One of the most notorious trade unionists in recent memory has died aged 90.
Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson led a long-running battle against management at the British Leyland plant in Longbridge throughout the 1970s. He was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production.
Mr Robinson was a Communist works convenor at the Longbridge factory and was described by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a ‘notorious agitator’ in her memoirs. In 1975, British Leyland was nationalised by the Government and two years later Michael Edwardes was appointed as managing director and strived to find a solution to the ongoing disputes.
The type of industrial disruption so synonymous with Red Robbo spread across the nation and the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79 saw 29.2 million working days lost. Bodies were left unburied following a gravediggers’ strike and uncollected rubbish piled high in the frozen streets when dustbin workers walked out.
Famous images from the time show Mr Robinson addressing massed ranks of British Leyland workers at Cofton Park but the militant unionist was sacked in November 1979 for putting his name to a pamphlet that criticised the company’s management.
A ballot on a strike in sympathy of Mr Robinson and opposed to the dismissal was held but the motion was defeated by an overwhelming 14,000 votes to just 600, signalling a watershed moment in industrial relations in the region’s car industry.
He described his ‘Red Robbo’ tag as a badge of honour and was also national Chairman of the Communist Party of Britain for a period after British Leyland. He had previously stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive General Elections in Birmingham during the 1960s and ’70s.
MG Rover, as British Leyland had morphed into, closed its operations in Longbridge in 2005, leaving around 6000 people out of work. In his last newspaper interview at the time of the closure, Mr Robinson told the Birmingham Mail: ‘Edwardes wanted to reduce it to a small motor company and closed 13 factories but he never made a profit.
I grew up with the company, joining as a toolmaker at 14 in 1941 and loved my time, both as an ordinary worker and then convenor. But when Edwardes took over the writing was on the wall. Shutting plants down was not the way to go.’
Richard Burden, Labour MP for Northfield since 1992, said: ‘I am very sad to hear that Derek Robinson has died. He was part of a very different era in the UK motor industry. However, I would caution against over-simplistic or one-dimensional accounts of why there was so much strife at Longbridge and elsewhere in the 1970s.
‘Both management and unions of the time carry their share of responsibility for the problems that the industry faced back then and both management and unions have a very different approach in today’s motor industry.’
Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, said today: ‘Derek Robinson was a dedicated, life-long trade unionist who fought, as convenor, for the rights and future of the then British Leyland workforce at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham during the 1970s.
‘History will show that Derek was unfairly maligned by the media as he aimed to find solutions to British Leyland’s industrial disputes and turn around the car company.
‘He is quoted as saying “If we make Leyland successful, it will be a political victory. It will prove that ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry.”
‘These words are a suitable epithet for a stalwart of the trade union movement, whose passing we mourn.’
[Source: The Birmingham Post]
- Our Cars : Mike Humble’s Rover 75 Connoisseur SE 2.0 - 11 April 2021
- Essay : Vauxhall Vectra B – The case for the Defence - 16 January 2021
- Memories : Norwich, March, 1979 - 2 January 2021