Essay : The British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee – Part Two

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s own historian-in-residence, delivers a fantastic insight into BL’s industrial relations, and how they changed over the years… The Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee had some huge battles from 1975 under Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson – here’s how it all unfolded.

Derek Robinson at his dismissal from BL

Derek Robinson rose through the union ranks to the point where, in 1975, he followed Dick Etheridge as shop-floor leader of 18,000 manual workers at Longbridge. In April 1975 the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee gave a warning that they were prepared to resist compulsory redundancy in a rationalised company.

Derek Robinson said: ‘In a situation where the corporation try to enforce this in any, or all, of the plants it will be resisted with all the organisation at our command. We are preparing for any eventuality. If, after Ryder, steps are necessary to rationalize the corporation, it has got to be done in such a way that it does not lead to large scale redundancies. Should any of the plants within the corporation be faced with enforced redundancies, the other plants will give whatever assistance is required.’

The day before the Ryder Report was unveiled, Derek Robinson held a press conference in Birmingham. ‘We would agree with compulsory redundancy for one section at British Leyland, that is management, like Stokes and Barber. Sheer mismanagement is responsible for the mess we are in at British Leyland. We would wholeheartedly endorse the removal of British Leyland top management and their replacement by competent people,’ he said.

The effects of the Ryder Report

ryderreport_01
Sir Don Ryder

The Ryder Report (above) stated: ‘More productive use must also be made both of BL’s existing capital investment and the planned additional capital investment and this must mean more realistic manning levels and more mobility and inter-changeability of labour.’

It also said, ‘We consider that the multiplicity of bargaining units and renewal dates is an unsettling factor in BL’s industrial relations. We therefore recommend that discussions should be held with the trade unions about a gradual but substantial reduction in the number of collective bargaining units within BL and about a reduction in the renewal dates for wage settlements.’

Finally: ‘The contribution which we are seeking to the reduction of industrial disputes and the improvement of productivity can only be made in an atmosphere of joint problem solving by management and unions… We have therefore proposed a new structure of joint management/union councils, committees and conferences, in which BL’s Shop Stewards and particularly their senior Shop Stewards will have a major role. Trade union members will have to recognise the new responsibilities which the Shop Stewards are exercising.’

This was the period when the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee was at its most influential. It had always been an unofficial body, neither recognised by management or the official trade unions – but both had to deal with its individual members on a plant by plant basis. When Lord Stokes had tried to deal with the wave of strikes paralysing British Leyland in 1970, he spoke to the union general secretaries, not the Shop Stewards in his plants.

After the Ryder Report was unveiled Eddie McGarry, the  Co-Chairman of the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee and Convener at Triumph Coventry, said: ‘We would have preferred outright nationalisation but we are delighted that the only reference to cuts in the labour force talks of more realistic manning levels.

‘We cannot see any redundancies arising as a result of this because, given an injection of capital of this magnitude to invest in new equipment, we shall be able to gear ourselves to higher output ready for the expected improvement in world markets. I think you will find now that all the indecision about our future has been swept away, the trade unions will match up to whatever responsibility is laid at their door.’

‘We accept the implied philosophy that after three years the new British Leyland should be able to generate sufficient profits to provide for its own needs.’ – Derek Robinson

His Co-Chairman, Derek Robinson, Convener at Longbridge, said: ‘My reactions are rather mixed. Firstly, I am delighted that they are not proposing wholesale redundancies. I welcome the Government’s general approach to take over British Leyland in this way and inject a lot of money over the next three years. We accept the implied philosophy that after three years the new British Leyland should be able to generate sufficient profits to provide for its own needs.

‘The removal of the present top management, the reduction in central staff and the establishment of four separately run companies all looks very promising. But I am sure Shop Stewards will want to reserve judgment until we know who the new managers are. We told the Ryder Committee that we would like to see these men appointed jointly by the Government and the unions.

‘The proposed works committees fall well short of the degree of participation we asked Ryder for and I fear that they would not be strong enough to motivate workers.’

In the event, the BL Shop Stewards welcomed the state’s investment in British Leyland in order to bring its plant and machinery up to scratch and the joint participation machinery, but were unwilling to go along with the mobility of labour and redundancies, but this would not be an issue until 1979. The contraction of British Leyland’s bargaining units would be successfully pursued to fruition.

By the beginning of 1978, Eddie McGarry had been deposed as Co-Chairman of the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee, leaving Derek Robinson as its sole Chairman. He was also now Chairman of the union side of the Leyland Car Council.

While the Ryder plan had been implemented the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee had acted constructively. British Leyland Limited, as it now was, had a new Chairman in the form of Michael Edwardes. An early skirmish in January 1978 indicated where the battle lines were. There were rumours circulating in the media that Leyland Cars planned to axe 30,000 jobs. Shades of a decade before…

Robinson and Edwardes come to blows

Sir Michael Edwardes
Sir Michael Edwardes

Derek Robinson accused Michael Edwardes (above) of revealing the plan to certain journalists before any consultations with the Shop Stewards. Derek Robinson said the unions expected to be consulted fully on any new plan. There was specific machinery and they expected Michael Edwardes to use it.

