Derek Robinson, 90, was a prominent union leader during the peak of the 1970s industrial disputes between the labour and Conservative governments. He died at the age of 90. Red Robbo was his name as he was the convener of Britain’s largest manufacturing complex, the Longbridge plant of British Leyland motors. He was a popular headline writer’s dream to have this catchy nickname. It allowed him to be seen as the symbol for the conflicts that brought the industry to its knees. He was blamed by management for 523 plant disputes in 1978-1979.
In 1979, workers went on strike after his contested dismissal at BL by Sir Michael Edwardes (the new broom). It was a declaration that workers intended to change the postwar pattern, which saw large-scale union organizations in large plants. This introspective management style was replaced by more assertive international management. Robinson’s union was also discussing no-strike agreements to encourage Japanese companies to set up shop in the UK a few years later.
Robinson was born in Cradley Heath in Staffordshire. His family had been involved in chainmaking and he became a keen reader through the encouragement of his mother. He began his apprenticeship as an engineer at Longbridge, which he called “the Austin” because of its old name. At 14, he was qualified as a toolmaker. There were also two brothers. He was a shop steward, and he joined the Communist party in Great Britain in 1951 during the Korean War. He remained a member of the Communist party until being expelled in 1990.
Robinson voted for the party line and supported nationalization of the industry. He also worked with management to replace the Midlands’ old piecework system. Workers were paid according to the amount of work they did. However, there was a lot of variation in rates so every new model or component had to be negotiated. Strikes and industrial disputes followed. This took up hours of union and management time, and each plant could experience two to three stoppages per day.
The Trotskyists, who were active at Leyland plants and aimed to limit union intervention, criticized Robinson’s support of change. He declared his support for the company’s success, saying: “If Leyland succeeds, it will be an electoral victory.” It will show that ordinary workers have the intelligence and determination necessary to run an industry.”
On the national stage, he opposed the Social Contract between the Labour government and the TUC. This social contract attempted to curb runaway inflation by allowing wage restrictions to be exchanged for new employment legislation. A communist meeting in London heard him say that he was ready to lead a “mighty orchestration” of workers to destroy it.