by Alan Thornett
Derek Robinson has died at the age of 90.
He became a major figure in the car industry and in BL in the mid-1970s after he succeeded fellow Communist Party (CP) member Dick Etheridge as both convenor of British Leyland’s (BL) biggest plant in Longbridge and chair of the powerful BLMC Combine Committee.
He assumed these positions at a time when BL workers were coming under increasing attack by successive governments—Harrold Wilson and James Callaghan’s Labour governments and then the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. They aimed at bringing the BL workforce ‘under control’ by destroying the wages and working conditions that had been established and the militancy and organisation that had made that possible.
As The Economist’s obituary to Derek Robinson has mentioned, the debate over the response to these attacks became increasingly polarised between the CP grouping on the Combine Committee and a more militant response advocated by those to the left of the CP, including Trotskyists, mainly but not only in the Cowley Assembly plant—where I was the deputy convenor of shop stewards for the TGWU.
We had clashed with Robinson numerous times over the years as to how to respond to these attacks. We had taken different sides on the introduction of Measured Day Work in the early 1970s that was designed to give management more control of the payment system. We had supported the lengthy strike by BL’s 6,000 toolmakers over grading in early 1977 when Derek Robinson had opposed it—although he was himself a toolmaker.
The most significant clash came in early 1978 over what the new BL Chief Executive Michael Edwardes called his ‘Recovery Plan’—that involved the sacking of 25,000 BL workers and the closure of 25 plants. It is a struggle that in my view holds numerous important lessons in term of both the past and present in terms of building militant shop floor trade unionism.
Soon after he arrived at BL Edwardes convened a joint conference of senior shop stewards and senior managers at the Chesford Grange hotel in Kenilworth ostensibly to outline his Plan, which involves the sacking of 25,000 BL workers and the closure of 25 plants. What he failed to tell them, however, was that he was planning to put the whole thing to the vote immediately he had finished speaking—and that is what he did. He moved a remarkable resolution which gave full support for the Plan, pledged ‘total commitment’ to the future of BL and full confidence in him as its chief executive.
Robinson at that time was not only the chair of the Combine Committee but the senior employee representative of BL’s workers participation scheme and as such a part of the management of the corporation. It directly contradicted is position as a leader of the Combine Committee. In fact, it had effectively side-lined the Combine Committee. According to the Economist he had told Marxism Today that worker participation: ‘would enable us to look objectively at some of the changes that were required, outside of being in a bargaining position’. Yes indeed.
Remarkably, there was only one speaker against Edwardes’s resolution at Kenilworth. That was my long-time comrade Bob Fryer, the convenor of the Cowley Assembly Plant, who was scandalised by the whole proceedings and denounced it from the rostrum. Bob was then attacked by both Derek Robinson and Eddie McGarry, the chair and secretary of the Combine Committee—the policy of which was to oppose the Plan. McGarry’s plant was to close under the Plan.
When the vote was taken only the votes against were the Cowley delegation—who did so unanimously. Robinson’s vote for the resolution flatly contradicted an article he had written that very morning in the Morning Star which had called upon the unions to close ranks and oppose Edwardes. McGarry’s plant was one of those on the closure list.
If this support was not enough what happed at the end of the conference was even more astonishing. Robinson and McGarry led a standing ovation for Edwardes which went on for several minutes! This when Edwardes had just set out plans for mass sackings and plant closures. The Birmingham Evening Mail understood the significance of this if the leaders of the Combine Committee did not. Its headline that night was: ‘It’s an ovation as 12,000 jobs are slashed’. It went on:
‘Leyland shop stewards gave new chairman Michael Edwardes a rousing ovation—even though he told them he planned to slash the workforce by more than 12,000 jobs this year… The applause for the new chairman could be heard in the foyer of the Kenilworth hotel where Mr Edwardes was outlining his plan to more than 700 union officials and senior managers in the ballroom.’
Edwardes announced the implementation of his Plan in September 1979—he rightly described it as ‘probably the most extensive restructuring of a major company that has ever been done in a short period of time’.
The only union to publically oppose the introduction was the TGWU. An Emergency Committee was launched, led mainly by the TGWU, to oppose the closures which called a demonstration of BL workers in London that marched past the BL head office in the Marylebone Road.
As the demonstration passed the BL head office, Edwardes sent out staff to distribute a leaflet claiming that he had met the leaders of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) that covered the car industry and that they had not only agreed to support the Plan but to jointly organised a ballot of employees and recommend acceptance. The choice on the ballot paper, endorsed by the CSEU, was accept the Plan or see the corporation closed down and there was a big majority for acceptance.
The Combine Committee met soon after to discuss the implications of the ballot with Derek Robinson, who was clearly riding two horses at once, in the chair. It decided after a lengthy discussion to continue its opposition to sacking and closures. An additional proposal that Bob Fryer and I supported a resolution from Rover called for direct action in the plants facing closure, effectively occupation, was strongly denounced by Derek Robinson as ultra-left and defeated.