‘If it means we have to go into conflict with him to exercise our rights, then we shall have to go into conflict with him’, he said. The unions had known the press briefings were taking place. He said the leaks were ‘quite deliberate on his part. It seems to me he is not only going to confront the unions with a fait accompli, but also the Government.’ British Leyland denied the story, but later admitted that some journalists had gone further than expected in reporting information given at private briefings.

On 13 January 1978, some 120 Shop Stewards met in Coventry. They opposed a management move to lose 12,000 jobs by natural wastage and voluntary redundancy. However, in return, they offered to get a commitment from the 132,000 workers to do everything in their power to cut out strikes. And they offered to produce a million cars by the end of the year, that was 150,000 more than the management’s target.

Derek Robinson said: ‘This is not a fairy story. It’s true we have no magic wand, but I am sure we can get these commitments from the shop floor. The unpalatable alternative is for the men to accept the management’s own plan and the redundancies that go with it… I am sure they will agree – if it means no redundancies and fewer strikes… Our aim is to safeguard jobs. We should not need to have instant strikes like instant coffee.’

‘Our aim is to safeguard jobs. We should not need to have instant strikes like instant coffee.’
– Derek Robinson

Derek Robinson was confident that, given the shop floor commitment, it would be possible to exceed production targets based on existing manning levels, ‘We don’t see the management’s plan as our salvation. It is based on a philosophy of despair and defeat.’

In the next week Shop Stewards would ask workers in all plants for the ‘utmost cooperation towards industrial peace,’ he added.

On 1 February 1978, at the Chesford Grange Hotel in Leamington Spa, British Leyland held a joint employee-management conference. After a rousing speech by Chairman Michael Edwardes, the 720 delegates were asked to vote on his plans for British Leyland.

Only five hands were raised against. One of those who voted against was David Buckle of the TGWU Oxford District, who believed Michael Edwardes was an autocrat who believed in authoritarianism not mutual consensus. One of those who publicly backed Michael Edwardes was Derek Robinson, the Longbridge Convener.

Fast forward a year and the situation had changed. British Leyland had ended piecework at a cost, and there was another price to be paid for the adoption of Measured Day Work. Productivity had slumped because employees were now paid by the hour and not by output. Even in the early 1970s when pieceworks strikes were occurring on an all too regular basis, British Leyland’s production had held up remarkably well. After its abolition production volume went into decline.

One Longbridge worker said: ‘There isn’t the pride in the job that there used to be under piecework. Then, when a man did a job, he knew that it was his job, and if he didn’t do it right he was called to the front to do it again, and the whole gang suffered. Whereas today, a bloke does a job, and he doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong. It gets left for a rectifier.’

Under piecework cash was the stick and carrot. Measured Day Work was supposed to be based on a more scientific approach. Time and motion men, later called industrial engineers, measured the number of men needed to man a track at a given speed. The onus to run the track passed from the self interest of the men to foremen and management. At Longbridge and other BL plants, there were a number of reasons why Measured Day Work did not work.

By 1980, in many areas production was down by a quarter on the piecework days. Under-investment in plant and machinery was one reason while the inability of management and supervisors to run and organise the tracks was another.

Ford of Britain had always run successfully on Measured Day Work, but the BL workers themselves put it down, plainly, to a lack of incentive to work.

‘There ‘s no incentive to work. Why not take as long a tea break as you can?’ – unnamed Longbridge worker

One man summed up the attitude that had developed: ‘There ‘s no incentive to work. Why not take as long a tea break as you can? If you had the choice of sitting down and being paid at the end of the week, or working and being paid the same amount, which would you do? It’s only human nature.’

Under piecework, shop floor bargaining was used to bid up the rate for the job, partly through shedding labour. However, by 1980, the same process of shop floor bargaining was used to bid up the numbers in each gang, in order to make the job easier. The men again saw this as human nature.

Another man, who had worked at Longbridge for 49 years, said: ‘Well, I would like to say that, for the people who have been here and have seen the place as it was, profitable, it was a pleasure to come here. You had a pride in your job, you knew that you were doing a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. But we have gradually seen it deteriorate. It’s a crying shame the way it’s been let run-down to the extent it is. The worst thing they ever did was to bring in MDW (Measured Day Work).’

To solve this serious productivity problem and reduce bargaining units, British Leyland had introduced a wage parity programme. Extra payments to establish the same rate for the same job in all 34 car factories were to be made in three stages, with up to £10 a week for some men. The first instalment, backdated to November 1978, was to have been paid in February 1979. This was to have been paid for through increased output.

