Born on September 30th 1921, the youngest of three sons of a Jewish family, Ben Rubner was born and bred in London’s east end. He followed the family trade of furniture making and started his working life as a cabinet maker. Joining the Communist Party in his twenties, he was a leading activist in the National Union of Furniture and Timber Operatives. Elected a full-time official in January 1959, from then on he never lost re-election until his retirement.
During his early days as a full-time official, he was noted for his regular reports in the union journal on the work and need for 100% shop floor organisation and membership. He was elected a national officer of NUFTO in February 1963 and, in that capacity, led a major campaign in the furniture making industry to rebut an employers’ offensive on pay and conditions.
A long-term member of the Communist Party, in 1964, he flew to Vietnam as a part of a delegation pledged to campaign against the burgeoning war there. From this came the seeds of the British anti-war movement of the 1960s and Rubner’s role in alerting the labour and progressive movement to the savagery and injustice of this war was critical from the start.
A particular contribution he made to his industry was in promoting concern and solutions about the increasing use of unsafe foam in upholstering. This arose after the tragedy of November 18th 1968 at the Glasgow firm of A J & S Stern Ltd, when a fire generated highly toxic fumes from the furnishing material and 22 union members lost their lives. Ben Rubner and Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union joined forces over the next few years to successfully arrive at a situation where upholstered furniture is now relatively safe in a fire situation.
In 1972, NUFTO merged with the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers and Construction Machinists (ASWCM) and formed the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union (FTAT). In January 1974, Ben Rubner was elected Assistant General Secretary of the new union, which now began to make its mark as a major force in its sector and as a leading left union within the wider movement. By the time, in 1976, Ben Rubner rose to become the General Secretary of FTAT, a post he held until retirement in 1986, it had reached a membership of 80,000. (FTAT merged with the GMB during the 1990s) Rubner died aged 76 years on 21st September 1998.
Rubner has been described by Phil Davies, National Secretary of the CFTA section of the GMB, effectively the successor to FTAT within that union, as “a man of compassion, gentle, kind and a great negotiator”. Davies recalls Rubner’s tenacity and attention to detail in the interests of his members. At one set of difficult negotiations with the British Furniture Manufacturers Association, after 11 solid hours of tussling at 9pm, asked by colleagues if it were not time to settle, given the little that now separated the two sides, Rubner replied: “No. Another penny an hour means a loaf of bread to our members.” Needless to say, despite another three and a half hours of talks, the extra penny was obtained!
Sources: Morning Star 23rd September 1998 and 29th September 1998; Guardian 29th September 1998