British Leyland vesterday dismissed Mr Derek Robinson. leader of the unofficial BL shop stewards’ committee. in the biggest management challenge yet to shop-floor authority.. The dismissal was greeted by disbelief from managements and unions. Picketing began immediately at Mr Robinson’s Longbridge plant. Thousands on night shift called out
By Clifford Webb Midlands Industrial Correspondent
British Leyland, the state- controlled motor group, yesterday dismissed Mr Derek Robinson, the militant chairman of the unofficial BL shop stewards’ committee and the most powerful factory-floor figure in the motor industry. Two other officials of his committee were told after disciplinary hearings that any further attempt by them to disrupt the company’s recovery plans would lead to instant dismissal. A third official will appear before a hearing today.
The moves, coming on the eve of wage talks at Coventry today involving 200 senior shop stewards and full-time union officials, will be seen as the biggest management challenge vet to the long-established authority of the shop stewards’ movement in BL factories. The news has shocked the industry and was at first greeted with disbelief by unions and managements. At Longbridge, Mr Robinson’s own plant, pickets appeared on the gates and men drifted away from the assembly lines.
One of the pickets said : “The management won’t get away with this.”
Car production remained at a standstill last night. Shop stewards called out thousands of night shift workers and warned that the strike could spread to other Leyland plants. The catalyst for this first direct action against a militant shop stewards’ leader was a small, poorly produced, 16-page booklet issued by Mr Robinson’s committee in the wake of the recent vote by BL car workers. Their seven to one support for Sir Michael Edwardes’s survival plan, despite the lost jobs and 13 whole or partial plant closures was a bitter blow to Mr Robinson and his colleagues.
The booklet, entitled “ A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan “. said: ” We must develop a campaign that involves every BL worker, every component worker and the wider Labour movement. The combined committee’s policy of refusing to accept the transfer of work from one plant to another, unless the parent plant agrees, must be fully supported. This does not mean a passive role by the receiving plant. They must be actively involved. In other industries, like UCS, work-ins and occupations have been necessary to prevent closure. If necessary we shall have to do the same………. It is time to stand up to the Edwardes of this world and refuse to allow the carve – up of our industry.”
When copies reached management hands last week, they were immediately interpreted as an attempt by an unofficial minority to foment trouble. Meetings followed in London between Sir Michael, Mr Pat Lowry, the group director of external affairs, Mr Ray Horrocks. the head of all BL car operations, and Mr David Abell, in charge of commercial vehicles. It was then decided to bring disciplinary charges against Mr Robinson as chairman of the committee, Mr Len Brindle, vice-chairman and AUEW convener at Leyland vehicles, Mr Jack Adams, the combined secretary and chairman of the Longbridge shop stewards committee, and Mr Mick Clarke, the combined treasurer and a shop steward at Rover Solihull. Hearings were held yesterday. Mr Brindle’s is to be held today. Last night BL issued the following statement:
“A body calling itself the Leyland combined trades union committee has published a booklet which is now circulating in BL plants. The combined committee is in fact an unofficial and unrepresentative body. It is recognized neither by the company nor the trade unions, whose interests it claims to represent. In this booklet, the combined committee calls upon employees to take disruptive action to prevent the implementation of the company’s plans, despite these plans having been endorsed by a 7-1 majority in a ballot of all employees.
“By publishing such a booklet calling for disruptive action the people concerned are deliberately undermining the company’s recovery programme threatening both the market share and confidence in the company’s future. This type of action cannot be allowed to continue. A great deal of debate has taken place on the company’s plans with the trade unions. The board has committed itself to the recovery programme, and employees at all levels are working to implement it successfully. An overwhelming majority of employees voted to support it.
“Following the disciplinary hearings today, disciplinary action has been taken against the three BL Cars employees whose names appeared in the booklet as endorsing it and therefore calling for the actions it contains. Two of these employees have been warned formally that any repetition of this type of action will result in their dismissal. One of the employees, who had been warned explicitly in March, 1979, over similar acts of misconduct, has been dismissed. The employees concerned have been advised that they have the right to appeal against the decisions. They have not yet indicated their intention to appeal.”
A BL source close to Sir Michael was more outspoken. “Here we are presenting a do- or-die plan to the Government which calls for considerably more state assistance than the Ryder plan envisaged, and we find we are paying men to spend their time actively trying to prevent the plan being successful. We know that the dismissal of Mr Robinson is an extremely serious matter, but so is the state of this company and its future. If these men had advocated opposition before the ballot, there could perhaps be some justification, but surely not afterward. That is purely dis- ruptive and contrary to the majority view of our employees.”