Increasing the productivity

At Longbridge the management had wanted an output of 2550 Minis and 1300 Austin Allegros a week. However, there was a shortfall of 38,000 cars because of a wildcat strike at another BL plant at Drews Lane on the other side of Birmingham. This denied Longbridge vital components. That was the management’s claim. Some workers claimed the shortfall was only 100 cars.

Bill McLean, BL Cars Director of Employee Relations, explained: ‘Because of the difficult time the company is experiencing we cannot make the parity payments as promised. We have repeatedly said that parity payments have got to be self-financing. We don’t want to renege on the agreement, but we have been unable to find the money to pay.’

The BL Shop Stewards recommended a strike in all 32 car plants arising from the management’s failure, ‘to implement the nationally agreed minimum time rates,’ and amounts due under the company’s parity programme.

Strike action not universally popular

Derek Robinson addresses strikers at Cofton Park (Birmingham Mail)

However, support for a strike was virtually non-existent except at Longbridge, which jumped the gun. On 7 February 1979, at a mass meeting in Cofton Park, adjacent to the Longbridge plant, only 100 workers voted against a strike. Convenor Derek Robinson called for a walkout, ‘We want a positive vote, a unanimous vote, to bring pressure on the company in the only language they know, the language of force. We cannot rely on them. We cannot trust them.’

Austin Metro in LC8 form

After the vote at Longbridge mass pickets stopped contractors working on the costly new factory, which was to produce the LC8 supermini (above). More pickets surrounded four depots and prevented transporters taking stockpiled cars to showrooms.

‘Our members feel most incensed. We agreed to lose 7000 jobs under the parity deal and most of those jobs have gone. We were never given any production targets to meet by the company, they said we just had to lose the jobs and achieve a general improvement in production and the money was ours.

‘It is a tragedy we have had to strike and the only reason we have is that the company has reneged,’ Derek Robinson said. But even the traditionally militant Cowley refused to strike and the 19,000 workers at Longbridge soon found themselves out on a limb. However, the Longbridge strikers stood firm and refused to accept defeat.

Pickets were reported to have thrown up a barbed wire barricade to prevent construction workers reaching the LC8 supermini factory then nearing completion. Derek Robinson was  uncompromising: ‘The barricades and the pickets will remain around the clock until the management pays up.’

The end of an era – and a new one begins

On 14 February 1979 the Longbridge strike fizzled out – even Derek Robinson had to bow to the inevitable isolation. Conditions had changed, he said, as he urged his men to return. He warned: ‘We can continue in isolation and it will be inevitable that we will slowly sink to destruction. We have had a magnificent strike and we don’t want it to end in utter defeat.’

Only 500 hard-core militants voted against the peace move. They shouted for Derek Robinson’s resignation and cried: ‘You’ve sold us down the river, Robinson, you’ll never lead us out on strike again.’

Derek Robinson said after the meeting: ‘It is only a tenuous peace. By May every other plant will feel the same as us.’

‘You’ve sold us down the river, Robinson,’ – a militant striker

Derek Robinson had made a serious misjudgement. The BL Shop Stewards’ Committee had often disagreed with management policy, had been obstructive in negotiations, but had never before as a body actively encouraged and organised unofficial nationwide strike action that harmed the company – except the strike was not nationwide. The BL plants were not prepared to come out in solidarity to support Longbridge.

The Longbridge strike came at the tail end of the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent,’ when various public sector workers extracted from the Callaghan Government inflation busting pay rises. Maybe Derek Robinson thought he could get the parity payments by striking? After all, BL was part of the public sector.

In March 1979, Derek Robinson was officially warned about his conduct. In September 1979, Sir Michael Edwardes announced the long-awaited rationalisation of BL. On top of the 18,000 jobs already lost, he forecast 25,000 to be axed in the next two years and 13 plants facing total or partial shutdown.

‘We must streamline parts and slim down the number of people we employ, including staff levels which have grown over the past 10 years out of proportion to the volume actually achieved. If ever there has been a company that has projected ‘jam tomorrow’ it has been this one. This time round we cannot afford to back losers in the hope that they will turn out to be winners.’

He said he would back those workforces that performed well and warned: ‘Any plants which are not modern or being modernised or perform badly will be phased out.’

The Robinson endgame begins

National union leaders publicly opposed the cutbacks. Derek Robinson said: ‘The unions should say enough is enough. And if that means workers striking to save their jobs, so be it. Thanks to the attitude of Leyland management, workers participation is as dead as a dodo.’

In October 1979 250 BL Shop Stewards rejected the Edwardes plan, but BL decided to circumvent them and the national union leadership by holding a ballot of the workforce. On 1 November 1979 the result was announced.

  • FOR 106,062
  • AGAINST 15,541

About 80 per cent of the 151,557 workers voted. Those who backed the Shop Stewards and voted NO numbered less than 10 per cent of the entire workforce. Many who voted YES would lose their jobs when the plan took effect.

BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes declared: ‘We have proved that pockets of extreme, activist militancy do not properly reflect the views of the mass of our workers. The Shop Stewards regrettably failed to represent their members. I hope they will think very hard about how to find ways of expressing their members views more accurately in future.’

He reminded the Shop Stewards that they had voted 99:1 against his plan while the workers had voted by almost 9-1 in favour. Sir Michael went on: ‘I applaud the courage of everyone of those who voted in favour.’

Then he warned: ‘There are people who are employed by BL and paid by us who do not like the tough conditions we face. I say here publicly that if any manager, Shop Steward or employee does not like the heat of the kitchen, now is the time to get out. Anyone not prepared to work for the good of the company is much better out of it than in it.’

Edwardes appeals for wider support

Sir Michael urged the British public to back BL to the hilt: ‘I appeal to them to buy the cars and trucks that will be flowing off our production lines in ever increasing numbers, now that we have this ballot behind us.’

Despite the ballot, many in the labour movement seemed reluctant to accept the result. TGWU National Secretary Grenville Hawley said: ‘The union’s policy still stands:’

David Buckle, District Secretary of the TGWU at Cowley, said: ‘The blackmail campaign by British Leyland and the media made the ballot result inevitable.’

On 9 November 1979, the BL Shop Stewards launched a last ditch campaign against Sir Michael Edwardes plan for 25,000 redundancies. Although the work force voted by a 9:1 majority in favour of the plant closure economies, the Shop Stewards were not prepared to accept the decision.

Meeting in Birmingham, the Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee launched a booklet which claimed to put forward an alternative to the redundancies at 13 factories. They hoped to sell 25,000 copies to shop floor workers. The 16 page booklet accused BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes of presiding over a ‘continued decline’ at BL. The Shop Stewards’ Chairman, Derek Robinson, hoped the booklet would change the workers’ minds.

The booklet, entitled A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan said: ‘All our efforts and resources must be mobilised to change the policy of closures and contraction. 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 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, 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.’

Ray Horrocks predicts Robinson sacking

Ray HorrocksRay Horrocks

Copies of the ‘A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan‘ booklet soon reached BL management. Head of BL Cars, Ray Horrocks (above), said: ‘I went up to Longbridge and Harold Musgrove, who was then the Manufacturing Director, and I met Derek Robinson and Jack Adams, who was secretary of the committee. They came into the office and I said to Derek, ‘If you create such a confrontation you are going to lose.’ After he’d gone, I said to Harold, ‘If he publicly rails against the plan, that’s an act of gross misconduct.’

Back in London that evening I said to Michael, ‘You will probably have to fire Robinson,’ and he thought for a moment, as anyone would, and then said, ‘Yes, you’re right.’

On 19 November, British Leyland dismissed Derek Robinson, the leader of the unofficial BL Shop Stewards Committee. Derek Robinson was called into the office of Longbridge Plant Director Stan Mullett, in the presence of the AUEW Birmingham West District Secretary, Bert Benson, and asked to withdraw his name from the controversial pamphlet.

Robinson refused and was dismissed. Also disciplined were Len Brindle, Vice-Chairman and AUEW Convener at Leyland Vehicles, Jack Adams, the combined Secretary and Chairman of the Longbridge Shop Stewards Committee, and Mick Clarke, the combined Treasurer and a Shop Steward at Rover Solihull.

What is official? And what isn’t

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 recognised 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.’

‘No sane union man will stand by and do nothing over the sacking of Mr Robinson.’ – Eddie McGarry

Picketing began immediately at the Longbridge plant. Thousands on night shift were called out. One of the pickets said: ‘The management won’t get away with this.’

Eddie McGarry, Senior Convener at Triumph, Canley said: ‘Leyland have landed themselves in a whole lot of trouble. No sane union man will stand by and do nothing over the sacking of Mr Robinson.’

Dick Etheridge, the previous head of the British Leyland Shop Stewards, 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.’

30,000 workers go on strike

By the next day 30,000 BL workers were on strike and Derek Robinson’s union, the AUEW, called for his re-instatement and the withdrawal of the disciplinary notices on the other Shop Stewards. Derek Robinson said: ‘I shall never be intimidated by the likes of Edwardes, nor will I be frightened off by the sack. This is one dispute I intend to win. There will be no return to work at Longbridge until I am unconditionally reinstated.’

He did not believe he had been singled out by the company because of his political views. ‘It is no secret I am a Communist. Everyone knows it, including the company. I have never hid it.’

The AUEW did its utmost to persuade BL to change its mind. Derek Robinson and his colleagues on the executive of the Shop Stewards Committee met in Birmingham on 21 November to discuss developments. At a press conference afterwards, he said: ‘My dismissal is an attack upon the whole trade union movement and that is why we are now calling upon the whole movement to demonstrate.’

Labour MPs call for Robinson reinstatement

The same day 100 Labour MPs tabled a Commons motion demanding that Derek Robinson was re-instated. To some people the issue was straight-forward. Derek Robinson had been victimised for disagreeing with the management and, although he had advocated action to stop the rationalisation of BL, he had not actually practiced what he preached.

