A look at the recently deceased union leader, Bob Crow.
I was as shocked as many at the untimely death of Bob Crow at the age of 52 a few weeks ago. That is a very young age and will be a big loss to his family. Crow was very much a “character” who relished his role as RMT General Secretary and was happy to play up to media stereotypes.
When I first began to pay attention to politics, union leaders were always front page news and all the media had a labour correspondent. It was a measure of Bob Crow’s success at swimming against the tide that he was probably the only current union leader most people could name. Partly it’s because he made good copy – he was supportive of strikes and said things that reinforced his image. He was the lightning rod for the unpopularity of the unions when they are taking action. He said of this “if I can get job security and decent pay for my members I couldn't give two hoots about being unpopular.” And of course, the sort of union leader preferred by the popular press, or even the Labour Party, is very different. As an example, they don’t slag off Dave Prentis of Unison anywhere near as much. But then Prentis does everything to make sure public sector workers don’t take action, especially if it might embarrass Labour councils. Under Crow, the Labour Party expelled the RMT for supporting candidates from the Scottish Socialist Party. While I don’t think any political parties should be backed by union money, the RMT is the only one so far to have stood up to the manipulative relationship with the Labour Party, which comes down to demanding money from the unions to do nothing in the interests of workers, but then threaten the unions with the big bad Tories when they protest.
The RMT is pretty much the only union to have grown in the last decade or so. It has done so in part because it has industrial muscle, but mainly because it is prepared to use that industrial muscle. It’s far from perfect, but does retain a culture of lay organisation, which means decisions and representation is done mainly by activists within the workforce, rather than full timers. This culture is egalitarian and fiercely independent – while many political activists are in the RMT, it is not dominated by any one group or set of politics. Crow himself described himself as a communist or socialist, and used a lot of Stalinist imagery. But the crucial thing was that his approach wasn’t one the hair-shirted self-sacrifice that typifies the left – he supported better pay for RMT members, to the point that train drivers are among the few well-paid manual workers left in London.
But crucially, his legacy as a militant union leader will be seen in the next few years. The media believe that all strikes are led by Millwall-supporting lefties forcing their reluctant members into striking. To me, this seems to be the opposite of the truth: the strength of Crow and the RMT is that, by and large, they let their members lead and decide if they wanted to take action. Generally, he didn’t get in the way. And if his true legacy is that of being a lightning rod to a culture of grass-roots militancy, we will see his successor end up doing much the same.