A strike too far?

Watching Bob Crow in action is an instant history lesson. His way of conducting industrial disputes has more in common with the Everybody Out style of Miriam Karlin in the 1960s sitcom The Rag Trade than with modern-day trade unionism. His latest efforts to stop London moving may, however, prove to be one strike call too many for Britain’s last diehard militant trade union leader.

Crow is an unapologetic political activist who wants the walk-out by his RMT members on London Underground today to be the start of a series of protests that will bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to fight Tory cuts, with his union in the vanguard.

 To Crow, it is irrelevant that he has chosen the wrong issue when next month’s spending review is bound to throw up far worthier causes than the current dispute. Behind the rhetoric about safety and job cuts, there is no justification for the action. London Underground has promised that there will be no compulsory redundancies and that safe staffing levels at stations will be maintained. The 800 jobs to go will be phased out by voluntary agreement as part of a strategy to get staff out of the ticket offices which, thanks to Oyster, have turned into quiet reading rooms for the clerks as so few tickets are being sold.

 If the case is so weak, why is it that his members, the majority of whom are as likely to wish for a Socialist Republic as they would fancy a winter break in Siberia, put up with the Crow routine? The answer is that it works. Professor Ralph Darlington, in an article proudly posted on the RMT website, says: “A crucial ingredient of the RMT’s organising approach has been the explicit rejection of social partnership in favour of union militancy and strike mobilisation as the path to the defence of workers’ conditions and the reinvigoration of union organisation.” Militancy is the RMT brand just as much as the slogan “things go better” was for Coca-Cola. Professor Darlington found that in the eight years to December 2009, the RMT, a small union of just 80,000 members, balloted for strikes on no fewer than 141 occasions.

Quite often, fear of disruption has led train companies to cave in and award big pay rises. Every such victory for the RMT strengthens his hand in the next dispute. Membership of the union has, consequently, been growing fast, a fact that Crow celebrated last month with a 12 per cent pay rise, increasing his basic salary to nearly £95,000.

 Crow is a clever and accomplished leader who inspires loyalty. However, this time he is skating on thin ice. And he knows it. For the most part, he has allowed his sidekick Pat Sikorski, a man who makes Crow look moderate, to front the TV coverage on the dispute because the case for the strike is so hard to justify.

 London Underground is confident that some trains will run on all lines today. There are bound to be many station closures, however, as that is where the members of the RMT and TSSA – the other union, representing predominantly white collar staff – are concentrated. Crow needs major disruption, however, to prove his point. Otherwise, he will be in retreat and if he is forced to reassess his long-established tactic of striking first and negotiating second, his support within the union could be fatally undermined.

  • Dan

    I think I should probably have posted this link here:

    Boris and his promise on the no strike deal…..

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/davehillblog/2010/sep/07/boris-johnson-no-strike-deal-london-underground-unions

    Mind you I wish my union was half as effective! Then thinking about it I realise that is mostly down to the fellow workers not being prepared to ‘be tough’ when it comes to a showdown (unlike the RMT, or of course the BMA etc….)

  • philip russell

    yes a very accurate article ,but i would like to add that the rmt does a great job daily representing workers against lying ,bullying and incompetent managers which i personally know regretebally do exist hopefully in small numbers ,but they really should stop trying to convince their rank and file membership that the tide of technology change and progress on the railway can be frozen through strike action ,well done scotrail for not just caving in to the union in the recent airdrie to bathgate dispute unlike other toc,s who will not dare change anything for the fear of a strike

  • Adam N

    In the above article, Christian suggests that without major disruption, Bow Crow will fail to have his point heard. While such disruption on the occassion described (Sept 7th 2010), it appears that the latest strike, happening as I write on 4th Oct, is having much more of an effect – TFL’s live departure board is awash with “Severe delays” and “Suspended service” messsages. All lines apart from the DLR are closed or partly closed.

    This situation is however completely different from the travel advice published on TFL’s website prior to the strike. Only yesterday they were advising that only the Cirle line would be completely closed, with a workable service on most sections of all other lines. THey also released a list of stations that would be open.

    Today however, the situation is terrible. Is it too cynical to suggest that TFL management was deliberately misinformed over the scale of the strike? The information available from TFL yesterday strongly suggested, both explicitly and implicitly, that the service would be disrupted but still workable. Hence commuters, expecting it not to be too bad, have tried to get to work only to find both the Underground and Overground systems almost completely out of action. The disruption is terrible, worse still for it being a Monday morning with schools back in term time too boot, and Bob Crow makes up for the “ineffective” September strike.

    Am I only imagining a conspiracy on the back of unfortunate coincidence? I hope so. But if any deliberate misinformation has occurred, Bob Crow can only be inviting the wrath of the Mayor, the Government and every London commuter into his front room. The reaction to the strike willl certainly be worth watching.

  • Dan

    Mayor and Tory govt will be happy to smash the RMT if they can think of a way – Bob C knows this – wonder if his members do? Scargill and the NUM will be the sort of ‘inspriation’ to both sides in this conflict – but hard to know how it will end.

  • RapidAssistant

    Smashing the mining industry was easy for Mrs T. largely because the general public didn’t directly need coal anymore. And a cheap alternative source was available overseas to satisfy the remaining industrial demand – power stations and the like. If the mines stopped – ultimately who cared? After the events of 1984-85 blew over – the NCB was quietly given a slow death before finally being put out of its misery a few years later with barely a whimper.

    Public support for the railways is a lot higher – when there is a general undercurrent of public opinion (even among non-users of the railway will concede that privatisation has failed) that the present system doesn’t work. After all, everyone has seen rail franchises, Railtrack and the PPP of the Tube fail at massive expense to the taxpayer, and for that reason I believe that although the knee-jerk antics of Bob Crow are pretty unconstructive to say the least – ultimately public opinion will prevail in support of the industry itself.

    Whether the RMT survives in its current form however, is an unknown.

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