Rob Dawber is 43. He and his partner Lindsay have five children. Last December, in Sheffield, he was diagnosed as having mesothelioma. This is cancer of the pluera that causes a thickening of the lining of the lungs.
Mesothelioma is mostly caused by exposure to asbestos. The thickening continues, filling the space into which the lungs expand. It is inoperable and incurable, he was told. There was nothing they could do. How long could he expect to live? Prognoses varied from two years to a few months. The average life expectancy after such a diagnosis is a few months to a year. Come back for painkillers when things deteriorate further, they said. That was it. Just go away and die. Rob refused to do that.
Telling the story he stresses this part of it - that combativity and militancy can make a big difference. Knowing himself to be otherwise fit (never a smoker, for example) he decided not to sit around waiting to die but to try everything possible. His union, the RMT, fixed an appointment with a London specialist - and Rob learned of tests the specialist was himself involved in with a drug that had previously been used only on breast cancer. Rob managed to get himself referred from Sheffield to the hospital in London, where he was accepted on to the trial. This involved chemotherapy each week for six weeks and then a CT scan to see what effects the chemical were having. If there was no change, the experiment would be abandoned. On 13 April 1999 he learned that the growths showed "definite regression in all areas". He continues to receive the chemotherapy.
But that, despite the very encouraging results, may not in the end be enough. Only two people in the whole world have fully recovered from mesothelioma - both had surgery. One of the survivors was operated on at a clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, where work on mesothelioma is being pioneered. Can they operate on Rob? That they tell him will not be known until they "open him up". They are willing to operate on him - if he can provide about $100,000 (£70,000) upfront. Rob is miles away from such money. His friends in the Sheffield labour movement have set up an emergency fund to raise enough money to pay the £70,000.
Who is Rob Dawber?
Rob has been a socialist for 25 years. For almost all that time, he has been an active supporter of Workers' Liberty and its predecessors. He graduated from Leicester University with a first class degree in Mathematics. He could have earned better money than he earned on the railway, at better and certainly safer work. But Rob took his socialism seriously. Many young people, especially in the '70s, learned that we live in a society built on wage slavery and oppression, in a world where something radically better, socialism, is not only possible but achingly necessary. Not too many of that generation of student socialists are still standing their ground for socialism. They have learned to live with the system. You find the names of some of them pontificating in bourgeois newspapers and see once familiar faces on your TV screen. Not a few have found a ready market for the organisation and communication skills they learned in the socialist movement inside the Labour Government and other well-endowed bureaucratic structures. If £70,000 stood between them and their best chance of life, most of them could be sure of raising it.
Some of them are "still" socialists they will tell you, it's just they have better things to do than swim against the stream in conditions where there were no guarantees of quick or easy success.
For Rob his socialist ideas were a faith to fight for, a way to find a tolerable place in an often intolerable society. He believed that the only way to act and feel like a decent human being in a money-worshipping, commerce-made society was to fight against that society and its rulers - for a better future. In the labour movement he found a world in which, though it was a long way from what he wanted it to be, human solidarity still had meaning. He believed it was a movement capable of refashioning society around better values than those of capitalism. He also believe that this would only happen if socialists first persuaded large numbers of workers to refashion the labour movement itself as an instrument capable of waging class struggle.
Rob held various local union offices and stood unsuccessfully for his union Executive. Forced out of the railways after 18 years, he took up writing. The well-known socialist film-maker Ken Loach is interested in turning a script Rob wrote about railway privatisation into a film.
If Rob Dawber had been injured in a fight with police during a strike, as he might have been on a number of occasions, during the miners' strike of 1984-5 for example, or if he were facing legal charges as a result of militant labour movement action, it would be easy to pitch an appeal for money. Instead he faces death as a result of a job injury he did not know about until years later, last December. Just one exposure to asbestos can lead to cancer, 10, 20, 50 years later. Unknown numbers of workers, tens and tens of thousands most likely, are injured as Rob was injured but don't yet know it. He is suing British Rail for compensation but he can't wait on that. Every day may count.
What are you going to do to help save the life of Rob Dawber, who has spent all his active life as a fighter for socialism? What can you do? Propose that your branch or District Committee makes a donation to the Rob Dawber Fund. This has already happened in a few trade union branches with good results. Make a donation yourself. Ask your socialist friends to help. Don't be shy about approaching drop-outs and platonic socialists for help. Look for ways of raising money - for example by holding a local benefit social.
Rob Dawber's experimental chemotherapy is going well, but it carries no guarantee of ultimate success. Time may be short. The sooner Rob can go to Boston, the better chance he'll have. Do
Send cheques payable to "The Rob Dawber Mesothelioma Fund" to: