Racism row resurfaces at Ford

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Lorry drivers' leaders at Ford's Dagenham plant are planning to protect an allegedly racist recruitment system this week by switching their union allegiance.

Representatives of truck fleet employees - the highest paid and most powerful group of blue-collar workers at Ford - have become increasingly angry with the Transport and General Workers' Union over the organisation's legal battle to dismantle a controversial selection procedure. Activists have held confidential talks with the United Road Transport Union (URTU) which they believe will take a softer line than the left-led T&G. Previous attempts to switch all 300 workers en masse into the engineering union and the GMB general union were rebuffed.

It is understood that lorry drivers' representatives are today planning to dissolve their T&G branch and report back to their members tomorrow with plans to switch to the URTU.

At the heart of the dispute is a recruitment system which has meant that less than 2 per cent of the 300 lorry drivers based at Dagenham are from ethnic minorities compared with a proportion of between 40 and 45 per cent elsewhere at the Essex complex.

The T&G has taken the company to an industrial tribunal on behalf of seven black workers who have been refused jobs. The adjourned cases resume next month.

The procedures place much of the power of selection with senior employees in the truck fleet with minimal input from more senior management.

While lorry drivers' shop stewards argue that the arrangements for testing aptitude are fair, the procedures have meant that jobs are often passed down from father to son and generally "kept within the family".

Members of ethnic minorities have found it extremely difficult to secure the much sought-after pounds 30,000-a-year jobs - the highest wages earned by manual staff at Ford.

Left-wingers in the T&G argue that while the company has a good equal opportunities record elsewhere, Ford has been reluctant to change the selection system for the truck fleet in case the drivers walked out. A strike by the drivers, who deliver parts all over Western Europe, would bring Ford's production lines to a halt within days.

Some officials at the transport workers' union believe the application to the rival union has been with the connivance of management, although the company declined to comment yesterday. Bill Morris, general secretary of the T&G, insisted that his union had no quarrel with the drivers themselves. "They have been caught up in carrying out Ford's policies which plainly discriminate against black people," Mr Morris said.

He argued that Ford should introduce a proper equal opportunities policy - "They must stop putting production before principles" - and said he would be seeking a meeting with Ford and with leaders of the rival union.