Published on Tuesday, 11 March 2014
Written by Rich T
Kevin Crane on the death of a defining figure of the ‘awkward squad’.
The entire British labour movement received with shock the news that Rail Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) general secretary Bob Crow had died suddenly, aged only 52. Tributes have poured in for a man who was one of Britain’s best known trade unionist and socialist public figures
Bob Crow joined the London Underground aged 16 in the grade then known as “junior railwayman”. In later years he would point out that in today’s job structure, this would have made him a cleaner. He joined the union, which was then called the National Union of Railwaymen (the RMT was formed by a merger between this and National Union of Seamen in 1990), straight away and he became heavily involved, rising steadily from being a representative to a regional and then eventually national official, gaining a reputation for being a talented and passionate activist. He was only 30 years old when he became the union’s assistant general secretary.
Politically, Crow always strongly identified as being on the radical left – avowedly not the centre left. Like many militants within the union leaderships, he had been in the Communist Party. When this dissolved, he did not follow the majority of members into Labour, which was beginning the process of becoming “New Labour” at this time in the 1990s. Instead he remained in what was left of the Communist organisation, eventually enthusiastically joining Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party to run against New Labour during Blair’s ascendancy in 1997. Although this project was not a success in establishing a radical left party in Britain, Crow stayed committed to building a socialist working class alternative to Labour and was one of Britain’s most prominent sceptics that the party could in some way be “reclaimed” for the left.
In 2002 the RMT’s long standing general secretary Roger Knapp died and Crow was elected by a convincing lead to replace him. By this time in the early 2000s, Crow had become part of a new generation of leaders who were starting to rise within the unions. Severe tensions were developing between the aspirations of the trade union movement, which was striving to undo the serious damage it had suffered during the Thatcher years, and the avowedly neoliberal government of New Labour, and one expression of this was the election of a series of new leadership figures who were more openly socialist and much more willing, at least rhetorically, to speak out against Labour policy and the neoliberal economic orthodoxy. The press dubbed this loose grouping the “awkward squad”, and, even before he’d won the election, Bob Crow had become its public face. The right wing press launched hatchet job articles on him straight away, with the Sun labelling him “Public Enemy Number One”. Little over a month before his election, Crow was beaten by a gang of men outside his own home – he had always been sure that this was an attack whipped up by employers’ agitation.
As the RMT’s top official, Crow quickly made a name from himself as vocal, direct and unafraid to use confrontation to achieve gains for transport workers. He was, and to an extent still is, the only instantly recognisable trade unionist in Britain. Under his leadership, his home region of the union in London Transport built up extremely strong and active workplace organisation. London Underground, at this time, was in the early stages of a series of highly unpopular and ultimately disastrous neoliberal reorganisations and the unions fought a number of major industrial actions to defend terms and conditions. Although the popular media depiction of Crow as unwilling and unable to compromise was certainly not true, it is the case that he was resolutely committed to opposing privatisation on London underground. Relations between himself and the left wing mayor Ken Livingstone, who had won the mayoralty against an official Labour candidate on specific promise to oppose neoliberalism on London underground, completely soured over an employment conditions dispute in 2004. Crow angrily resigned from his position on the Transport for London board and Livingstone went to the press to tell RMT members to scab on the union. The strikers themselves held firm and won a significant defensive victory.
Despite being held up in the press by most mainstream political figures as an unacceptable face of trade unionism, Crow could point to a track record in office that was impressive by any measure. The RMT grew from around 57,000 members in 2002 to around 80,000 in 2008, at a time when the rest of British trade union movement was in almost universal decline. The RMT became one of the most controversial institutions in Britain: despised by the right as one of the few unions that could still organise effective and visible workers’ strikes, celebrated by the left as proof that it was still possible to organise workers in their own defence.
Crow’s ambitions were not always successful. He continued to be active in searching for more radical working class political representation, successfully opening up the RMT’s political fund to enable it to financially support the (then electorally successful) Scottish Socialist Party and entering into talks with Respect, getting the RMT officially expelled from the Labour party (ironically, the union then obtained a larger parliamentary group by sponsoring individual MPs). Crow continued to back union support for electoral alternatives, but these have not resulted in breakthroughs.
The bigger project still, and what Crow had very hoped to be his monument, was the campaign to completely renew transport unionism, by merging the RMT with the two smaller, more specialised, TSSA and ASLEF unions. It was Crow’s hope that by bringing these venerable, but weak in membership and finance, unions into a new single rail industry union, that it would be possible to roll out the RMT’s growth to the rest of the British transport network. Despite goodwill from many quarters, this project did not come to pass. A combination of conservatism and genuine difficulties regarding union structures and policies prevented mergers from occurring, though it does seem likely that Crow would not have given.
Bob Crow’s sudden death leaves much work that he would have wanted finished, now unresolved. His big ambitions of leading a real rebirth of industrial trade unionism and the establishment of a new socialist political project weren’t achieved, which is what makes his untimely death a particularly serious loss to the entire movement. He’s also not someone socialists would never have had differences with. Like any union leader, there were times when his view on the direction of dispute was sometimes at odds with the workers on the ground, which quite simply goes with the territory of being a full-time official and not a day-to-day member of the workforce. His political positions were also, sometimes, contradictory or problematic: in 2008 he alternated between condemning the highly nationalistic “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan, to appearing to condone it later on, and the NO2EU protest party that he backed in the 2009 and 2014 European elections utilises some of the same rhetoric, blaming the EU for neoliberal attacks that are carried out just as severely by the British government.
But it would be a mistake to say that Crow hasn’t had a huge impact on trade union and left wing politics in Britain, indeed he’s been one of the most significant figures of a generation. As mentioned before, most British people would struggle to name any trade unionists other than Bob Crow. His direct style was easy for critics to mock, but it wasn’t easy to ignore. The RMT is a relatively minor union in terms of membership, but leaders of the major unions have been much less effective at getting their points of view across in the media, and more to the point are not able to claim to have significantly increased the numbers of workers they organise despite years of high profile mergers.
The RMT during the Crow years showed that even in these days of entrenched neoliberalism, workers could be organised, fight and win. Bob Crow wasn’t the first member of the so-called awkward squad, but it could well be argued he was its defining member. When Len McClusky of the massive Unite the Union appears in public praising social movements, condemning capitalism and calling on working class people to take action, it is Bob Crow’s style he is borrowing from, not the style of his predecessors in the old Transport & General Workers Union. Crow will be remembered as a trade unionist and a socialist, and for showing that the movement did, in fact, have a future after the Thatcher attacks and for helping to shape what that future was likely to be.
This article was originally published at rs21.org.uk