"Red Robbo", a trade unionist's trade unionist is remembered by Richard Allday
Derek Robinson (better known as “Red Robbo”), who died on 31 October, was the first high-profile labour movement scalp claimed by Thatcherism. It may have provided some consolation to him that he lived to see the death throes of neo-liberalism (and of its social –democratic cousin, Bliarism) in popular politics in Britain.
Employed at British Leyland’s Longbridge factory all his industrial life, Robinson’s political development, and his rise and fall, mirrored both the development of post-war British politics, and the inability of reformist social democracy to mount an effective opposition to Thatcherism.
Elected as shop steward (union rep) by his fellow workers soon after completing his apprenticeship, his intelligence earned the respect of his fellow stewards, and by 1973 he was elected union convenor at Longbridge, and thence of the combine covering all BL sites.
This was a time of industrial turmoil in Britain: dockers imprisoned by a Tory government for defending jobs, then freed in the face of a general strike in their support; a miners’ strike that caused that miserable government’s exit; the UCS occupation; and many others. One consequence was increasing pressure on the incoming Labour administration to ‘rein in’ the growing confidence of organized labour. A pre-condition of this, as the Wilson/Callaghan government saw it, was to get the trades unions on board; and to get this cooperation (or, as harsher critics judged it - collusion), various political Ponzi schemes were offered: to get unions to agree to wage controls, the government promised price controls also; to get the unions to agree to forced unemployment, the government introduced statutory redundancy compensation; etc.
In each case, the cossetting and grooming of TU officials went hand in hand with them taking responsibility for policing their members (and the more ‘hot-headed’ among their reps). There was increasing criticism from activists at the way collective decision-making was gradually being removed from the shopfloor, and they argued as the membership were increasingly excluded from direct involvement, so they became more susceptible to employers’ propaganda. Robinson dismissed these criticisms as ‘ultra-left Trotskyists’.
The incoming Thatcher administration of 1979, aware of this rupture, sought an early confrontation with organised labour. They found a ready ally in the arch-reactionary South African Michael Edwardes, brought in by the Labour government to ‘rescue’ BL. Threatening to shut the entire firm if he didn’t get his way, Edwards proposed closing whole swathes of BL, with the loss of thousands of jobs. Aided by a willing press (who invented the “Red Robbo” label) the Tories painted any objection from the unions as ‘politically motivated’, and placed all the problems of antiquated machinery, lack of investment, and low productivity at the door of outdated unions, and in particular, personalised the problem as “Red Robbo”.
With Edwards’ decision to sack him, the consequences of the increasing gulf between the ‘official’ union and members became apparent. The leadership of his own union abandoned him, and there was no rank and file movement capable of countering the employer/media/Tory campaign. The sight of his own members ignoring the pickets in his support demonstrated how far the decay of once-common trade union practice had developed.
Robinson’s sacking, and the consequent rampage of a class-war Tory government show the absolute necessity of socialists building a movement based in the workplace, capable of working with the official structures but not dependent on them. A man of principle all his life, Robinson’s tragedy was not a lack of integrity, but a lack of a correct analysis. It is the lesson that we ignore the roots of our movements at our peril.
Unfortunately, it was not only Derek Robinson that paid the price in unemployment; millions of ordinary workers suffered the same fate, unsung casualties of a failed politics. That is why Counterfire not only urges the end of this rotten Tory administration, but insists that the only viable alternative be based on ourselves, our communities and fellow workers.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.