Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/15876
Obituary: Robbie Segal
Longstanding Socialist Party member and leading activist in Usdaw
Robbie Segal, a longstanding comrade in the Socialist Party and a leading activist in Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers), has died of a terminal neurological disorder.
Robbie joined her first trade union at 19 and was soon involved in industrial action against Express Newspapers.
Over the next four decades, she would be found at the forefront of workers' battles and on the streets arguing for solidarity and raising finance, whether it was defending the socialist Liverpool councillors, mineworkers and their wives, or the P&O seafarers' strike.
Similarly, she played a leading role in the struggle against Thatcher's Poll Tax. She was expelled from the Labour Party for her socialist beliefs.
For 25 years, Robbie worked in Tesco and was a shop steward for 24 of those years. She understood how essential it is to build a solid base and that gave her a platform for election to Usdaw's divisional council and eventually the Executive Council (EC) - serving four three-year terms.
As a member and as an EC member, Robbie recognised the power of the union was slipping away from its members to a handful of bureaucrats.
She campaigned against the danger of Usdaw leaders embracing New Labour's 'partnership' policy - resulting in pay that was little more than the minimum wage, and the worsening of conditions.
She understood the route the 'partnership' agreement between Tesco and Usdaw was heading in and resigned from the national store forum in protest.
Her warnings that this policy would result in attacks against the better-paid workers in distribution have unfortunately been proved correct.
For a number of years, Robbie was a solid voice of opposition and she was both vilified by the right wing and respected by the left for her uncompromising stand.
She was not only a fighter but also Usdaw left's most approachable figurehead. Branded an 'extremist' by Usdaw's right wing; however, hundreds of activists turned to her for advice and support.
Robbie's major challenge was her struggle to democratise Usdaw and win the union back for its members. She understood the urgent need to educate a newer layer of activists on a programme of action.
Robbie considered it near impossible to promote a militant alternative while the current leadership had a stranglehold on the union, so she helped establish and regularly contributed to the Activist, the bulletin of Socialist Party members working in Usdaw. Robbie wrote regularly for the Socialist paper on Usdaw matters.
At the union's annual conference, Robbie would be round the hall selling the Socialist, chatting to the delegates and by the end of the day she would have sold over 100 copies.
She would always linger a moment longer to give a word of encouragement to the younger delegates and discuss the agenda.
In 2008, Robbie stood against the incumbent for the post of Usdaw general secretary. With very few resources and no method of contacting the branches, she stood on a socialist programme with the theme of returning the union back to its members. Her stand won her over 18,000 votes, over 40% of the total vote.
Robbie warned: 'the bosses are intent on the working people of this country paying for their mess' and she concluded: 'only a socialist society offers a solution to the blight we face at present'.
Robbie understood that only a change in society would solve the problems of working people and her life was dedicated to that aim. She was always there to give advice and a smile, and she will be sadly missed.
We send our condolences to Eric, her husband and fellow Socialist Party activist, their three children, Johanna, Polly and Miriam, and grandchildren.
By Usdaw Activist supporters
See the Activist: http://usdawactivist.wordpress.com/
Tribute from Bill Mullins:
I knew Robbie for many years when I was the industrial organiser for the Socialist Party. She was indeed a stalwart for the workers of Tesco in particular and the right wing in her union - Usdaw - knew this and hated her for it.
When at one stage Robbie was standing for the union's executive council the leadership put two full time officials to sit in a car outside her home to monitor her comings and goings.
This was a blatant attempt at intimidation against a woman member of the union who fought for her members and stood up to the bureaucracy.
On another occasion, when the left, led by Robbie, decided to put up a candidate in the union's presidential election, the Socialist Party hosted a fringe meeting at the TUC conference around 2003/2004.
The candidate and Robbie were on the platform and I chaired the well-attended meeting of delegates and visitors to the conference.
You can imagine our surprise when the right wing incumbent president and her entourage of full time officials turned up at the meeting.
Before the platform speakers had an opportunity to speak the right wingers started heckling from the back.
It gave me a glimpse of what it may have been like for Robbie when she attempted to speak at the executive councils of the union.
She would be shouted at by the bureaucracy whenever she attempted to raise alternative ideas to the right wing's sell-out of the members' interests.
Usdaw was well on the road to becoming what the American workers called a "yellow union". Robbie played a leading role in trying to stop that process.
Robbie's funeral is on Monday 7 January 2013 at Hawkinge cemetery, Aerodrome Road, Folkestone, CT18 7AG at 11am.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 20 December 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.