Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union leader Bob Crow has died at the age of 52. He was rushed to Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone, east London, by ambulance early this morning after suffering an aneurysm and massive heart attack. The controversial RMT boss, who lived in Woodford Green, East London, leaves a partner, Nicola Hoarau, 50. The Eagle understands he had been unwell for some time.
It is hard to think of a working class Trade Union Leader (or indeed politician) in this country. Bob Crow was certainly that – the pantomime villain of modern industrial relations in Britain, and the tubby poster boy for the campaign to make it even more difficult to take strike action in this country. Maybe we should also acknowledge he was a Working Class Hero?
Bob had an ebullient sense of humour and would no doubt be laughing his head off at some of those paying tribute to him today who did not have a good word to say about him when he was alive. He wouldn’t care for their words, his attitude was summed up in the chant of supporters of the football team he supported, Millwall “No one likes us, we don’t care.” Chairman Bob’s loudest posthumous guffaw would be reserved for Boris Johnson who said: “I’m shocked. Bob Crow was a fighter and a man of character. Whatever our political differences, and there were many, this is tragic news. Bob fought tirelessly for his beliefs and for his members. There can be absolutely no doubt that he played a big part in the success of the Tube, and he shared my goal to make transport in London an even greater success. It’s a sad day.” Johnson refused to meet officially with Bob Crow when he was alive.
There’s often a managerial culture about unions these days. A tendency to appease rather than fight, a tendency to over-negotiate, to over-compromise, to blink a little too quickly. For my 20 years with London Underground I was a member of the other transport union TSSA which never went on strike from 1926 (when the whole country went on strike) to 2010. There is a feeling with a union like TSSA that they were balancing the interests of their members with those of the management. So for their good behaviour they were treated as a laughing stock by management who rolled them and then rolled them some more just for practice. Under Manuel Cortes TSSA has found its cojones again and they went on a joint strike with RMT on ticket office closures last month. Manuel said “Bob Crow was admired by his members and feared by employers, which is exactly how he liked it. It was a privilege to campaign and fight alongside him because he never gave an inch.”
In 2008 Boris Johnson ran for Mayor of London opposing the planned closure of 40 ticket offices by Ken Livingstone. He also reiterated his promise in 2010 that he would keep manned ticket offices in all stations telling the London Assembly “The first and most important point to make is that no ticket offices will be closed, alright? They’re not going to be closed…” The reason Johnson did this is because he knew plans to close ticket offices were unpopular, and I suspect they still are. That Boris Johnson has committed a slow U-Turn on this and now supports the decision to cut nearly 1,000 jobs is perhaps the most outrageous part of the whole story.
For decades we have had union leaders whose main interest in life seems to have been building ever bigger unions through mega-mergers, looking after their own terms and conditions of employment and failing miserably to read the writing on the wall about declining industries. After the “barons” of the 1960s and 1970s – Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones, Tom Jackson and other great powers in the land – it all went wrong with Scargill, who did more to damage to trade unionism than Thatcher.
Bob and the RMT were different. When they went into the room they were listened to and treated seriously for Underground management knew if they were negotiating with Bob Crow, it was on his terms, not theirs. He focused on one thing – getting the best deal for his members. He was very good at doing it, and he was very popular with his members as a consequence. Chairman Bob was elected to be leader of the RMT in 2002. On election he received nearly double the number of votes of the two other candidates put together. He has subsequently been re-elected on two occasions unopposed. He was, whatever way you look at it, extremely popular with those he represents. The RMT has repeatedly negotiated strong pay increases for its members.
Unlike the blustering idiot Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader who founded the Socialist Labour party that Crow briefly joined and destroyed a Union and an industry by blundering into every trap set for him Crow always put his members first. According to a manager who frequently negotiated with him: “Yes, he wanted to change the world, but he saw his first task as bettering the lot of his members rather than encouraging some kind of revolution.” He understood Rail was an expanding industry and he made the RMT the union of choice for workers in that industry expanding its membership from 52,000 to 80,000. But unlike Scargill, Bob Crow was astute, a brilliant tactician and always wanted to cut a deal on behalf of his members. But more than that he also embraced an ethical approach to stand up for the weak, he demanded a living wage and went on strike for lowly paid cleaners, was an ardent anti-fascist and campaigned with the family of Ian Tomlinson who was killed by the Metropolitan Police. He was also, lest we forget an effective polemicist for what he believed in with an ability to communicate an argument simply and effectively as the interview below with Andrew Neil amply demonstrates.
Former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, led the tributes to Bob today, saying he fought for his members despite being demonised by the right wing press. He said: ‘I assumed he would be at my funeral, not me at his.’ Mr Livingstone told Sky News: ‘He fought really hard for his members. The only working-class people who still have well-paid jobs in London are his members.’ He said Mr Crow was ‘broadly right on most key issues’, and that if more people had fought for the conditions of the working classes ‘this country would be a much better place.’
Chairman Bob saw management entreaties for the insincere platitudes they are and understood their end game, clearly understood the motives of Tube Management to destroy the London Underground we value and reduce it to a TfL “Mode” devoid of its unique public service identity. He also recognised that Rail Privatisation is nothing of the sort but is a regulated publicly run scam to milk the Cash Cow of regulated fares and recycled public subsidy running at three times the level required when railways were publicly owned. According to YouGov the British public support renationalisation of railways by 64%-20% – Even amongst Tory voters it’s 50%-36% for.
Rather than criticise Bob Crow for doing his job extremely effectively, or for having expensive holidays, or for living in a council house, isn’t it time we gave him a bit of credit for challenging hypocrisy, standing up for workers’ rights and being unbowed in the face of considerable pressure?
Men like Chairman Bob are rare in British public life and those who would focus on his few failings are missing the point. He was a working class hero.
The thoughts of Chairman Bob
On living in a Council house while on a salary of £145k a year;
“I was born in a council house; as far as I’m concerned, I will die in one.”
“Our job is to represent working people. Management is refusing to negotiate. We either accept that or do something about it. You cannot have a dispute without inconvenience to the travelling public. It’s not selfish. Our job is to defend and improve our members’ terms and conditions.”
On the Royal Family
“I think the royal family is very privileged. I wouldn’t like to see any harm coming to them, but I do believe they lead a very privileged life. Why should they be able to start out in the world with far more benefits than other people?”
“I’m not looking for Utopia. In my view, everyone should have the chance of a job at a decent wage; to have the opportunity to buy or rent a house. There should be a decent National Health Service and good schooling for everyone.”
On Tony Benn
(Was Benn not a born aristocrat, one who renounced his title? Crow was asked.)
“Just because you go to the Virgin Islands it doesn’t make you a virgin does it?”
On the Labour Party
“The achievements of Labour in the years after the Second World War should never be underestimated, but they are now history.”
On Margaret Thatcher’s death
“I won’t shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I’m concerned she can rot in hell.”
On the London Underground PPP
“Under the old London Underground regime, the managing director would say change a light bulb at Rickmansworth station and the person would change the light bulb. Now he has to ring a contractor up, who rings a subcontractor up, who rings an agency up, which then rings a handyman up out of the Yellow Pages to go and put in a light bulb.”
Robert Crow, trade unionist, born 13 June 1961; died 11 March 2014
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.