By 23 November, nearly 40,000 workers were on strike or laid off and only Jaguar production continued with difficulty. The AUEW and TGWU were toying with the idea of declaring the strike official.

The moderate President of the AUEW, Terry Duffy, admitted that he did not agree with Derek Robinson, but felt his dismissal was unfair. Moss Evans of the TGWU said that the views expressed in the pamphlet which Derek Robinson and his three colleagues had signed, attacking Sir Michael Edwardes’ plan for the future of the company, were ‘not inconsistent with TGWU policy’ or with Lord Ryder’s now abandoned plan for the future of the company.

The TGWU’s literature on Sir Michael’s plan had been ‘in favour of expansion of the company and not for contraction.’

So, why had BL been rescued at all?

Margaret Thatcher (1)

What had been the point of the state saving British Leyland in 1975? To safeguard a national asset, to retain the engineering and design skills for future generations or to make a profit? And did you save a company by closing great chunks of it down?

These were the conundrums created by the Edwardes plan. The new Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher (above) saw British Leyland as a drain on taxpayers’ cash, and the trade unions saw it as a national asset that gave employment, both direct and indirect, to tens of thousands of people. There was a lot of validity in both arguments…

‘This is not an attack on unionism.’ – Harold Musgrove

Austin Morris Managing Director Harold Musgrove said of Derek Robinson: ‘There’s no possibility of him coming back. This is not an attack on trade unionism. We could not continue with the situation where individuals are continuing disruption, which could risk the livelihood of every single member of the workforce.

‘Mr Robinson has not been disciplined as a result of his position at Longbridge, but as a result of his activities as Chairman of an unofficial body which we have been advised by the unions not to recognise. After our 7:1 vote in favour of the Edwardes plan no one can claim that Mr Robinson’s views were representative of the feelings on the shop floor.’

Harold Musgrove

When Harold Musgrove (right) had taken over in the summer, he decided to take workers into his confidence by showing them top secret plans of new cars.

‘There was an emotional and enthusiastic response,’ he said, but Derek Robinson did not turn up at any of the 19 presentations. On 26 November 3000 trade unionists marched through Birmingham.

Joining them was Leslie Huckfield, the Labour MP for Nuneaton, and a former Under Secretary of State for Industry.

On 27 November, the TGWU declared the strike official and the AUEW was expected to do the same. But before they declared their hand the AUEW Executive met with senior BL management in London. According to his memoirs, Sir Michael Edwardes told the AUEW:

‘We’ve fired a man, who if he had been a manager, would have gone quietly and there would have been no influence or pressure for his reinstatement. This man is trying to wreck the company; so he goes just like anyone else would in the same situation. He cannot be protected merely because he is well known.

‘His objectives are synonymous with closing the company, for even if the board were to support his wild idea of funding the company at the one million vehicle level the Government would say ‘enough is enough’, and closure would be inevitable.

‘If against that background, the men respond to your all-out strike plea, as some already have to the TGWU initiative – that is, if all the men, or a large part of them, are out on Tuesday, we will write to tell them that they have in effect dismissed themselves. They will have broken their contracts of employment. We will never engage them again.’ Edwardes’ bluff worked.

No possibility of a Robinson return

The AUEW came up with the idea of a Committee of Inquiry into the whole affair and, in the meantime, ordered a return to work. Terry Duffy of the AUEW persuaded Moss Evans of the TGWU to go along with the deal, but it appears Evans was not happy about it.

This came three hours after the TGWU had declared the strike official. John Barker, the Chairman of the Strike Committee, set up by the TGWU Regional Committee, said: ‘We can only deplore the action (the AUEW decision). It has come as a complete bombshell. It was like the carpet being swept from under our feet.

‘We were elated when we heard the news that our general secretary had made the dispute official. We could have closed Leyland immediately. Then Moss Evans ‘phoned. He was very upset with what had happened. We view the action taken by the engineering union with disgust.’

Terry Duffy, President of the AUEW, was jeered by a small group of pickets as he was ushered by police from the hotel where he had met BL management. There were cries of ‘Scab’ and ‘sell out’ as Terry Duffy left. He said: ‘If we find that Mr Robinson was unfairly dismissed we will launch an official dispute. In the meantime, I hope there is a full return to work… While Sir Michael is still insistent that Mr Robinson has not been reinstated, we are still insistent that he has not been dismissed. We have obtained a formula that will enable us to get the show back on the road.’

The drift back to work had begun. Derek Robinson said: ‘I am bitterly disappointed at my executive refusing to defend basic union rights.’ He thought the AUEW move ‘will be seen by many trade union members as abdicating responsibility.’

‘Derek has been badly let down by his union.’ – Jack Adams

Jack Adams, one of his fellow Shop Stewards at Longbridge and disciplined at the same time, said: ‘Derek has been badly let down by his own union.’

