Bob Crow represented plain-speaking trade union militancy. He was seen as the personification of the idea that the job of a trade union leader is to stick by and stick up for the union’s members — not apologise for, close down or slither away from their battles with employers.
Everyone who understands and values that mourns his shocking and premature death. There is a genuine feeling of sorrow, shock, disbelief and profound sadness among RMT members, and condolences have poured in from everyone from union leaders around the world to passengers coming up to transport staff.
On the day of Bob’s death, the BBC referred to him as “the best-known trade union leader in the country”. The remarkable thing about this is that RMT has around 80,000 members: there are many trade unions significantly — ten, even twenty times — larger than that. Really, the General Secretary of a union which sits in the TUC’s “smaller unions” category should not be the best-known trade union leader in Britain. The fact that Bob Crow was reflects the RMT militancy of which he was the high-profile and (forgive the pun) striking public face. (It also reflects negatively on other union leaders.)
Bob Crow joined London Underground as a track worker in 1977, aged 16. He soon became involved in the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), becoming a representative and in 1984, winning the NUR’s youth award. Eight years later, he was elected to the national executive of RMT, representing London Transport track workers. In 1994, he became Assistant General Secretary, defeating the incumbent AGS. The election of the young, belligerent Crow — an outspoken critic of the union’s leadership — was seen as a boost for the left and for industrial militancy.
Following the death of Jimmy Knapp, Bob was elected General Secretary in February 2002, easily beating his two rivals. He was re-elected unopposed in 2007 and 2012.
Many obituaries of Bob have pointed to the increase in RMT membership during his time as General Secretary, bucking the general trend across the union movement. Workers will join a union that shows that it is willing to fight, through which they can win job security and better pay and conditions. Fighting industrial unionism beats business unionism as a builder of membership. As well as, and alongside, industrial militancy, unions need a genuine organising drive — another thing that Bob Crow brought to the General Secretary’s post.
Last month, Bob spoke at the launch event for my book, Plundering London Underground, for which he had written the foreword. He not only spoke passionately about privatisation on the Tube and elsewhere in the transport industry, but also of the importance of books, of working-class self-education and of recording the history and ideas of our movement. Perhaps contradicting the image of him presented by the right-wing press, Bob was an advocate of reading and study. As General Secretary, he introduced book reviews to the union’s journal, RMT News, and significantly increased the union’s education and training programme. His predecessor, Jimmy Knapp, had shut down the union’s former education centre at Frant Place in Kent; Bob oversaw the establishment of a new national education centre in Doncaster.
For the media, especially that based in London, “Bob Crow” meant “Tube strikes”. It was frustrating when papers like the Evening Standard declared that Bob had “ordered” us out on strike, when we knew that it was rank-and-file London Underground workers who demanded and drove action to defend our jobs, conditions and the public transport system. And — though you would barely believe it from newspaper coverage — once he became the General Secretary, Bob was not even in the meetings which called ballots or strikes on the Tube or on other companies: that was not part of his role.
When the Daily Mail followed Bob on his family holidays, or poured hypocritical scorn on (and serially exaggerated) his salary, it was not because it thinks — as we and some other socialists and trade unionists think — that workers’ representatives should be on a worker’s wage. It was because the Mail hates trade unions, hates workers fighting back, and hates anything progressive or decent.
RMT has reacted angrily to a so-called tribute from London Underground Ltd (LUL) Managing Director Mike Brown in the Evening Standard, in which Brown appeared to suggest that Bob would have helped LUL to carry out its job-cutting plans. Apparently, because Bob was a nice guy who does not oppose new technology, that meant that he would support LUL’s plans, if only it weren’t for the pesky Executive insisting on pointless strikes.
That’s Bob Crow for the ruling class and its media — in life, a figure to hate, a “dinosaur” who “wrecked the lives of commuters” because the union he led took strike action (which in truth defended passengers as well as workers); in death, rewritten as either a collaborator or a lovable throwback to a militant past that should, they hope, die with him.
Bob Crow was not perfect, and no union leader should be held up beyond criticism. Our and others’ disagreements with Bob are a matter of record — there is no need to go into their detail here. We should note, though, that Bob Crow could take criticism and disagreement from within our movement: he did not hold grudges or demonise critics.
The best tribute to Bob is to prove the ruling class and its media wrong. Of course, to his actual family and his wider trade union family, Bob Crow is as a person irreplaceable. But let’s not repeat the idea that he — or Tony Benn, who died just three days later — was “the last of his kind”. We will not lose our militancy because we have so tragically lost Bob Crow.