Derek robinson 1927-2017
Trade union leader was BL convener in the 1970s and said to be responsible for 523 walkouts
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.’