisive one.

The unions' widespread policy of turning to management for arbitration over racist abuse or harassment on the shopfloor, by demanding the sacking of a racist foreman (or fellow-worker, for that matter) has the same divisive effect.

This is precisely what happened with the Sukhjit Parmar case. While Ford demoted the foreman involved, they actually did sack the group leader (a non-skilled worker who is paid 10% more than his fellows to "assist" the foreman) who was accused of carrying out much of the abuse against Sukhjit Parmar. In their view (and that of the union officials) it was a way of getting rid of the problem. However there were a lot of other people who were responsible for the harassment of Sukhjit Parmar, all the way to top management. And this helps them off the hook. But in addition, every time a case is "resolved" in that way from above, it drives a wedge between workers: some black workers will resent the passivity of their white mates, some white workers will resent the encouragement given to sacking a worker.

The bottom line in all these issues - whether it be racism, discrimination or the defence of workers' conditions against the bosses - is that they are all the product of capitalist exploitation. And they can only be addressed effectively by having a policy which aims at defending the common interests of the working class as a whole, regardless of skill, grade, or skin colour, in order to be able to mobilise all its forces in the struggle against the capitalists.

This is the kind of policy that the union machineries have long ceased to have. This is why, today, in order to retain a minimum credibility, they have to resort to forms of posturing designed to distract attention from the class struggle and to seek systematically the help of the bosses' system - even if the cost of this policy is to divide and weaken their own members. But for workers, falling for this would be a dangerous dead end.

4 January 2000