Born in 1927, Robinson joined the AEU as an apprentice at the Longbridge car plant in Northfield on the outskirts of Birmingham when he started work there during the height of the Second World War. The Communist Party then dominated the factory’s workforce, with many hundred Daily Workers being sold every day.
By the late 1940s, certainly, Derek was a shop steward and a member of the Communist Party, in which he has remained for the rest of his life. Only shortly after he came out of his apprenticeship, he was elected a shop steward. By the late 1950s, he was a member of the works committee, the powerful shop stewards body that dominated the plant.
Derek Robinson followed Dick Etheridge as works convenor around 1973. With a series of mergers of many car companies, Derek became the main spokesperson for the British Leyland (BL) combine committee for much of the 1970s, uniting some forty different plants around the country.
In 1975, BL was taken into public ownership by the then Labour Government. In 1977 a new managing director, Sir Michael Edwardes, was appointed. Michael Edwardes took over as Chairman of British Leyland in October 1977. Within a matter of 15 months over 18,000 jobs had disappeared and plants closed. Fifty thousand vehicles less than the previous year were produced and the so-called recovery envisaged another 25,000 job losses and 13 factories totally or partially closed.
A plan by the unions to fight for a continuation of mass volume car manufacturing began to be worked out. But Robinson was sacked by BL in November 1979 for putting his name to a pamphlet, issued by the Leyland Combine Committee regarding the so-called recovery plan of British Leylandto close factories and cut car capacity.
Drawing on the experience of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, sit-ins and occupations would be considered, if necessary, to prevent closures. Michael Edwardes gave Trade and Industry Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, political ammunition by threatening to wind up the company, leaving Britainwith no car industry of its own if the government didn’t provide £500 million to cover redundancy payments for at least 25,000 and possibly 50,000 jobs out of a workforce of 165,000.
On November 19th 1979, Derek Robinson was invited to meet the Longbridge Plant director, in the presence of the AEU District Secretary. He was asked to withdraw his name from the combine pamphlet and, specifically Clause 13, the offending section on mass action. On declining, Derek was promptly dismissed from his employment.
Three other shop stewards, including another Communist, Jack Adams, later a Deputy General Secretary of the T&G, were also given a formal written warning of dismissal if their future conduct warranted it. The pamphlet had four names as authors but only Jack Adams’ address, as Secretary of the Combine, was prominent and it was he who had been primarily responsible for coordinating the text of the pamphlet.
But Edwardes carefully avoided sacking a T&G member, rightly guessing that that union would move heaven and earth to defend its leading stewards. Robinson’s union, the AEU, was by now in the grip of a thoroughly hostile right wing leadership that was unsympathetic to his situation. Even so, the whole of Longbridge plant immediately stopped work in defence of Robinson, although it was evident that T&G members were heavily to the fore. .
The wider movement of the two unions was by now being turned to. There was a unanimous decision of the Birmingham East District Committee to call upon the Executive Committee of the AUEW to declare an official strike. The LeylandCombine Committee was due to hold its regular meeting the following morning in the T&G office in Broad Street, Birmingham.
Coincidentally, Moss Evans, the TGWU General Secretary, was on a private visit to Birmingham that Thursday. All of British Leyland’s T&G shop stewards were summoned to attend a meeting with the General Secretary. Then the T&G’s national Finance & General Purposes Committee met on the Friday morning and declared a strike official, if the AUEW would also do so. Official strike posters were printed for the picket line on the Monday and strike headquarters were set up near the factory.
Derek phoned Terry Duffy the AUEW President over the decision of the Birmingham East District Committee requesting the union’s Executive Committee to make the looming strike official. Duffy claimed support for this as well as the mass rally and demonstration.
Beyond all expectations of most, a successful national demonstration and rally was convened with only two working days grace for mobilisation. On Thursday morning a massive advert with full details appeared in the Morning Star; and there was front-page coverage giving an up-dated report, especially the decisions of the Combine meeting T&G pickets were in force outside the factory gate on the Monday morning and the strike had held solid. It had now been five days since Derek had been sacked. Although Birmingham’s Snow Hill, where marches then usually assembled, was packed and the Town Hall, which then held 4,000 people, was full to bursting, Terry Duffy and his official AUEW entourage were nowhere to be seen.
