Derek robin­son 1927-2017

Trade union leader was BL con­vener in the 1970s and said to be re­spon­si­ble for 523 walk­outs

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - Nick larkin

Ar­guably the most con­tro­ver­sial em­ployee in the his­tory of Bri­tish Ley­land, union leader, Derek Robin­son, has died aged 90.

Of­ten pil­lo­ried by the press who chris­tened him ‘Red Robbo’ – a ti­tle he came to see as a badge of hon­our – Mr Robin­son was works con­vener at Long­bridge and spokesman for the Com­bine (a group unit­ing for a com­mon pur­pose) rep­re­sent­ing shop stew­ards across the com­pany.

He was cred­ited with en­dors­ing 523 walk­outs at Bri­tish Ley­land be­tween 1975 and 1979, cost­ing BL an es­ti­mated £200 mil­lion in lost pro­duc­tion.

Sup­port­ers saw him as a cham­pion fight­ing to pro­tect work­ers’ jobs, and oc­ca­sions are on record when he ac­tu­ally tried to pre­vent strikes.

Born in Cradley Heath, Stafford­shire, Robin­son joined Austin as an ap­pren­tice tool­maker in 1941 and be­came a mem­ber of the Amal­ga­mated En­gi­neer­ing Work­ers Union (AEWU). In 1950, he signed up to the Com­mu­nist Party of Great Bri­tain.

Fi­nally, in 1975, the year of Bri­tish Ley­land’s na­tion­al­i­sa­tion, Robin­son took over from Dick Etheridge as Long­bridge works con­vener.

Though his sub­se­quent bat­tles with man­age­ment would be­come leg­endary, Robin­son did sup­port the end­ing of the long­stand­ing piece­work scheme, rates for which were dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing to work out and led to many dis­putes, and even op­posed an AEWU strike.

The man seen by many as Robin­son’s neme­sis, Michael Ed­wardes, took the helm at cri­sis-hit Ley­land in 1977, cut­ting 18,000 jobs in 15 months.

Derek Robin­son be­came a house­hold name and his mass meet­ings of BL em­ploy­ees were a reg­u­lar part of TV news bul­letins.

Such was his in­flu­ence that at one point MI5 in­ves­ti­gated his ac­tiv­i­ties. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Mar­garet Thatcher, called him a ‘no­to­ri­ous ag­i­ta­tor.’

Robin­son was fi­nally sacked in Novem­ber 1979 af­ter re­fus­ing to dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from a pam­phlet put out by Com­bine crit­i­cis­ing man­age­ment, and op­pos­ing Ed­wardes’ re­cov­ery plan for the com­pany.

Ini­tial in­dus­trial ac­tion against his dis­missal waned, and when the AEU called a meet­ing of work­ers to de­cide on whether to hold an of­fi­cial strike de­mand­ing Robin­son’s re­in­state­ment, they voted 10 to 1 against.

Three times mar­ried Robin­son would later work as Mid­lands dis­tri­bu­tion man­ager for the com­mu­nist Morn­ing Star news­pa­per and even lec­tured at a lo­cal col­lege on in­dus­trial re­la­tions. He also chaired the Com­mu­nist Party of GB.

Robin­son never sub­se­quently voiced any re­gret for his ac­tions, and de­clined to give in­ter­views in his later years. He ran a Rover P6 for two decades.

He al­ways said that he was try­ing to save jobs. Maybe his stance is best summed up by the com­ment: ‘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.’

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