Archive : The shop stewards’ group behind Mr Robinson

An announcement is expected today on the inquiry by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers into the dismissal of Mr Derek Robinson by British Leyland.
CLIFFORD WEBB discusses the history of the BL Combined Trade Union Committee, of which Mr Robinson is still chairman, and whose attitude will be an important element in the overall reaction to the AUEW’s findings.

BL Combined Shop Stewards Committee prefers to be called BL Combined Trade Union Committee these days, although all its members are shop stewards. It is neither part of, nor recognized by any trade union and is frequently a thorn in the side of full time officials. To date most industrial reporters have chosen to stick to the old title because it conveys a truer picture of this controversial body. The activities of the committee have been reported with varying prominence for the past 15 years, although little is known about its background work. Even when its four senior officers were hauled before management disciplinary hearings in November and its chairman, Mr Derek Robinson, dismissed for urging a disruptive shop floor campaign against the Edwardes recovery plan, the group managed to avoid the spotlight.

It came into being in the mid 1960s when the veteran Communist convener at Longbridge, Mr Dick Etheridge, began to call meetings of conveners from other plants. The intention was to swap details of piecework rates, wage drift and possible moves to change the use of factories. At that time it did not have an obvious political platform. It met not more than half a dozen times a year and preferred to operate quietly but with the creation of British Leyland in 1968 came major changes in its formation and activities. The new arrivals, Triumph-Rover, Jaguar and Leyland Motors (truck and bus), had not had combines of their own and their inclusion gave Mr Etheridge a much more powerful bargaining machine. About that time, Mr Len Brindle, another Communist Party member, had become convener at Leyland trucks and had an excellent power base. Leyland employees were poorly paid compared with the group’s car workers.

By joining the combine Mr Brindle knew he would gain access to detailed information on wages and the support of vastly experienced negotiators such as Mr Etheridge. It was no surprise when he brought Leyland into the combine. In the early 1970s the combine led a campaign against the replacement of piecework by measured daywork. Prolonged piecework negotiations had become the most effective power base for the shop stewards’ movement throughout British Leyland, but it made modifications in product difficult and effective management impossible. In the event, the combine lost the battle, but made BL pay a heavy price in increased wages BL got into serious financial difficulties in December 1974.

The Labour Government gave financial help and appointed an inquiry team under the chairmanship of Sir Don, later Lord Ryder. Meanwhile Mr Etheridge had retired and had been replaced by Mr Derek Robinson as Longbridge convener and chairman of the combine.
A Communist Party member of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, Mr Robinson bad been carefully groomed by Mr Etheridge. He quickly gained in stature when the Ryder team began consultations with a group of trade unionists who included himself and Mr Brindle. Whether by choice or coincidence, BL manual workers were represented in these talks by officers of a totally unofficial body. While the Ryder plan, with its over optimistic targets for production and employment, was still running, Mr Robinson and the combine adopted a constructive role.

But following the 1977 reorganization, which led to the appointment of Sir (then Mr) Michael Edwardes as chairman, determined to cut out the “fat”, to set more realistic targets and to tackle industrial relations bottlenecks, the unions withdrew from participation and the combine began an aggressive “blocking” campaign. Mr Robinson ‘and his colleagues resisted almost every change proposed by management and nailed its colours firmly to the mast of full union involvement in setting work standards and manning levels.

At the same time the combine became more political in its propaganda: Three of its four officials, Mr Robinson, Mr Brindle (vice-chairman) and Mr Jack Adams (secretary) are Communist Party members. Those three signed the now famous green pamphlet issued after last October’s seven-to-one ballot vote by BL car workers supporting the Edwardes recoverv plan. The pamphlet urged work-ins and disruption to prevent closures and the transference of products between factories, and was the direct cause of the disciplinary action which resulted in Mr Robinson’s dismissal.

Keith Adams

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