Sacking of black worker leads to BL standstill
By Clifford Webb, Motoring Correspondent
A strike over alleged racial prejudice on the part of a foreman at Austin Rover’s Longbridge car plant escalated rapidly yesterday.
By last night 13500 workers were laid off at Longbridge, Cowley. Swindon, Llanelli and Birmingham. Production of all models except the large Rover saloon was at a standstill. The loss of more than 2,000 cars a day worth about £10m at showroom prices and including a new small Rover to be announced in a fortnight’s time could be disastrous unless the dispute is settled quickly.
Car manufacturers count on steady production in June and Julv to build up stocks for the August bonanza. when nearly one in five of all Britain’s new cars are bought. If Austin Rover enters August short of cars it will be a severe setback to its recovery after last year’s welcome return to profits. Peace talks between local union officials and plant management were continuing last night but the 300 drivers at the heart of the dispute are not due to meet again before tomorrow.
They walked out on the eve of last week’s spring holiday in protest at the dismissal of Mr Zedekiah Mills, aged 55, a black forklift truck driver, for striking a foreman. He alleged that the foreman had provoked him by calling him a “black bastard” and that that was only the latest in a number of acts of racial discrimination towards him during his 13 years at Longbridge. The foreman denied saying that phrase but did admit that he swore at Mr Mills. Management revealed yesterday that he had since been disciplined for swearing and had been given a written warning about his future conduct.
Austin Rover described Mr Mills’s claims of racial discrimination as “totally without foundation”.
“There is absolutely no justification for such an unconstitutional stoppage. Mr Mills has a record of violent conduct which he admits. The decision to dismiss him would have been the same for any employee whatever his colour”, he said. It was hoped that tempers would cool during the week long holiday shutdown. But when the drivers who ferry components around Longbridge failed to appear on Monday morning the shortage of components halted assembly lines.
The dispute spread to other plants when internal drivers were joined by colleagues who transport parts between Austin Rover plants.