Pics: Below: the demonstration against the sacking of Derek Robinson.; right the massive rally in a packed Birmingham Town Hall.
Coaches were booked to lobby the EC on the Tuesday at Peckham Road, the AUEW headquarters in London. When they got there all the Press were waiting for the result of the EC meeting but it was not there. Edwardes had booked a room at a hotel to meet with the seven-man AUEW EC. The media got a whiff of the event and poured onto the hotel.
There were no serious negotiations and the leadership of the AUEW simply capitulated and reached for any kind of delaying tactic that Edwardes would provide them with, so as to undermine the strike. John Boyd, the AUEW General Secretary, put forward a formula that Edwardes grasped with two hands. The AUEW would set up a Committee of Enquiry, during which the Company would make weekly ex-gratia payments equivalent to Robinson’s normal wage but he wouldn’t be allowed in the factory.
This meant that Derek remained on the Leylandpayroll until the findings of the Enquiry were reached. Edwardes and his team would not countenance this, in case the Enquiry vindicated the sacked convenor. What was agreed upon was an ex-gratia payment that made up the difference between Derek’s unemployment benefit and his normal salary, but made it conditional this would end on the day the report was submitted.
The AUEW then obtained a face-saver that, if the Enquiry found that the dismissal was not justified, the union might be able to reconsider the question of an official strike. Edwardes accepted this only if the AUEW could get Longbridge back to work immediately. Duffy now told Evans of the T&G in a phone call to leave the whole matter to him.
It was clear that, once the strikers went back to work in an atmosphere of sell-out, they would never come out again. The Enquiry was set up under the Chairmanship of right-winger Gerry Russell and took months to conclude its findings. Even before these were released, Duffy privately met with management to explain the outcome of the report.
Only now, in February, would the AUEW consult its members on an all out strike and a mass meeting was called in CoftonPark. But, in all this time, the media had been full of hate stories about “Red Robbo” – no one had ever called him that before. By now Robinson had been turned into a hate figure by the tabloid press, which dubbed him ‘Red Robbo’. The BirminghamEvening Mail was especially vicious. Support for action crumbled and a rejection of a strike became a foregone conclusion. In advance, a hysterical atmosphere built up in the factory, with foremen distributing leaflets to employees: “Your choice is your job or Red Robbo”. The vote was overwhelming, with thousands rejecting strike action. The defence of Derek Robinson had been manipulated into a completely demoralising defeat by the combined efforts of the company working with ruthless right wing union bureaucrats.
Derek told the shop stewards, many of whom who were in tears: “You must go back into the factory, elect a new convenor, give him the support you gave me. Thanks, Comrades.”
A story that only much later became clarified (notably in Frank Watters’ 1992 memoirs) that, before the decision to sack Derek, Edwardes had been taken Edwardes had been sent, anonymously and by post, a copy of the minutes of a meeting of some 16 or so Communists. This had been held the day after the Edwardes Plan to “rescue” British Leyland was announced. Mick Costello, the National Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party had convened the meeting to work out a plan of campaign. It was the confluence between the gist of the Combine pamphlet and the text of the minutes that had convinced Edwardes to sack Derek Robinson.
The minutes, published in the Sunday Times, quoted, thus: “Jack A. made the main report and after that we drew up our plans.” Clearly, this was Jack Adams but the nature of the minutes and the vicious anti-communism of the AUEW leadership somehow led to an extraordinary clever plan to focus on Robinson.
Another factor in not using the minutes, unless it became absolutely necessary, was that Derek was not even present at the meeting, although the minutes made reference to a D. Robinson. So, did someone linked to Edwardes somehow, know that the D Robinson listed as being present was not Derek? Both the Sunday Times and Edwardes were eventually to publicly acknowledge that it was Derek’s twin brother Dennis (who died in the late 1980s). Although some doubt has to arise as to whether this was clear at the outset. If it was, it would suggest inside information and a realisation that using the minutes in respect of Robinson’s sacking might lead to a clever ruse to deny the veracity of the minutes.
Edwardes secretly kept this document to himself, without using it in any way. Had the AUEW leadership been less compliant, he would have had no hesitating in releasing it to create an anti-communist backlash that would have motivated the right in the union to ditch Robinson.
