Red Robbo and the Trade Unions

Many people think of the 1970's as an era dominated by irresponsible trade union activity. At the time hardly a day seemed to go by without the media reporting a strike of some kind somewhere in Britain e.g. Three day working weeks of the early 1970's caused by striking miners and power workers, the so-called winter of discontent (strikes by public service employees) preceding James Callaghan's demise as Prime Minister in 1977. In many people's minds political activists were to blame, using industrial strife as a means for propagating social and political change.

British Leyland (B.L.) were particularly hard hit by strike action during the 1970's. Whilst its true that the company lost a lot of cars and money through strike action, far more damaging was the effect that the strikes had on the public's perception of the company and the vehicles it hoped they would buy. British Leyland began to symbolize all that was supposedly wrong with Britain (what people in the rest of the world were calling the English Disease). Hand in hand with the strikes was a marked decline in build quality. Many people blamed the unions and indirectly the workforce for this. B.L. employees didn't seem to take any pride in their work.

At the centre of this political storm was Derek Robinson (dubbed "Red Robbo" by the media). Mr Robinson was Works Convenor for the Longbridge plant in Birmingham during the 1970's. In a bitter dispute in the early 1980's he was sacked by the then Managing Director Michael Edwards. According to one source Mr Robinson was involved in over 500 disputes at Longbridge during the period 1978 to 1979.

There are numerous stories about how the intelligence service MI5 worked with Michael Edwards to get rid of Mr Robinson.

When asked by journalists in 1999/ 2000 whether he thought his actions had caused the company's eventual decline and breakup Mr Robinson denied this accusing his previous employers of trying to find a scapegoat for their own ineptness.

The websites below give a reasonable indicator of the different viewpoints people take on what caused industrial strife at B.L. (and elswhere) in the 1970's. People like ex-Tory Minister Kenneth Baker clearly take the view that it was caused by activists who were intent on changing the countries politics. Others like Rob Sewell suggest that the strikes were the result of ordinary working people trying to protect their standard of living in an era of high inflation.

Must see sites

BBC interview with Derek Robinson (Red Robbo)
Industrial strife in British Leyland - an overview by Ian Nicholls
Spies and the British Labour Movement by Rob Sewell
Kenneth Baker - a politicians view of industrial strife


"Back from the brink" by Michael Edwards, Published by Collins in 1983 (second hand copies can be bought on the internet or obtained from your local library)