The events of the previous few days had created a rift between the AUEW and the TGWU. Brian Mathers, Secretary of the TGWU’s Midland Region, told a press conference: ‘We are very angry. We have been stabbed in the back and presented with a fait accompli.’

In December 1979, Derek Robinson told a students’ conference what would happen if he was not reinstated: ‘We intend Longbridge to come to a stop. Nothing will move in or out of any Leyland plant. We will seal the ports so that no Leyland product will leave the country. This will continue until the unconditional reinstatement of myself, and the unconditional withdrawal of disciplinary measures against my colleagues…

‘The decision to give Sir Michael Edwardes authority to sack me has come from Sir Keith Joseph. I hopes the students will give us physical assistance on the picket lines. Of course, I’m going to get my job back.’

On the Edwardes plan to streamline British Leyland, he said: ‘It is being done in an organised manner to reach a stage where it is not economically viable to continue. Then it will become politically acceptable to shut us down.’

Derek Robinson received a one-and-a half minute standing ovation from 1000 delegates. While the three-man AUEW inquiry team beavered away, at the end of January 1980 BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes re-iterated his refusal to reinstate Derek Robinson.

523 disputes at BL under Robinson

Speaking on BBC Television, he claimed that there had been 523 disputes and 62,000 cars lost in the 33 months Derek Robinson had held office, a claim that would be freely banded about the media. Whether it stood up to close scrutiny was another matter for, if it was true, then there had been a lot of disputes that had escaped the attention of the media that had British Leyland under the microscope.

Derek Robinson responded to Sir Michael Edwardes claims: ‘He talks as though someone else was Chairman while plant after plant has been closed down and home markets are handed over to importers. My record of commitment to British Leyland is second to none. I have solved more strikes in BL than Sir Michael Edwardes has provoked, and that is saying something. British Leyland’s industrial relations policy seems to be one of blackmail.

‘As for Sir Michael, he either sacks or intimidates people and in myself thinks that he has found a scapegoat for the company’s problems.’

On 6 February 1980, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers delivered its long-awaited report into the dismissal of Longbridge plant Convenor Derek Robinson. The report found that Derek Robinson should not have been dismissed by British Leyland in November 1979, but did criticise Mr Robinson for ‘serious failings and lack of responsibility in relation to his duties’ as Longbridge Convener.

However, the conclusion was that the AUEW should pursue Derek Robinson’s reinstatement, which was not what BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes wanted to hear. The report was exhaustive and detailed. On the subject of ‘A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan‘, the report commented that Derek Robinson, ‘had no right as an AUEW Convener to put his name to this booklet without the prior approval of his District Committee and thereafter of the Executive Council.’

This was effectively his most serious mistake. The report also said: ‘It is our considered view that Derek Robinson should not have been dismissed for the reason that he was warned on 12 March 1979, and we recommend we pursue his reinstatement. We must however comment as a committee on the serious failings and lack of responsibility shown by Derek Robinson in relating to his duties as our AUEW Convener at Longbridge.’

The upshot of all this was that the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers executive called for a strike of its 8000 members at Longbridge unless the company reinstated Derek Robinson. However, the union decided to isolate the strike call to Longbridge only, and put the decision to activate the strike or not with the Birmingham West District Committee of the AUEW.

The union agreed to a request from Sir Michael Edwardes, the BL Chairman, for 36 hours to consider the 13-page report of the internal union inquiry. The Managing Director of BL Cars, Ray Horrocks, soon responded to the AUEW.

In a letter he wrote:

‘We have reached two main conclusions on the Report:

  1. The inquiry has brought to light no new facts.
  2. The report deals almost exclusively with the procedures that were applied in the disciplining of Mr Robinson. We have searched in vain for any views as to whether the company was justified by the facts of the case in taking disciplinary action.

‘I think it is common ground that if BL Cars is to survive (and we are determined it will) management and employees must work constructively together. It is our view that Mr Robinson’s conduct over the past two years has proved convincingly that he is not prepared to work constructively either with the company or, indeed, with your union.

‘As evidence of that statement, I would remind you of the following:

  1. He campaigned (and continues to campaign) against the Recovery Plan, this despite a 7:1 employee vote in its favour.
  2. Your own inquiry team reported on the way in which Mr Robinson has conducted himself as a AUEW Convener. (Mr Robinson’s statements yesterday to the media that the report ‘completely exonerated’ him were typical of his tendency to mislead and misrepresent.)
  3. The miserable record of disputes and lost time at Longbridge since Mr Robinson became convener. This included 523 internal disputes in some three years at a cost to production of 113,000 engines and 62,000 cars. These figures exclude the CSEU/EEF dispute and all other external issues.

‘Given the problems that BL Cars have to overcome and the responsibility we owe to hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the company for their livelihood, we are not prepared to comply with the demand of your union that Mr Robinson be reinstated. I have to admit to a feeling of surprise that, given the whole series of public statements made by Mr Robinson over recent months, he would wish to be employed by the company.

