Bob Crow – loved by his members, feared by his enemies
Tribute to the RMT leader by Peter Arkell
Bob Crow, leader of the transport union the RMT who died today tragically at the age of just 52, was a household name because he actually put his words into action, which is more than can be said of most trade union leaders.
Tributes to his tough and principled leadership poured in from all sides including even from the Tory mayor of London Boris Johnson. One fellow union leader remarked that Crow would have laughed to hear the tributes from these top Tories whom he had been fighting all his life.
The truth is that the RMT had been a thorn in the side of both Tory and Labour governments, and their parties, since Crow was elected leader of the RMT in 2002. The membership of the union increased from 53,000 to over 80,000 during those 12 years, and he welcomed seafarers and cleaners into the RMT. As a result the train and tube drivers are the only working class people in London with jobs where pay, pensions and conditions are better now than they were 25 years ago.
In the recent dispute and strike over the planned closure of all ticket offices on the London Underground, he managed to win the support of a large section of the travelling public for the union’s position through his patient explanation of the real issues at stake, including that of safety. While Johnson and the Tory press accused him of “holding the country to ransom”, he stuck to the facts. This was a big factor in the tactical retreat forced onto TFL and the mayor.
Crow’s first job, as an apprentice track worker on the London Underground, was during a time when unions enjoyed great power and influence over the country. The Transport and General Workers Union had two million members. The engineering union was not far behind, and the miners had recently forced the Tory government of Edward Heath out of office.
All this changed with the economic crisis in the early 1980s, when the government of Margaret Thatcher was able to break the power of the unions with her policies of mass unemployment, the closure of much of the manufacturing industry, attacks on wages and tough laws against the unions. Crow, together with one or two other leaders, had understood that battles with employers and governments are not won by co-operating with their plans.
In 2004, the RMT disaffiliated from the Labour Party because the Blair government had refused to repeal the anti-union legislation or to moderate its antagonistic policies towards the working class in general. The union was in turn expelled by the party and the action provoked a huge furore, with Labour heavyweights wheeled out in front of the press to denounce the RMT and issue dire warnings that the union was consigning itself to the wilderness. How wrong these claims proved to be.
So the tribute today from Ed Miliband, Labour’s current leader, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Miliband noted that Crow was "loved and deeply respected by his members", adding: "He did what he was elected to do, was not afraid of controversy and was always out supporting his members across the country." Miliband, of course, was among those who condemned the RMT when it staged effective strikes.
Crow’s brother Richard said his brother believed in justice and looked after the people he was supposed to look after. “People moaned that he lived in a council house, that he never drove a car; he lived a life of the average guy in the street and that's a rare thing these days. When people have a high office in life they fall for the big trappings of flash cars and big hotels and big houses. But Bob wasn't like that, he was a genuine person of the people."
A committed Socialist, Crow spoke at rallies and meetings most weekends and was always in demand to support campaigns. He was a member of the Communist Party until 1995 when he joined Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, but left while remaining an admirer of Scargill.
When he died he was not a member of any party. Crow had been involved in a series of campaigns and projects to find an alternative to Labour, all to no avail. He was also deeply internationalist, speaking out for the Palestinians and workers around the world, and a committed anti-racist.
Crow was a passionate supporter of Millwall Football Club whose fans chant: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” That about sums up Crow’s attitude to the political establishment and the employers. “Why won’t anybody like that stand up for me”, might well be the cry of ordinary people suffering under the austerity policies of this government. Crow’s act will be a hard one to follow.
12 March 2014