Ford Workers Fine Tradition of Unity
The case of Sukhjit Parmar
Sukhjit Parmar, a worker in the Ford Engine plant, Dagenham, has won a case at the Industrial Tribunal of race discrimination. Ford has admitted full liability and issued a public apology.
The case is far from settled however.
Media attention and Ford management have implied that the main problem lies with Ford workers. This is not the case. Ford workers have a fine anti-racist tradition.
Over the years there have been many stoppages to support workers in struggle, or workers in trouble black, white and Asian have stood together united. Because of the way the unions have operated at shop steward and convenor level at Ford (warts and all) there has never been a demand for black sections from black and Asian union activists.
We have had two black convenors, and we have had, and still have on two committees black and Asian stewards on the leading bodies. Ford workers make all the different parts of the cars together and generally speaking get on well together.
In reality the main problem of racism in Ford Dagenham has been and remains a problem of the management. The higher up you go the worse it gets.
While on the shop floor the mix of white, black and Asian workers is almost 50-50, senior Ford management are almost exclusively white. Occasionally a black person from America has been imported, and then re-exported a year or two later.
A similar situation exists in the middle management, and lower down amongst the salaried staff only three per cent are from ethnic minorities. Supervisors also only have a small number of black and Asian people, or women. In some parts of Ford even this tiny number is going down.
If management took the same attitude to racism as it took to theft, the situation would be different. Ford enforces a strong anti-theft policy, with harsh discipline for those caught stealing.
But (see other articles in this issue) Ford will support racism when it is profitable, as they did in apartheid South Africa. But today racism is not profitable and so they have changed their tune!
Jack Nassers anti-racist position has more to do with profit than principles.
His view is that when China and India become more prosperous they will become the biggest car market in the world. Currently the Indian middle class who buy cars number 200 million already almost the same as western Europe.
Nasser points out that blacks and Asians, women and gays all have purchasing power and can buy cars, therefore a Ford car must no longer be seen as a white mans car because that would restrict sales and affect profit.
He met the leaders of the four main unions: AEEU, GMB, MSF, and T&G. They have devised a plan to improve equal opportunity and diversity. Most Ford workers do not know what is being hatched up.
Can Ford workers look to the leaders of one of the most ruthless trans-national companies coming to terms with the bureaucratic and undemocratic leaders of our unions for a solution to these problems?
Our interests would be best served by having workers solutions to workers problems, and force the management to recognise our just demands.
These are: a democratic working environment, observing human rights from intimidation, bullying and management by pressure and stress, including an end to all racism and management favouritism.
Assembly and Engine plants
Following Mr. Parmars case came the assault on shop steward Jasbir Teja in the Assembly plant by a white foreman. The workers responded immediately by an all-plant walk out, and a demand for an official strike ballot.
The response in the Engine plant to Mr. Parmars case was however very different, and this goes back to the issue over the truck fleet.
Due to rising unemployment and the difficulty of finding decent jobs, the truck fleet workers were drawn into a method of trying to fill jobs from family and friends. Disillusionment over the continuous defeat of one working class struggle after another (miners, dockers, printworkers etc.) because of the treachery of trade union leaders refusing to unite behind these struggles, meant that members of the truck fleet turned away from the trade union family at Fords. They were pulled backward into backwardness, trying to look after just their own. There was no influence of fascist politics, but the most visible recruitment refusals were to black and Asian Ford workers, and management defended this.
In response to this injustice the chief union, the T&G took a bureaucratic road of making an Industrial Tribunal case against Fords. Of course those discriminated against had the right to seek justice through the IT, but the effect was to box the truck fleet workers into a racist position, and drive them closer to management. The majority left the union to join the URTU union, which was later thrown out of the TUC. There is suspicion that URTU is supported by the Road Transport employers seeking to split the unions.
While the truck fleet workers were discriminating against all sorts of workers, including black and Asian, the main antagonism developed between the Assembly plant and the truck fleet. Ford management encouraged the pot to boil as these groups were the two leading the resistance to Fords management on the Dagenham estate. There is still a case outstanding against Ford management, but they make no moves to sort out the situation. It is in their interests to keep the thing going.
What was, and is required is a workers solution to workers problems.
However, it did not develop in this direction. The Engine plant works committee supported the fleet in its own unjust position and a split took place between the unions in the Body and Assembly plants and the Engine plant and truck fleet. Mr. Parmars case occurred in this situation of disunity.
Ford has worked very hard to create in-house unions and many shop stewards and leading trade unions in Fords have been sucked into the pocket of the company, becoming more like a section of the management than the union. This is a problem for trade unionists all over the country, but is especially bad in the Dagenham Engine plant.
Coupled with the management environment favourable to racism this allowed the racists on the shop floor to raise their heads. The initial problem for Mr. Parmar was the physical assault by the foreman and the racist abuse and humiliation piled on to him by the group leader and later on by some other workers, including disgracefully some shop stewards.
This situation remains to be resolved.
Had the union been strong, the group leader and the racists would not have been able to operate. The workers would have responded to the foreman in the same way that they did in the PTA united workers against a racist management.
It is an irony that the trade union weakness that encouraged the group leader to bring out his racism is responsible for his dismissal, and if the group leader is dismissed, which in the circumstances is quite just, then the foreman in charge of the situation should equally be dismissed, as he was even more responsible than the group leader.
The Transport union has ignored and failed to organise its members in the Engine plant. They are pursuing a partnership policy to wheel and deal with senior management and say nothing to the workers. What can be supported however is what Bill Morris said about Mr. Parmar in his press release following the agreement with Jack Nasser. He said:
We will be working with Ford management to secure the conditions necessary for Sukhjit to return to Ford as soon as possible. Without his courage in standing up to racial harassment and victimisation this agreement would not have been possible.
The latest development is that the truck fleet has recruited a woman and a black driver. This opens the door to a progressive solution.
But the foremen who assaulted Mr. Parmar and Mr. Tajir are still being protected by Ford management. Since foremen are seen as the lowest rung on the management ladder, this requires the united action by all Ford workers to seek justice.