STAFF at Southampton’s Ford plant today staging a 24-hour strike in a row over pay and pensions.

The Unite union said that the walkout, the first at the car giant since the 1970s, would affect sites across the country including Southampton, Dagenham in Essex, Bridgend in South Wales, and Halewood on Merseyside.

The union, which represents about 1,200 white collar employees at the car maker, said that staff were “furious” at plans to close the final salary pension scheme to new starters and lower their rates of pay.

The dispute is understood to involve dozens of the 600 staff at Ford’s Southampton assembly plant in Swaythling, which makes about 28,000 Ford Transit vans a year.

Unite said 60 workers were taking industrial action in Southampton.

Production workers are not involved in the dispute.

Unite national officer Roger Maddison said: “Our staff members will not stand by and allow Ford to create a two-tier workforce on pay and pensions.

“To date Ford has failed to make any genuine attempts to resolve this dispute.

“We fiercely oppose the closure of Ford’s final salary scheme to new entrants because we believe ultimately Ford will try to close the entire scheme.

“Ford must prove that it is committed to the UK by investing in its UK workforce.

“The UK has the best sales in Europe, there’s no excuse to attack the terms and conditions of a new generation of Ford staff.

“The company is also refusing to back away from creating a two-tier workforce by making new starters work for less money for doing the same job as existing staff. This is totally unacceptable.”

A Ford spokesman said: “The issue giving rise to the industrial action relates to a disagreement between the company and a particular group of its employees in relation to their ongoing pay and benefit negotiations.

“Ford remains willing and available to continue discussions with the union representing these workers.

“The vast majority of the company’s employees are not involved in this disagreement, or the decision to take industrial action.”

Company bosses insist there is still a bright future for the Swaythling plant – despite news that the latest version of the iconic Ford Transit van will not be built in Southampton, but in Turkey.

Production of the Transit van is expected to finish in Southampton next year and millions of pounds of investment will instead be ploughed into the plant to make it a global centre for all the new Transit chassis cab models.

About half the workforce – some 500 jobs – were culled at the Swaythling factory three years ago.

Workers who remained were also hit by wage freezes as the company searched for ways to cut costs.