Bob Crow, the leader of the RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), who has died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 52, managed to popularise the cause of trade unions at a time of declining membership and increasing hostility. He was often the face of trade unionism in the media, and had a higher profile than leaders of much larger unions.
This was achieved through a mixture of militancy, media savvy and charm, backed by a very keen brain and strong emotional intelligence. Crow’s public image as a troublemaker and bully boy was misplaced. Of course he was prepared to talk aggressively on television and radio as a way of ramping up support for his cause and ensuring that the bulk of his members were behind him. However, behind the scenes it was another story. The rail industry managers who had to sit on the opposite side of the negotiation table from Crow were virtually unanimous in their assessment that “you could always cut a deal with Bob”.
Unlike Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader who founded the Socialist Labour party that Crow briefly joined, 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.”
That said, he did not like his aggression being met with a commensurate response. Crow took a particular dislike to the London Underground boss Derek Smith, who pushed through a public-private partnership in the late 1990s against both union and Labour opposition. At one point, coming into a meeting to discuss a disputed ballot that was heading for the courts, Crow threw a newspaper with an article that he felt was offensive on the table and was surprised to find Smith throwing it back with greater force.
The word “moderate” to describe Crow popped up surprisingly often in conversations with railway managers. This was partly because Crow was wont to warn negotiators that his executive was on the warpath and he would need concessions to keep them happy. However, it was also the case that there were executive members who were further left politically than Crow and far more eager to see disruptive industrial action.
Crow, born in east London, left Hainault high school at the age of 16 and soon became interested in trade unionism after joining London Transport in 1977, initially as a member of a tree-felling gang. In 1983 he became a local trade-union representative and two years later the national officer for trackworkers in the National Union of Railwaymen, which became the RMT when it merged with the National Union of Seamen in 1990.
Crow established himself as a powerful voice in the union, often speaking out against the leadership of Jimmy Knapp over fears that the union was becoming too distant from its members. This enabled him to create a strong base in the grassroots, which stood him in good stead when Knapp died in 2001 while still in office as general secretary. Crow won the subsequent election easily, polling almost two-thirds of the votes.
The union was often in the spotlight and under his leadership membership grew from 57,000 to about 80,000 today, bucking the general trend among other unions. This was undoubtedly helped by the strong line taken in many disputes, but although there were often successful ballots for industrial action, for the most part agreements were reached before workers walked out. The strike calls were part of the negotiating position and Crow was adept at wading through the anti-union legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher and largely left by Labour, which was one of his reasons for falling out with the party.
While Crow was generally happy to negotiate with managers, there were limits to his tolerance. One fellow trade unionist remembers travelling to Washington with him as part of the International Transport Workers’ Federation for discussions with the World Bank and seeing Crow “finding it hard to restrain himself. He wondered why we were speaking to these people at all, a position which several other trade unionists, but not all, agreed with.” For the most part, though, Crow was an extremely skilled negotiator and in public speeches knew exactly what buttons to press. Sure, there would be jokes and routine denunciations of the Conservatives, but these were only padding for the two or three key messages Crow wanted to get across.
Within his union, there were dissenters from the right, too. Crow was very keen on defending the rights of low-paid workers, such as cleaners, who for the most part worked not for the rail companies but were outsourced. Some of his well-paid members, such as drivers, queried why the union should concern itself with these lower-paid workers whose lack of job security meant they were far more difficult to reach and retain in the union, but Crow, true to his principles, always argued in favour of supporting them.
The RMT was expelled in 2004 by the Labour party for supporting rival candidates. Crow was not a member of a political party when he died, though he had supported the now disbanded Socialist Alliance, and believed socialist parties should unite to fight Labour.
Not surprisingly, Crow did attract hostility. Most notably, he was seriously injured in an attack by two men with an iron bar in January 2002, six weeks before his election, which he put down to “management”, but the culprits were more likely to have come from the then quite active far-right in Dagenham, where he lived. Such attacks were encouraged by coverage in the rightwing press, which regularly called him “the most hated man in Britain”.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, standing in his office
Bob Crow in his London office in 2009. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
In fact, the frequent media attacks upon him largely did not stick, because of Crow’s skill at handling the broadcast media, which meant he always came across as straightforward and honest on both radio and television. Even when espousing ideas that most of the public would regard as outlandish, he managed to sound reasonable and matter of fact. He was a regular on the BBC’s Question Time and for the most part his interventions received enthusiastic approbation from at least a major section of the audience.
Whenever I bumped into him, he did not forget that I had once called him a “bit of a political dinosaur” but nevertheless was always charming and ready to thrash out differences. Indeed, few people who met him disliked him and interviewers report how he was always engaging and he generally managed to get the better of them.
Crow was lucky in two respects. First, he was general secretary of a union that still had industrial strength because of its ability to be able to paralyse the railways or the London Underground by withdrawing labour. Not many other unions have that ability. Secondly, he became general secretary of a rail union at a time when the industry was booming, which gave him a strong negotiating position.
The last major dispute in which he was involved, in February this year, played to his strengths. As it was centred on an issue that chimed with the public, the closure of all the ticket offices in the Underground system, the public was surprisingly supportive of the tube workers despite the fact that their journeys were disrupted for two days. In fact, the second strike was called off when Transport for London agreed to further talks, and certainly the London mayor Boris Johnson, who had always refused to meet Crow officially, came off surprisingly badly in the dispute. The fact that it was Johnson rather than Crow who had been obdurate was highlighted by the fact that TfL had all along planned to retain ticket-selling facilities at several busy stations, but, prompted by Johnson, had publicly suggested that they would all be closed.
Crow’s weak point was his lifestyle. He earned a package worth £145,000, far more than any of his members, and yet lived in a council house. He defended this strongly, saying social housing should be for everyone, which rather betrayed a blind spot over the perception of his salary and his housing. It was apt that Crow supported Millwall, a football club with a similar reputation to his own and whose fans’ favourite chant, “No one likes us, we don’t care”, could equally have applied to him.