An industrial tribunal hearing in Stratford, east London was told last week that four out of 10 workers at the company's sprawling Dagenham complex are black, yet only a tiny fraction have ever broken through a wall of racism to secure elite jobs in the Ford Truck Fleet.
Truck Fleet drivers, who deliver car components from one part of the plant to another and from one factory to another across the UK and Europe at all hours of the day and night, are the company's jugular vein and they know it. Ford has had an equal opportunities programme in place for years, but the fleet men are so powerful that they can ignore it.
Not, however, for very much longer. The Transport and General Workers' Union has brought a case of racial discrimination on behalf of seven men who tried, and failed, to beat the colour bar. A judgment is expected next week, bringing out into the open the whites-only, relatives-first policy that shames Britain's biggest motor manufacturer.
It is also likely to force a wider reappraisal of the issue. Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, will blow open racism in British industry with a demand that Ford comes clean on the failure of its equal opportunities programme. He is to demand immediate talks with the company's management on genuine freedom for black people to gain access to better jobs. His move could also trigger further calls for the abolition of unspoken colour bars elsewhere - including the NHS and Royal Mail.
The impetus for change is coming from six Asian workers and one Afro- Caribbean. Lawyers representing the Dagenham Seven, who believe Ford will have to change its working practices, argue: "A clear message to employers is coming out. You cannot tolerate racist or discriminatory practices by one sector of your workforce against the rest."
The tribunal heard last week that only about two per cent of the 1,000 Truck Fleet men are black. In one recruitment drive in 1990, white men were three times more likely to be taken on. One black driver, Harvey Thomas, was excluded from the training programme and replaced by a white applicant who had failed his initial test but had a relative in the fleet. This was the system of recruitment that prevailed in the London docks and in Covent Garden market, which were also strongholds of the TGWU - the union that is bringing the case. "It's croneyism rather than outright racism," said one Ford union insider. "The managers go along with it because they know a strike by Truck Fleet will bring the company to a standstill almost immediately."
Bill Morris, the only black general secretary of a major union, said last night: "The question of racism and the treatment of ethnic minority workers cannot just be left to courtroom battles like this one. The company must negotiate with the unions about these problems."
TGWU aides went further, saying he would be seeking immediate talks with Ford Motors on the race issue, and that the Dagenham case raised wider issues about the treatment of black workers - not just in motor manufacturing but in other areas of employment such as the NHS and Royal Mail where many black people are employed but few are promoted.
Some of the evidence given to the tribunal hearing at Stratford, east London, has been extraordinary. One Truck Fleet manager is claimed by lawyers to have said: "It is not my fault if Pakis can't drive . . . you have to be special to drive trucks. We are too concerned with Pakis and blacks in this company." Another - during an equal opportunities course - is alleged to have said: "There is nothing wrong with calling a Paki a Paki."
Robin Allen, QC, for the union, told the tribunal it was "a matter of striking contrast" that Ford, which has a good reputation of looking to see how equal opportunities can be secured, should have allowed all this good work to bypass the Truck Fleet. In fact, Ford even employs an equal opportunities officer, Ms Karen Cavalier, who was not available for comment. The workforce at Dagenham is divided. Many are local people attracted by steady employment on the production line. Almost as many again are British-born Asians and Afro-Caribbeans, many of whom commute from all over London - some from as far afield as Middlesex.
There is a lingering suspicion that racist attitudes still permeate. Not long ago, the company was forced to apologise for an advertisement in Eastern Europe in which the black faces of Ford workers ("Everything we do is driven by you") were replaced by white faces. Ford blamed a Polish advertising agency. And there is criticism that black people appear infrequently in the company magazine.
The TGWU knows that a judgment in favour of the Dagenham Seven could have serious repercussions. It could provoke a strike by drivers, whose work keeps both British and European plants going. The union says privately it will refuse to sanction a dispute in support of the colour bar. Alternatively, many drivers could quit the TGWU, taking their valuable subscriptions with them. Tony Woodley, the union's national automotive secretary, has already had one "very hairy" meeting with the men. Yet the union has decided to take on those of its own whom it sees as racist. "It's an issue of principle, and we won't flinch from that," said an adviser to the TGWU general secretary.
But Bill Morris needs allies. His full-time officials and conveners at Ford Motors do not exactly rush to the telephone to brief the media on what goes on behind the factory gates. What have they got to hide? Jimmy Airlie, the Engineering Union executive council man who chairs the Ford National Negotiating Committee, is prepared to support the rival union, albeit with a shameful admission. "As trade unions, we have been as culpable as the employers. We have paid lip service to equal opportunities. We have turned a blind eye to croneyism and racialism.
"It seems that the outcome of this tribunal case must be that unions and employers - not only in Ford - have got to sit down and work out ways in which we effectively give real meaning - not only in words, but deeds - to equal opportunity. We have not done enough to tackle racialism. Bill Morris will not be alone in defending our principles."Reuse content