Derek Robinson obituary

Trade union leader nicknamed ‘Red Robbo’ who came to prominence in the 1970s as the convener of British Leyland’s Longbridge plant near Birmingham

For a brief period at the height of the industrial conflicts of the 1970s between the trade unions and both Labour and Conservative governments, few union leaders were better known than Derek Robinson, who has died aged 90. As the convener of one of the largest manufacturing complexes in the country, the British Leyland motor company’s Longbridge plant on the edge of Birmingham, and an unabashed member of the Communist party, he was known as Red Robbo. This catchy nickname, a headline writer’s dream, allowed him to be portrayed as a symbol of the conflicts that were bringing the industry to its knees. Management blamed him for the 523 disputes at the plant in 1978-79.

His contested dismissal by the new broom at BL, Sir Michael Edwardes, in 1979 brought workers briefly out on strike. It marked a declaration of intent, a change from the postwar pattern of monolithic union organisations in large plants, mirroring an introspective management, to more assertive international management. A few years later Robinson’s own union was discussing no-strike deals to encourage Japanese companies to establish themselves in the UK.

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