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3 November 2017
Obituary: Derek Robinson, car workers' leader, 1927-2017
Bill Mullins, former senior steward at British Leyland and Socialist Party industrial organiser
Derek Robinson, one of the most famous trade unionists of the 1970s, has died aged 90.
He was the convenor of the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham and chairman of the British Leyland shop stewards' combine committee at the same time.
He was seen by the capitalist press as the most influential shopfloor leader in British industry. They dubbed him "Red Robbo" - though he was never known as that by his members.
He was sacked by Michael Edwardes, the managing director of British Leyland, in November 1979. This was after he opposed Edwardes' plant closure plans in a pamphlet published on the authority of the combine committee.
Over 50,000 workers across British Leyland immediately came out on strike, including the 20,000 workers at Longbridge in Birmingham.
Factories that stopped work included Canley in Coventry, the Castle Bromwich body plant, and the Bordesley Green plant in Birmingham.
My own plant in Solihull, where I was the senior steward on the Rover SD1 line, also came out on strike. 'On the Track', the Socialist Party publication about workers' struggle at British Leyland in that period, gives more details.
Edwardes, in his book 'Back from the Brink', spends many pages describing how he and other bosses planned Derek's sacking for a long time.
He writes at one point about a pay dispute that broke out across British Leyland. "After a mass meeting [at Longbridge] the entire 20,000 came out on strike... the convenor [Derek Robinson] talked the men out, my estimate is that 80% did not back the strike... but were too frightened to reject the 'out of the gates' call... militant hoodlums had put barbed wire across the main gates at Longbridge."
Later on, after he sacked him, he says: "I went on television to give the facts on Derek Robinson's 30-month stewardship at Longbridge - 523 disputes, with the loss of 62,000 cars and 113,000 engines worth £200 million."
In fact, Derek could not physically have organised 523 disputes in 30 months. These figures reveal instead that on any day, one or another of the many groups and sections in the huge Longbridge plant were in involved in action - often long before the convenor or the works committee knew anything about it.
Despite the slurs of Edwardes, the shop stewards movement was the most democratic organisation in society.
All shop stewards, including Derek, were subject to regular election and instant recall. The strikes that took place were a result of genuine grievances on the shop floor, and in the majority not 'planned from above'.
This was at a time when a new Tory government had come to power under Margaret Thatcher, sworn to curb the power of the unions.
Michael Edwardes - appointed by the previous Labour government after part-nationalisation of British Leyland in 1975 - took that as his cue.
When it came to the actual sacking, Edwardes was far from sure that he would get away with it. But he was also lucky that around the same time, the right wing in Derek's union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW - now part of general union Unite), had won control.
The Transport and General Workers' Union (now also part of Unite) was the biggest union in British Leyland. It had begun to give official backing to the spontaneous strike when it first broke out.
But Terry Duffy, the new president of the AUEW, instead announced the union would set up an inquiry into Derek's sacking, and ordered his membership back to work! This came as a terrible shock - to Longbridge workers especially.
Les Kuriata, a supporter of Militant (now the Socialist Party) working at Longbridge, wrote in the Militant newspaper (forerunner of the Socialist) that "the shattering news created a double blow in view of the fact that in that morning's strike committee report to the picket lines, sacked convenor Derek Robinson, after being in contact personally with Duffy, told pickets he was confident that the strike would be made official by his union."
Five months later, after the 'inquiry' - during which time Derek had been kept out of the plant - the union finally said yes, he had been sacked unfairly.
But it said only that this was a breach of procedure, and nothing about how this sacking was aimed directly at undermining the confidence of the whole workforce and the shop stewards organisations.
It came as no surprise to us that after months of vilification by the media, especially the Birmingham Mail, a mass meeting voted against coming out on strike.
But the bosses weren't so sure what was going to happen.
The Times, in its editorial, wrote on the day of the mass meeting that "British Leyland now promises to become the most serious industrial crisis since the war.
"It will also be a test of fire for the industrial policies of the government." Edwardes records in his book that earlier, the Sunday Times had "described the five working days from the 11th February to the 15th as follows: 'five days that shook the world'."
The events around Derek's sacking were a culmination of a whole historical period - not just in British Leyland, but throughout society.
The war against unions declared by Thatcher took its most acute form first in the attempts by Edwardes to attack the wages, jobs and conditions of British Leyland workers, and then in the attack on the miners, culminating in the 1984-85 strike.
Militant supporters at British Leyland, particularly in the Solihull plant where I and others were shop stewards, were able to pose what should be done to beat the cuts policies of bosses backed by the Tory government.
This included many resolutions to the British Leyland combine committee from our stewards committee.
A winning approach would have required a political outlook, not just an industrial outlook, from the leading stewards, including Derek Robinson, that just was not there.
This in no way detracts, of course, from the great personal courage of Derek and other shop stewards in that period, when the whole of official society was slandering trade unionists as "militant hoodlums."
Derek was a long-term member of the Communist Party. The Communist Party saw the developments in British Leyland following Labour's part-nationalisation as an opportunity to prove the firm could be made to work successfully within a capitalist framework.
But they knew, as we did, that the fundamental problem with British Leyland was years of underinvestment by bosses who preferred to drive down the wages and conditions of their workforce to maximise profits.
At the time, the average European car worker had three or four times the investment behind them of the average British Leyland worker.
In the case of the Japanese car firms, they could have anything between seven to 17 times as much.
The Communist Party's utopian outlook of making British Leyland successful as some kind of island of socialism within capitalism was a cul-de-sac. Unfortunately it led to major problems for the workers.
The main one was the development of what were called "participation committees." Derek had advocated this as part of what he thought would be a kind of workers' control at British Leyland. In fact it turned out to be the Achilles' heel of our shop stewards organisations.
We in Solihull, with 8,000 workers including 4,000 on my SD1 line, totally opposed participation, because it undermined the independent actions of the shop stewards committees. But we were in a minority.
The participation committees were used by the company to get shop stewards to go along with its plans to introduce a massive programme of plant closures and job cuts.
At one infamous meeting the convenors gave support to the company's plan to cut 12,500 jobs. Derek Robinson defended it as a rear-guard action, claiming it would not have been possible to take a traditional trade union position and fight the bosses' attacks.
There were many other issues where we had a difference of opinion with Derek and his fellow Communist Party shop stewards.
But nevertheless, the death of Derek Robinson will be mourned by many of my generation who experienced a time when the mass of workers fought tooth and nail against the employers' offensive, including the tens of thousands of workers at British Leyland.
- Derek Robinson's funeral will take place at 1.30pm on 22 November at Stourbridge Crematorium
- 'On the Track' - an account of trade union struggles at British Leyland in the turbulent 1970s, by Bill Mullins - available from leftbooks.co.uk
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 3 November 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.