Archive : Mr Robinson’s final confrontation

Mr Robinson’s final confrontation
A thorn in the side of management and unions
By Clifford Webb

Mr Derek Robinson, the communist sacked by BL yesterday, first came to prominence at Longbridge six years ago when he replaced Mr Dick Etheridge as the engineering union’s convenor and head of the shop stewards’ committee. He arrived at Longbridge in 1941 as a fresh-faced school- leaver starting a career as an apprentice toolmaker. It was the same year that Mr Etheridge became an AUEW shop steward and began the first of a long series of confrontations with the head of the Austin company, Sir Leonard Lord. Sir George Harriman and Lord Stokes also felt the weight of Mr Etheridge’s authority on the shop floor.

On one occasion, when management walked out of a particularly noisy meeting with shop stewards, Mr Etheridge declared:  “They will have to come to me to re-open the factory “.

They did. It was against this background of absolute power that Mr Robinson, the burly six-foot son of a Black Country family of chain-makers, began a long association with Mr Etheridge. It is widely thought that the older man’s proudly declared membership of the Communist Party led to Robinson joining when he was 21.

Since then he has played a big role in the party’s industrial policy-making, and fought four general elections as the communist candidate for the Northfield constituency that includes Longbridge. In the last few years he has seldom been out of the public eye. As chairman of the unofficial BL combined shop stewards’ committee, he has proved to be as much a thorn in the side of the official trade union movement as a constant critic of management. But unlike Mr Etheridge, he seems to have allowed a gap to open up between his shop stewards’ body and the man on the shop floor. Indeed this point was made yesterday, by Mr Etheridge, now 70.

He said: “I learned early on in my trade union life that you are only as strong as the men you collectively represent. Take them with you and you can conquer the world. Leave them behind, and you are out on a limb. ”

It seems to me that Derek and the others have got themselves so wrapped up in all the committees they sit on that they may have lost touch with the shop floor.

“Even so, I shall be surprised if the lads let this sacking pass without a real fight. Leonard Lord and George Harriman would have loved to get rid of me. They tried once or twice, but they were very half-hearted.”

Another lesson that Mr Robinson failed to learn from Mr Etheridge was the need to live side by side with management “without being in their pocket “. When Mr Etheridge retired Lord Stokes, then chairman of British Leyland, threw a dinner party for him and in return was presented with one of Mrs Etheridge’s famous home-made Christmas puddings.

Keith Adams
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