‘I have to admit to a feeling of surprise that, given the whole series of public statements made by Mr Robinson over recent months, he would wish to be employed by the company.’ – Ray Horrocks

‘Finally, I would like to comment on the suggestions made on television last night that Mr Robinson should be re-engaged as an employee on the basis that he would de-barred from holding union office. Mr Robinson has apparently rejected that suggestion himself. I have to say to you that, based on his track record at this time, he is a person who is not suitable for re-employment by the company.

‘I urge upon you and your colleagues to consider once more the appalling consequences that could flow from your decision to back official strike action in support of Mr Robinson’s reinstatement. In addition to the 20,000 employees at Longbridge upwards of 30,000 employees elsewhere in BL Cars would need to be laid off almost immediately.

‘If you are determined to go ahead, then we press you to do so only when you are certain that the majority of your members at Longbridge are prepared to back the strike. This can only be ascertained by a properly conducted ballot, as indeed is your practice in electing your own union officers.’

Delayed response – a climactic end

The Birmingham West District Committee of the AUEW dithered in its decision to activate the strike, perhaps sensing that the mood at Longbridge was changing, finally calling for the strike on 18 February, 12 days after the AUEW report into the dismissal of Derek Robinson was unveiled.

The surprise in the decision was that the final word on a strike would not rest solely with members of Derek Robinson’s union, the AUEW. The mass meeting would be open to members of all unions employed at Longbridge.

The climax of the Robinson affair came on 20 February 1980. By now Derek Robinson had been branded as ‘Red Robbo’ by the media. Whether anyone at Longbridge prior to 1979 had actually called him this nickname is open to question. Was it a media invention?

In a bitterly cold Cofton Park, later scene of the 2009 International Mini Meeting, 12,000 Longbridge workers of all trade unions heard various speakers before deciding the fate of former plant Convener Derek Robinson. Before the meeting began, Derek Robinson was highly confident the workforce would vote to strike in order to get him reinstated.

The first speaker, Bert Benson, Secretary of the AUEW’s Birmingham West District Committee, which recommended strike action, was subjected to incessant booing. The same noisy disapproval greeted the other speakers: John Barker, the Transport and General Workers’ Union full-time official responsible for Longbridge, Bill Jordan, Midland divisional organiser of the AUEW and Jack Adams, Chairman of the Longbridge joint Stewards’ Committee. Finally, Derek Robinson moved to the microphone.

He was greeted with a shower of missiles, which included large rubber washers and a few smaller metal ones. They were thrown high into the air and landed harmlessly around him.

When the voting was taken less than 1000 of the estimated 12,000 to 14,000 present put their hands up for a strike. The counter-vote was estimated by most observers to be a majority of at least 10:1.

As he climbed from the back of a lorry serving as the platform for speakers Derek Robinson blamed the media for conducting a sustained campaign against him. Surrounded by a few dozen grim-faced supporters who jostled reporters, he said: ‘Our members have made the wrong decision here today. They will live to regret it for the rest of their lives. In the fullness of time they might even seek to canonise me as a saint… I wasn’t expecting this… I have not thought about what I should do in the event of a rejection.’

With that Sir Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks had managed to decapitate the BL Combined Trade Union Committee, or so it seemed. In the Thatcher era, the sacking of Derek Robinson became a minor cause celebre.

Left-wing Labour MP Tom Litterick wrote: ‘There was little doubt in the minds of those attending Sunday’s meeting that, if Edwardes wins, the events at Leyland will be a curtain-raiser for the most determined and ferocious attack on the trade unions yet seen, with the principal object being the destruction of all the shopfloor organisations throughout the country, thus leaving every worker at the mercy of the employers and the headquarters bureaucrats of the trade unions.’

BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes heard the news as he was about to give a speech to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce at the Top Rank Suite in the city.

On 3 March 1980, Jack Adams of the TGWU became the Longbridge Convener in place of Derek Robinson. Aged 45, another Communist, he was a skilled upholsterer.

Like Derek Robinson, he was disciplined by BL for leading a campaign of disruption against Sir Michael Edwardes’ recovery plan. However, while Derek Robinson was dismissed, Jack Adams was only given a warning that a repetition could lead to dismissal.

The aftermath – and legacy

After his election Jack Adams, who was married with three children and lived at Kidderminster, said he did not feel inhibited by the management’s warning. In his new role as Convener he was soon involved as part of the works committee in trying to resolve a strike over new sound deadening material for the Mini which halted production.

Around 30 trim shop workers claimed the material showered with them with sharp particles, which irritated their skin and in some instances caused a rash. The dispute was resolved when the management offered to change the material and instigate further safety checks.

On 13 August 1980 Jack Adams ascended to the role of BL Combined Shop Stewards Committee Chairman.

