Obituary: Ben Rubner

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The Independent Culture
BEN RUBNER, General Secretary of the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union (FTAT) from 1976 to 1986, had a profound effect on the lives of millions of ordinary people. He was one of the most respected general secretaries of the last 50 years of the trade union movement.

Furniture workers in the UK have reason to be grateful for Rubner's negotiating skills and the gains he achieved for them: a shorter working week; improved sick pay and salaries; and a safer working environment are just part of his legacy.

Born into a working-class family in the East End of London in 1921, upon leaving school Rubner worked as a cabinetmaker in the London furniture industry, following in the footsteps of his father and two brothers. It was here that he became active in the trade union movement, dedicating himself to the fight for all working-class people, and never losing sight of his humble beginnings.

He was elected a full trade union officer for the National Union of Furniture Trade Operatives (later FTAT) in 1959. In 1963 he became a national officer, and in 1976 was elected General Secretary of FTAT.

Health and safety was one of his major concerns. He fought for the right of workers to retire in good health and not suffer from the effects of noise or exposure to chemicals and dust. The loss of 22 members in a Glasgow furniture factory fire in 1968 had a profound effect on him. It highlighted the dangers of foam fillings - thousands had died due to the inhalation of toxic fumes from fillings used in upholstered furniture - and Rubner raised the question of these dangers by lobbying MPs and other unions. Hardly a month went by without Rubner's alerting the public to these dangers. His view was that governments may make laws, but it is the people who make governments, and he ensured that MPs and ministers were aware of this.

In 1964 Rubner visited the small war-torn country of Vietnam and brought back the awful truth of that war. He was active in the peace movement when other union leaders chose the more popular role of silence. Throughout the 1960s he travelled around Britain telling all those who would listen that the war in Vietnam was wrong. A true internationalist, he fought injustice around the world, and especially spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, calling on the British government to lead the world in condemnation of the South African regime.

Ben Rubner's sole concern throughout his life was for working people, not only in Britain but throughout the world. Upon his retirement in 1986 he was not elevated to the House of Lords, nor did he accept a highly paid position on any quango; instead he retired with the knowledge that the world is a better place for his efforts towards others.

Benjamin Barnett Rubner, trade unionist: born London 30 September 1921; Assistant General Secretary, Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union 1973-76, General Secretary 1976-86; married 1952 Amelia Bagnari (died 1980; one son, one daughter), 1986 Patricia Elder; died Watford, Hertfordshire 21 September 1998.