A team from the Sunday Times began investigating the meeting. They claimed it was the blueprint that the Leyland Combine Trade Union Committee later endorsed. In the minutes, the full names of those present were listed along with the Party’s full plans to issue press statements, produce leaflets for distribution at the factory and to get material into the Morning Star.
This element of ambiguity about who was present and who wasn’t was reinforced by the case of one of the Communist full time officials present at the meeting – John Rowan (see separate entry) – who worked for the semi-autonomous AUEW-TASS, the white collar section that eventually broke free to form a new growing union of its own, which later merged to form MSF. Evidently, some element of imprecision regarding the information sent to Edwardes, or some element of disconnection in its supply, did not match an easily established fact.
The assumption that the Communist Party meeting had been in the evening did not take account of the fact that the AUEW had called a 24-hour strike on a national wage claim on that day, which had freed most of those present to meet in the morning, when the meeting had taken place.
When asked, Rowan was able to `prove’ he was not at what was thought to be an evening meeting of Communists, since his office diary showed that for the evening of September 11th. His diary read: “6.30 pmmeet Victor Silcock”; this was a senior BL executive and it was understood that their discussions would ensure over an evening meal!
It was Jon Bloomfield, the Party’s full-time Secretary in Birmingham who had produced the minutes. Once it was clear that copies had been somehow leaked, the Midlands District Secretary, Tony McNally, had been instructed by Gordon McLennan, the General Secretary, to destroy them. Bloomfield objected as he didn’t see anything wrong with the minutes. A key ally of his, Roger Murray, a hopefully Communist local election candidate (who in recent times has joined the BNP!) remarked that the text “could have been lifted from a broadsheet we have been distributing” in Sparkhill.
Jon Bloomfield’s personal office was in fact a thoroughfare for all in the Party’s Birmingham headquarters, which doubled as a bookshop and social club, thus providing wide access. Anyone could have taken a copy off his desk, although one highly suspicious person, who may have been a plant, does come to mind. This was the Jon Bloomfield, the “Marxism Today” man in the Midlands, who played a major role at the 1977 Congress in winning a policy, which created the basis for the divorce of the Communist Party and the Morning Star, the beginning of the end of the Party in fact.
When the Enquiry dragged into a fourth month, it had exceeded the time limit for a claim to an Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal. An appeal was lodged requesting a hearing, given the special circumstances whereby the employers and the trade union had agreed to a procedure without the applicant being consulted. But the Tribunal Chairman ruled that Derek had preferred to use the industrial muscle of the trade union, rather than the Government’s machinery for settling industrial disputes, so he had caused his claim to be out of time.
It was obvious that Gerry Russell, the Chairman of the Enquiry was aware of this time limit, and that they were hoping that Derek would lodge a claim at the tribunal for unfair dismissal, getting the AUEW out of the need to call for strike action. The Chairman of the tribunal made it clear that if Derek had appealed for unfair dismissal it would have been upheld; the company was wrong sacking an employee without any previous formal warnings. The QC representing BL was told very clearly that this was no way to conduct good labour relations. But Derek would have stayed sacked even if he had subsequently won a tribunal; only united strike action could have succeeded.
It was a very sad day in the history of British trade unionism, when a union with a proud past history refused to uphold the most elementary duty of any trade union, to defend local officials victimised by management. Now the task that faced the shop stewards at Longbridge was to build their organisation with a disillusioned and sometimes hostile workforce.
To his credit, Jack Adams took over the job of the convenor and built a good collective works committee. By the nature of employee-employer relations, this workforce soon realised that this struggle was not about one person; it had been a device to weaken the trade union organisation. Soon the most loyal shop stewards were back on the shop floor, unable to represent members effectively. Many others, especially AUEW stewards, flung in their tools. The AUEW, which previously dominated the works committee, now struggled to retain one representative on it, as the TGWU took over.
Arguably, Longbridge was the single most important centre of manufacturing industry trades unionism, the Communist Party’s most significant base in industry. Derek’s sacking was clearly a concerted attack, with the Tory Government very much mired in the matter. It was the first major defeat for the movement after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election and set a tone for things to come. The fight to save Derek’s job was a missed opportunity to secure a victory that would have set the Tories thinking. After this came a careful strategy of taking on one by one the battalions of labour in isolation.
