Ken Roberts

Ken (Alfred Kenneth)
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Interview Date(s): 
23 Jan 1988
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Ken Roberts, born in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, in 1922 left school at 14 and briefly worked in a carpet factory before heading south to join siblings in a fish and chip business. In 1941 he went to work at Kodak as a guillotine operator at its Harrow film manufacturing plant. In the same year he joined the Communist Party. Like many working-class members he combined industrial militancy with uncritical support for the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc regimes - which in the postwar period he visited regularly. After working at Kodak for about a year his hope of avoiding military service was dashed when he was called up into the Royal Air Force as an aircraft mechanic and later airframe fitter. Apart from a brief spell in South Africa he was to spend the rest of the war in India. He associated himself with the Indian liberation movement and participated in the 1946 Kanpur (Cawpore) mutiny of air force personnel who resented the slow pace of demobilised.


On returning to Kodak he was elected shop steward after the incumbent was shifted elsewhere by a hostile management. Without union recognition at Kodak, members of the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT, later ACTT) actively participated in the joint management-employee productivity committee. Subsequently, he became a member of ACTT executive. In 1964 he and Geoff Conway (also a member of the Communist Party and union activist) were framed by Kodak management and MI5 on a charge of stealing company secrets. At an Old Bailey jury trial they were both found not guilty when it was revealed that the prosecution’s star witness had been paid £5000 pounds to give evidence. What surprised Ken was the negative reaction of Communist Party members on the union executive who believed him guilty, even before the trial, and successfully opposed providing financial support. His wife, Doreen, had to go out to work in a bottle factory. While Ken spends a good deal of time talking about his trial, in the interview he makes little mention of his connections with East Germany. Only later did he reveal the bizarre details of his frame up but also his role as double agent in the murky world of East-West espionage (‘Framed by MI5', Guardian 24 September 1999; see also Seumas Milne The Enemy Within, 305).


Despite being cleared of all charges against him Kodak successfully resisted paying compensation or giving him his job or pension back. Instead, Ken took on the role as an assistant union organiser in the campaign for recognition at Kodak. As a dismissed former employee, he took great delight in sitting opposite management at negotiation meetings. As Ken makes clear in the interview, Kodak did everything it could to prevent independent unions, including: temping activists with offers of management jobs, individual intimidation, fostering a company union and playing TUC unions off against each another. His own industrial espionage trial, occurring at a time of Cold War tension, frightened off potential union supporters. Finally, in 1973, after a series of bitter industrial campaigns and boycott of Kodak products, which drew support from unions in the UK, the Continent and Australia, Kodak agreed to recognise ACTT but only at its Hemel Hempstead plant.


Other issues raised in the interview include the Donovan Commission, equal pay, health and safety at work, the end of industry-wide collective bargaining, and the implications of the shift abroad of Kodak film production.


Ken retired aged sixty six. He died in January 1994.


Notes from the audio interview with additional material, by Andrew Dawson 01/03/19