Bob Crow: 1961-2014. The Leading Light of Britain’s Trade Unions Goes Out.
As a proud socialist and trade unionist, I would be lying if I said that the tragic, untimely death of Bob didn’t hit me particularly hard. The fact that we all have treasured family members and friends of a similar age just serves to hammer home the mortality that envelops us all at moments like this.
The shock news first broke on an otherwise clear morning that the extremely charismatic head of the National Union of Railways, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) had died of a suspected massive heart attack, in the absolute prime of his extremely successful professional career at the age of just 52. When famous political, social or cultural figures are sadly taken from us (read: Tony Benn), you always get the impression that news organisations have had obituaries and comment pieces tucked away for years – but this certainly wasn’t the case here.
The nearest 21st-century British politics and industrial relations had to a working-class hero, Bob was widely reviled by right-wingers aplenty for being the devil’s representative on Earth – and pitied by liberals and social democrats for being a misguided survivor of a bygone era. He was neither – as mainstream media’s remarkable, yet not wholly unsurprising, volte-face has confirmed. He was an all-too rare inspirational fighter and repeated winner on behalf of the voiceless, no matter the cost and militancy required.
For nearly 40 years, successive British governments’ approach to the working-class has ranged from physically attacking them in the street, lying about them in the press, destroying their communities, sending them into pointless wars, to chucking them an occasional bone whilst pretending and wishing they didn’t exist. This is where the trade union movement comes in.
Member-driven, democratic, fighting organisations – they are the largest groups in civil society: membership of them far outstripping political parties or any other comparison. But following the cataclysmic defeat served unto them and their traditional industries by the entire British state in the 1980’s, followed by the most restrictive laws on Trade Unions in the Western world – this has all been sadly lacking.
But not on Bob Crow and the RMT’s watch. All too often, trade union leaders have been lambasted from all sides for having been more interested in playing pseudo-political games, than in securing the fruits of their labour for the workers who pay their wages. Tube drivers’ basic wage of £52,000 plus perks (twice the starting wage of a teacher) – and Crow’s almost messianic popularity throughout his union, pays testament to this and then some. Besides professional sportsmen, the RMT’s members are just about the only working-class with proper wages in modern Britain.
A fearsome negotiator, merciless wit, and unabashed defender of his members’ right to decent lives at all costs – he will without doubt go down as the greatest trade union leader of his generation, and deservedly so. Unjustifiably cut off in his prime, without a posh accent and diary collection (again read: Tony Benn), to bring the British establishment round to acceptance of his unique societal value – Crow’s legacy and place in history will be far kinder than what was printed about him when he walked amongst us.
Never one to accept half-baked measures, his union were the first to be booted out of the Labour Party back in 2004 for accusing New Labour of being exactly what they were; a let-down. They even booted out former Maritime Official John Prescott for having refused to put forward the (overwhelmingly popular) re-nationalisation of the railways when in government.
His decade-plus tenure at the head of the RMT saw an unprecedentedly huge increase in his union’s membership, showed the absolute benefits of a fighting union having delivered exactly what it promised its members, thus miraculously finding an extra 20,000 paid-up trade unionists. No mean feat, which doesn’t deserve to go unappreciated when all the trade union movement as a whole has been in seemingly irreversible decline for more than three decades.
A previous member of the Communist Party and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition steering Committee, whilst also the spearhead of the very active RMT Parliamentary Group of Labour MPs – he was unapologetic in his absolute pragmatism in work, free from the zealot-esque desire to single-handedly re-shape the nation that left the likes of Joe Gormley’s, and Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers often open to criticism.
Despite this, he was lambasted for having the sheer temerity of living in his North London council house, as if it was somehow outrageous for him to refuse to move out of his community, home, and away from his family – despite his apparent “success”.
Firstly, what exactly is wrong with living in a council house? Especially when you prescribe to Nye Bevan’s dream that housing associations would provide a place to call home for all. And as the media never tires of pointing out, living in expensive property far away (physically, socially and culturally), from their masters (read: Ed Miliband), is irrevocably damaging to a leader’s ability to empathise and effectively represent them. Bob was never caught in this trap.
He did right by his ideas, a rare privilege in an era when even supposed socialists get caught up fighting pointless pseudo-intellectual wars, which have zero benefit to the millions of working-class people in this country – whilst quietly chucking their previously murkily acquired principles in the bin at even the vaguest sniff of potential power and influence.
In short, fellow trade union leaders, and the entire Labour Party, would do extremely well to follow his example. Rest in Power Bob you’ll have the angels on improved terms and conditions in no time.
Article Written by Max Bell, edited by Simon Renwick
Word Count: 942