As for the plant, deliberate and massive cut backs and closures during the 1980s brought the company almost to an end but the mass media did not vilify the managers who achieved this destruction. BL was then sold to British Aerospace and renamed the Rover Group in 1989. In 1994, BMW bought the company and the sold it in 2000. But, sadly, the factory finally closed in 2005 when MG Rover collapsed and 6,000 lost their jobs.
The story of destruction of Britain’s car industry was never more than the story of the mergers and amalgamations that led to the giant monopolies; the role of the trade unions, let alone the Communists in ending mass volume car makimng was truly minuscule in comparison. First when in 1952 Austin amalgamated with Morris Motors to become BMC, later when amalgamation created BL. Then Labour refinanced the company enabling by 1975 a government-dominated shareholder position to emerge.
Consider the relative contribution toward Longbridge’s demise of a complete lack of capital over decades, to such an extent almost amounting to a permanent money strike, against the infrequent mass meetings on Cofton Park.
Derek selling the Star at a miners’ demo in Derby in 1984
In the 1980s and 90s, Derek worked as a tutor in trade union studies, teaching shop stewards. Derek had been married early in life but had met and remarried Phyllis, herself a powerful figure amongst the women in the Longbridge plant. She was a tower of strength to Derek during the period of his sacking and subsequently. Sadly, she died during the 1990s, although, much later, Derek married once more. He was also national chair of the re-established Communist Party of Britain for a period in the 1990s.
Derek died on 31 October 2017 at 1.30 am.
Sources: Mainly an edited version of a chapter in `Being Frank’ autobiography of Frank Watters, along with other miscellaneous sources, including personal knowledge.
LABOUR MONTHLY APRIL 1977 – LEYLAND WORKERS AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
By Derek Robinson – chairman of the British Leyland Combine Shop Stewards Committee and convenor of the Austin Joint Shop Stewards Committee
SINCE 1972, in one form or another, our wages have been controlled by an incomes policy. Under the Heath government threshold agreements were allowed, but we in British Leyland were only able to get £1.80 negotiated at national level. The move from
piece-work to standard day-work (a flat rate method of payment) took place during 1971-72. As a consequence the movement of wages that took place under piece-work was no longer possible.
In other industries where the piece-work system was retained and where the maximum threshold payments took place, these industries moved from being relatively low-paid, and caught up and passed Leyland car workers, who up to then had occupied a pre-eminent position in the wages table. Today we are seventeenth in the wages scale. Internally, because of the effects of wage restraint, differentials have been eroded, and different levels of pay for doing the same work in different factories have created anomalies.
In June 1976, before sitting down to negotiate our annual wage review at Longbridge, the shop stewards discussed their attitude to the social contract. The following recommendation to the members was agreed upon: ‘We will not accept wage restraint, voluntary or imposed, after July 1977.’ This was carried by the vast majority of the membership in the factory.
A circular letter was then sent to all Birmingham MPs, all cabinet ministers, all local trade union officers with membership in the factory, and all general secretaries with members in the factory. All replies received were non-committal and, in the case of MPs, referred to government policy.
On the basis of the replies we decided to place the matter on the agenda of the Combine Shop Stewards Executive Committee meeting. A draft document prepared by the Executive Committee officers was placed in front of a full meeting of the Leyland senior shop stewards called by the Combine Committee.
Following a very full discussion by the stewards, they took a decision that called for an end to the social contract and a return to free collective bargaining, and to this end to organise a national conference of the labour and trade union movement to be held in
Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday, April 3; to organise a day of action on the day following parliament’s recall after the Easter recess; full support for the Liaison Committee Conference on February 26, with the chairman of the combine stewards delegated to speak at the conference.
As we are in the discussion stage, with the trade unions determining policy in relation to what happens in our country after July this year, it was necessary for us to embark on a campaign that would clearly break away from the disastrous economic policies that have been carried out over the past two years.
Unless alternative socialist policies are carried through by the government, the people will desert them. They were not elected to carry through a programme in favour of the monopolies at the International Monetary Fund’s dictation.