The BL Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee remained active in campaigning and co-ordinating industrial action in the BL pay disputes of 1980, 1981 and 1984, but the management negotiated with full-time national union officials and not the BL Shop Stewards. Future disputes, like the ‘washing up’ strike at Cowley in 1983, were confined to individual plants and did not involve the BL Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee.

Pay parity and reduced bargaining units across BL had made the Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee redundant. It was a product of piecework, something the combine had fought hard to retain, but by the time Dick Etheridge died in March 1985, the world had moved on.

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Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

12 Comments

  1. In the end Red Robbo was defeated by the men he was supposed to protect. Maybe they were tired of strikes, militants who saw them as pawns in a game to destroy capitalism and simply just wanted to get on with their jobs and not be dragged out on strike. Also by 1980 Birmingham was entering a severe economic downturn, which would see huge lay offs at Longbridge, and the workers were more fearful for their jobs than they would have been in the seventies.
    Out of interest, Robinson addressing left wing students, most of whom were from middle class backgrounds, and the photo of him next to the Socialist Worker banner suggests he had become detached from the interests of his workforce.

  2. After 1980, when Red Robbo and his supporters were defeated, Longbridge became relatively peaceful and productivity improved. Perhaps with half of the factory laid off in 1980 and a new government wanting British Leyland to pay its way, workers and unions realised that endless strikes and militancy could result in the closure of British Leyland. As a whole, the only major disputes to occur after 1980 was the five week strike over working conditions at Cowley in 1983 and a 16 day pay strike at Longbridge in 1984.

  3. What an excellent piece of writing.

    Just shows how times have changed where there seems to be much more of a spirit of co-operation between unions and management in the car industry and positive dialogue is more the norm than the exception.

    When was the last significant car strike in the UK? Must be quite a while ago.

  4. I lived in Birmingham in 1969/70 working as a student at Lucas Group Research, and then in 1971, after university, joined BR where I was to work for the next 40 years. I finally left Birmingham in 1984. So I had a grandstand seat to view the British Leyland debacle. Almost all my friends worked in the motor industry, like Lucas and Girling. Birmingham (an Coventry), WAS the motor industry in those days !!

    Looking back on it, it is clear the 70s was a decade of complete and utter madness in Great Britain, where the unions used to lord it around Parliament and Whitehall like a team of inspectors. Anybody remember the notorious duo of Jones and Scanlon ? These two between them made this country a laughing stock, plus other players like Robinson, and many other agitators. One did wonder whether anybody in the motor idustry ever did an honest day’s work. At the same time as the British Leyland saga was going on, we had the death of the British motorcyle industry. Now this really WAS a result of management incompetency and ignorance.

    Another little story to indicate the nature of those times….
    My next door neighbour worked for Rolls-Royce Cars here in Crewe in the 70s, and as we all know, the bodyshells were made at Cowley. Every shell was checked on arrival, and at some point, it was found that about 1/3rd of the spot-welds were missing !! He was instructed to go to Cowley to put things right. He saw the plant manager and confronted him with the evidence of appalling quality, only to be told “Yes, I accept you are right, but I daren’t do anything about it, because the men will all go out on strike and I could lose my job”. As there was no alternative, RR had to rectify this appalling bad quality themselves !

    • Just for information really….all of our body assembly drawings at PSF used to specify more spotwelds than were strictly required. This was in the knowledge that the operators would almost always miss some. This was considered entirely normal. The simple reason being the difficulty of actually accurately positioning the weld-guns.

  5. @ Andrew P, the last strike I can remember was a two week strike at Ford over pay 28 years ago. Austin Rover’s last significant strike was a 16 day strike in 1984 over pay, which I think mostly affected Longbridge. By the mid eighties, workers were more concerned about job security and trying to make a decent product and by the Graham Day era Rover workers were encouraged to take a pride in what they did .

  6. Sir Michael Edwardes came back from his first meeting at the CCMC – a pan-Euopean equivalent to the UK’s SMMT somewhat bemused. He reported that on his arrival at the meeting, he had been greeted by a senior German car company executive ” Ah Sir Michael, from Britain where you compete against yourselves !”

    Says it all really…

  7. Excellent essay.

    One point, the Chesford Grange Hotel is not in Leamington Spa but in Warwickshire and I would say nearer Warwick and Kenilworth than Leamington.

  8. @ Slipalong Travaskis, the last gasp of the long running Longbridge saga. Cruel thing is in the early nineties it was one of the most productive car factories in Europe and was making cars people wanted to buy, and the bad old days of Red Robbo and uncertainty seemed gone forever. Yet we all know what happened after 1994, like a re run of the seventies without the strikes, and the SAIC takeover was a bad joke.

    How I hoped Longbridge could re emerge, being as successful as the other Asian owned factories in Britain. It would have been nice to see Longbridge employing several thousand workers making decent products with the MG badge that people wanted to buy. Instead we got a handful of workers putting together cars from a Chinese kit that hardly anyone wanted to buy or knew about.

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