One of the most militant trade union shop stewards of the 1970s has said that the decade’s notorious strikes are not to blame for Rover’s current plight. Derek Robinson, or “Red Robbo” as he was dubbed by the media, became synonymous with the strikes which crippled production at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham in the 1970s.
Speaking as an all-party group of MPs arrived in Birmingham to hear from unions, local councils and Rover suppliers on the impact of BMW’s sell-off Longbridge, Mr Robinson said that he could not be held responsible for the company’s failures.
BMW has confirmed that the group made a £1.5bn loss in 1999, one of the worst figures in its history. The company said that Rover alone was costing it £1m a day and restructuring the British car manufacturer was responsible for the losses.
BMW break-up of Rover has prompted Longbridge critics to point the finger at the strength of the unions three decades ago, saying the company never recovered from 1970s strife. Between 1978 and 1979, Mr Robinson, convenor at Longbridge, was behind 523 disputes at the then government-owned British Leyland plant, at the time Britain’s largest factory. He was eventually sacked amid intense press attacks.
But on Tuesday, he said he could not be held responsible for Rover’s current plight. Asked if the strike action of the 1970s had any impact on BMW’s decision to abandon Rover, he said: “It may have some, I would think it’s minimal.
“The management take the decision what models to produce, and if it goes cockeyed, which it unfortunately so often does, they’re looking round for scapegoats.” Mr Robinson said it was up to the government to take the lead on Longbridge’s future.
“Firstly, I should say the government should take Rover back into public ownership,” he said. “The second alternative is that the government takes a stakeholding in the company in partnership with a bona fide motor manufacturer. “The third alternative which should be explored is that the management and the workers at Longbridge, together with a stakeholding by the government, can begin to tackle the problems of modernisation.”
‘Badge of honour’
On his own notoriety during the 1970s, Mr Robinson said: “The pressures were immense but were it not for the ideological understanding that I had, I could very well have ended up with a nervous breakdown. “Strange as it may seen coming from a communist, but I have some sympathy with the Royals in the way they’re sometimes treated by the media.”
Mr Robinson described his Red Robbo nicknames as “a badge of honour”. “I can sleep sound at night because I never betrayed the workers I was elected to represent.”