For a period in the 1970s few union leaders were better known than Derek Robinson, who has died aged 90. As the convener of one of the largest manufacturing complexes in the country, the British Leyland motor company’s Longbridge plant on the edge of Birmingham, and an unabashed member of the Communist Party, he was known in the media as Red Robbo.
Born in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire, Robinson came from a family that had worked in the chain making industry, and through encouragement from his mother became an avid reader. At 14 he began his engineering apprenticeship at Longbridge (which he continued to call “the Austin” after its old company name) and qualified as a toolmaker. Two brothers also worked there. He became a shop steward and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1951, remaining a member until the 1990s.
He was a protege of the long-serving convener Dick Etheridge, another communist, whose championship of his members’ interests did not prevent the then BL chairman, Donald Stokes, giving a party for him when he retired in 1975. Robinson succeeded Etheridge at the moment when BL was running out of money. Stokes was dispatched and the unions were drawn into the discussions for the Ryder report, which brought the huge investment that they had sought and promises of the participation that had been a key goal of the stewards.
Robinson favoured nationalisation of the industry, yet worked with management in its replacement of the old piecework system, widespread in the Midlands. This paid workers by the amount they produced, but a maze of different rates meant that every time a new component or model was introduced rates had to be renegotiated, and industrial disputes and strikes followed. It occupied hours of management and union time and individual plants could have two or three stoppages a day as a result.
Robinson’s support for change brought criticism from Trotskyists shop stewards - Alan Thornett was the most prominent - who were active in Leyland plants. But he declared his commitment to the company’s success: “If we make Leyland successful, it will be a political victory. It will prove that ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry.”
On the national stage he opposed the social contract agreed between the TUC and the Labour government, which attempted to restrain runaway inflation by agreeing wage restrictions in exchange for new employment legislation. In reality it was designed to make workers pay for the Labour governments failure to control inflation.
Leyland’s troubles worsened. Skilled workers, members of Robinson’s own union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now part of Unite), embarked on a lengthy strike. He opposed it, fruitlessly, and it damaged his reputation amongst some skilled workers. In 1977 when the Anglo-South African businessman Edwardes arrived he gave Robbo little credit for opposing the AEU strike and began to plot his removal from Leyland.
When Robbo refused to withdraw his name from a pamphlet issued by the Leyland combined shop stewards committee putting a socialist alternative to the cuts demanded by BL’s management Edwardes had him fired.
When a strike ensued, Edwardes held a meeting with Robinson’s AEW national union executive, which was dominated by Labour right-wing Midlanders politically hostile to him, and they did the bosses bidding and agreed to what became a sham inquiry. Robinson continued to be paid, but the inquiry as was always it's intention found against him. Having taken so long to come to their decision time ran out for him to fight for an industrial tribunal settlement.
Robbo had no choice but to accept their decision and in later years said:
I did a better than average job in the interests of BL workers. When the critics say we were just a bunch of militants, they forget we were actually fighting for jobs. We didn’t come out on strike just for the sheer fun of it.
Like many trade unionists who become unemployed he found himself blacklisted. He made numerous applications for engineering jobs which were always rejected and failed in an attempt to become a Midlands organiser due to the armlock the right wing had on his union in that region.
Far from being a raging militant Robbo was like most Shop Stewards and Convenors of his day, a passionate trade unionist who believed management and unions could work together to achieve gains for the workforce which benefited both parties.
He could never have survived as a site conveyor without the trust of the men and women he represented, he was sacked unjustly because management had become emboldened by the social market economy policies advocated by Keith Joseph and eventually put into practice by that dreadful woman. Rather than saving the British car industry Thatcher turned it into a rusting hulk.
Former Communist Party industrial organiser Mick Costello summed up comrade Robinson well:
He was an outstanding trade union leader who was a fighter and a thinker who also knew how to listen to people. He explained that Leyland conspired with Thatcher’s guru industry secretary Sir Keith Joseph, who charged MI5 with gathering and inventing — dirt as part of a witch hunt against Mr Robinson .... One Sunday newspaper printed notes concocted by one of the spies that were put across as minutes of a meeting of communist stewards at Longbridge. to their credit, no other newspaper’s industrial reporters used it as they doubted what was, in fact, what these days is called fake news.
Derek Robinson, trade unionist, born 1927; died 31 October 2017
*Info for this obit came from many sources including the Guardian, Morning Star and Birmingham Mail
Mick Hall blogs @ Organized Rage.
Follow Mick Hall on Twitter @organizedrage
Follow Mick Hall on Twitter @organizedrage