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Posted 6/5/2005 9:40 PM
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Ford settles employee suit alleging bias in testing
CINCINNATI — After battling his employer, Ford Motor, for six years, James Robinson is finally taking part in the apprenticeship program to which he was denied admission, along with 3,400 other African-Americans.

Robinson started apprentice training in December as part of a $10 million class-action settlement that went before senior U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel last week.

The judge took the proposed settlement under advisement, but lawyers for the 11 plaintiffs — current and former employees of Ford's transmission plant in Sharonville — celebrated it as a triumph over racial bias in one of the biggest U.S. corporations.

"It's a very far-reaching plan with national implications," said Nathaniel Jones, a retired federal appeals court judge in Cincinnati and one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. When the proposed settlement was first announced, Ford denied the apprenticeship test was discriminatory. But the company said it agreed the settlement would "enhance the test and opportunities for all our employees. ... It will ensure that African-Americans have opportunities for apprentice training."

The settlement covers roughly 3,400 African-American employees at Ford plants nationwide who were shut out of the company's apprenticeship program dating back to 1997.

Completion of the multiyear program brings job skills, higher pay and greater job security. Robinson and the others alleged that Ford excluded them because of their race.

"I knew I had the ability to do something other than putting bolts into a transmission," said Robinson, 46, in his ninth year with Ford. "This isn't about the money but making opportunities ... for other people."

Robinson, the 10 other plaintiffs and two other employees who had filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stand to receive $30,000 each if Spiegel approves the settlement. The remaining class members will receive $2,400 each. And 279 will be placed in line for Ford apprenticeships.

Meantime, Kathleen Lundquist, president of Applied Psychological Techniques in Darien, Conn., will develop a replacement for the pencil-and-paper apprenticeship test at Ford. The new test, more than a year out, will be more multimedia in form and will pose situations as they are encountered on the job rather than in multiple-choice questions, said Ken Willner, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Ford.

Ford agreed to pay the $10 million, which includes $1.7 million in legal fees.

Although the plaintiffs' lead lawyer, Cyrus Mehri of Washington, said 99.9% of the 3,400 class members have agreed to the $2,400 in damages, 32-year Ford employee Kenneth Jones of Cleveland, was one who did not agree with the settlement. "It's totally unfair, because a skilled tradesperson makes over $100,000 a year, and if you went all the way back to 1997 and counted overtime, you'd have made over $1 million," said Jones, a metal technician at the Ford factory in Brook Park.

Contributing: The Cincinnati Enquirer is published by Gannett, which also publishes USA TODAY.

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