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 immediately joined the union (then the National Union of Railwaymen, which merged with the National Union of Seamen in 1990 to form the RMT). He rose steadily through the union’s ranks, from being a representative to a regional and 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.
Crow always strongly identified as part of the radical left – avowedly not the centre left. Like many militants within the union leaderships, he had been in the Communist Party. When it disbanded in 1991, he declined to join the Labour Party, already well on its way to becoming “New Labour”. 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. Crow was part of an emerging new generation of leaders 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. One expression of this was the election of a series of new leadership figures who were more openly socialist and much more willing to oppose, at least rhetorically, Labour policy and the neoliberal economic orthodoxy. The press dubbed this loose grouping the “awkward squad”, and Bob Crow had become its public face even before he’d won the election. The right wing press published hatchet job attacks on him, 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.
Crow quickly made a name from himself as a vocal and direct general secretary who was unafraid to use confrontation to achieve gains for transport workers. Under his leadership, his home region of the union in London Transport built up extremely strong and active workplace organisation. London Underground was at this time 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 former 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 trade union membership in Britain was seriously declining. 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 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, which 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 weakened unions into a single rail industry union, 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 seems likely that Crow would not have given up on this aim had he lived longer.
Bob Crow’s sudden death leaves much of his work 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 makes his untimely death a particularly serious loss to the entire movement. He’s was not someone socialists never had differences with. Like any union leader, there were times when his view on the direction of a dispute was at odds with the workers on the ground, which goes with the territory of being a full-time official and not a day-to-day member of the workforce. His political positions were sometimes contradictory or problematic: in 2008 he alternated between condemning the highly nationalistic “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan, to later appearing to condone it; the NO2EU protest party that he backed in the 2009 and 2014 European elections utilises similar 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 this country. Indeed he’s been one of the most significant figures of a generation. Many people in Britain 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 after decades of neoliberal attacks, workers could be organised, fight back 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 McCluskey 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 that of his predecessors in the old Transport & General Workers Union. Crow will be remembered as a trade unionist and a socialist who helped to show that the movement did, in fact, have a future after Thatcherism, and for helping to shape what that future was likely to be.