Class Power and Red Robbo

The death of car worker, trade union activist and Communist Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson last month at the age of 90 did not make an especially huge splash in the national media.

The death of car worker, trade union activist and Communist Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson last month at the age of 90 did not make an especially huge splash in the national media. For a while, only the BBC West Midlands broke with the story, before eventually obituaries began to trickle into the broadsheets. Yet Robinson remains one of very few union activists of that period widely remembered by the British public. Mention the industrial unrest of the 1970s to people of a certain age and a sizeable proportion will mutter “Oh yeah, Red Robbo and all that”.

It is a peculiar collective memory. The other figures that my parents’ generation retain from that era are almost all general secretaries – Jack Jones, maybe Hughie Scanlon. Certainly Robinson was heavily demonised in the media at the time, but he was far from the only workplace activist to receive similar treatment in that period. The British popular press in the 1970s was an endless parade of evil car workers, miners, hospital workers, electricians, posties and rubbish collectors, all apparently responsible for Britain’s downfall.

Indeed, Robinson was very far from being Britain’s most disruptive shop steward. News of his death was accompanied by the eye-catching claim that Robinson had been responsible for 523 strikes during his five-year tenure as convenor of the Longbridge Works Committee. This claim, originally made by the man who sacked him, Michael Edwardes, Chief Executive of British Leyland from 1977 to 1982, is wholly implausible to anyone with a passing knowledge of industrial relations. In reality, from the 1950s onwards Longbridge had a pattern of endemic industrial conflict in which small, short strikes, organised autonomously by work groups, were a feature of daily life, largely outside of the control of senior stewards like Robinson.

More often than not, as factory convenor, Robinson found himself in the role of mediator, attempting to persuade groups of irritated workers to resume production after something had provoked a stoppage. Interviews with workers and managers alike remember Robinson as a conciliatory figure, doing his best to balance defending workers’ rights with the need to maintain continuous production and keep the struggling firm afloat. As one co-worker, a fellow toolmaker, put it in 1981, “until his dismissal Derek Robinson was hauled out of bed on numerous occasions by the company, ‘Can you go back Derek, the men are preparing to walk out. Can you go back, and try and prevent it.’ And Derek Robinson used to get out of his bed at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, go into that factory and reach agreement with the men.”

Robinson’s sacking centred not on him disrupting production but on his co-authoring of a critique of the Edwardes Plan, a company document aimed at rationalising British Leyland at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs. Reducing the authority of the unions within the company was deemed necessary to ensure compliance with the scheme and sacking the best-known shop-floor leader was a sure-fire way of putting everybody on notice. Robinson’s later demonization as a strike-starter and troublemaker was part of a search for a post-hoc justification sturdier than sacking a man for signing a document.

Later the myth of Robinson as the ultimate troublemaker Communist shop steward came to stand for the wider myth of Britain’s 1970s as an endless cycle of wanton trade union wrecking. Just as Robinson’s illusory 523 strikes apparently killed British Leyland, the unions were responsible for leading Britain into decline, a decline in which the motor industry, that quintessential sign of competitive modernity, was itself a symbol. Both myths served to obscure a wider point about the period, that the increase in industrial militancy was driven not by union barons or by politically-motivated militants, but by levels of organisation and dissatisfaction within the workplace. Robinson was frequently called back to work in the early hours of the morning because night-shift workers, with no reference to their leaders or officials, regularly organised spontaneous walk-outs. Management called Robinson because the collective power of those workers meant they had to be persuaded rather than disciplined back to work.

Similar omissions mark most popular accounts of the 1970s, which usually look upon union militancy as something initiated by the unions as institutions, rather than as something produced by working-class people within their workplaces. As a result, “the unions” retain their place in our national demonology without the demonisers having to bear the taint of having attacked “ordinary working people”.
The mythology of that period can locate the seeds of decline in “bad unions” and the politically marginal people who bore formal authority within them, without reminding us of the social power that some of the organised working class bore in that period. Political discourse in the 1970s and beyond set about teaching Britain that collective direct action stems not from our grievances but from the manipulations of outsiders, a lesson a generation learned so well that even with Derek Robinson’s death, the myth of Red Robbo lives on.