At the end of the meeting Derek Robinson announced that the Combine Committee had produced a pamphlet called ‘The Edwardes Plan and Your Job’ opposing the Edwardes plan and calling for opposition to it. It was published in the name of himself, Jack Adams the TGWU senior steward from Longbridge, Len Brindle from Truck and Bus and vice chair of the Combine Committee, and Mick Clarke, treasurer of the Combine. Each delegation, he said, should take enough pamphlets to cover their plant. We took a thousand for Cowley Assembly.
As we travelled back to Oxford we read it with great interest. It not only advocated outright opposition to the Recovery Plan but factory occupations. It was stronger than the proposal we had just supported in the meeting and Robinson had denounced as ultra-left. It argued that: ‘In other industries like UCS work-ins and occupations have been necessary to prevent closure. If necessary we will have to do the same.’
Next day Edwardes sacked Robinson for putting his name to the pamphlet—despite Kenilworth and the support Robinson had been giving to his Plan for the past year and a half.
Robinson had been singled out. The other Combine Committee officers with their names on the pamphlet were reprimanded but not sacked. According to Edwardes this was because Robinson had received a previous warning over an alleged failure to give five-day’s notice of a strike.
This was nonsense. Robinson was sacked because he was the most prominent shop steward in BL. If Derek Robinson could be sacked, no shop steward or activist was safe. Edwardes also wanted to isolate Robinson by not involving the TGWU in the dispute
My initial reaction to the sacking, when the news reached the shop steward’s office in the Cowley Assembly plant that morning, was that Edwardes had overreached himself and this would probably be his demise.
The shop floor reaction to the sacking was remarkable—even by the militant standards of the industry and the day. At Longbridge, the vast majority walked straight out. The next day six more BL plants walked out. By the end of that week 50,000 BL workers were on strike and all BL car production was at a standstill.
The following day, however, the problems started to emerge. At a demonstration supporting Robinson through Birmingham city centre it emerged that whilst the TGWU was there in force the leaders of Robinson’s own union, the AUEW, led by Terry Duffy, were absent. What was more the AUEW executive had met and were ordering all AUEW members back to work—which involved crossing TGWU picket lines on the gate—in favour of an enquiry into the sacking.
Robinson had been hung out to dry. This was one of the great sell-outs of the 1970s. It was enough to smash the strike and it did. The inquiry was designed to bury the issue and it did.
Robinson’s sacking dealt a massive blow not only to the shop steward’s movement in BL and the car industry as a whole—which was at the time was the most militant sector of the trade unions in Britain—but it was to mean to the car industry unions what the defeat of the miners was to mean for the trade unions nationally five years later. They were blows from which neither has yet recovered.
Unfortunately, there was no mystery as to the politics behind this dramatic capitulation, it was worker participation in management. The Worker Participation scheme had been introduced under the Ryder Report of 1975, commissioned by Harold Wilson under the slogan of ‘saving’ the British sector of the car industry.
It was a recipe for disaster from the outset. It was a huge scheme with joint committees in all the BL plants and governed by a Cars Council at corporation level. The Cars Council would now be the management of the Corporation taking all the major decisions in term of running the combine and Derek Robinson became the senior employee representative on the Cars Council that ran the corporation on a day to day basis. The workforce saw it for what it was, however, taking the shop stewards into offices and feeding them cups of coffee and did not want it and there was a long struggle against its introduction. It was never accepted by the workforce in Cowley.
Participation had effectively side-lined the Combine Committee—which was the contradiction at Kenilworth. Robinson and McGarry were both the officers of the Combine Committee that was opposing the Plan but they were also a part of management under Worker participation which required its acceptance—and when it came to a choice they knew which way to go.
Key to the situation was that the CP enthusiastically supported the Ryder worker participation from the outset, seeing it as a model for industrial democracy and even as a part of the struggle for socialism. This was spelled out in a pamphlet called British Leyland: Save It written by Jon Bloomfield with a foreword by Derek Robinson:
‘This is the most challenging area of the Ryder recommendations… Not surprisingly there have been teething troubles with the plan. A few factories and convenors have set their faces against it, refusing to see the opportunities it offers for increasing power of the workforce and its security. On the main Participation body—the Cars Council—trade union representatives have had access to key information about Leyland’s finances, markets and programme. They have had a say in future decisions on investment and location of particular work, which helps to ensure job security…
‘That’s not to say that there are no dangers. The senior stewards can be drawn away from their roots, which is why we declare that they must be strictly accountable to their members. Yet to abdicate from this process is to accept a permanently defensive, oppositional role for the trade union movement… The trade unions should extend their influence into other areas of management. Asserting the right to veto the appointment of key management personnel would be a major breakthrough. These steps would help to ensure the full involvement of all the workforce in Leyland’s future and increase the democratic control of the company.
‘The Communist Party not only considers these proposals of value and benefit to Leyland workers in the short term. We also believe they are of exceptional importance in the struggle for socialism.’
After participation had done its job in softening the unions up for mass sacking Edwardes scrapped it completely. The industrial policy of the CP had been tested and had been found wanting. When the issue was the defence of the independence of the workers movement they could not resist the pull of management involvement and the consequences were disastrous.
Alan Thornett was either a shop steward or a senior shop steward in the Cowley Assembly Plant for over 20 years. This book Militant Years—car workers struggles in the 60s and 70s contains a more detailed account of all these events and many more.