Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Hard Man to Replace

LIKE an awful lot of people, I was saddened to hear of the death today of Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. He was only 52.

Bob was a union leader who fought for his members and his industry. Having started on the railways as a labourer in the tree felling gang, he was very much determined the union must be for all its members, and not just those who had achieved relatively good pay and conditions. He also raised issues of safety and welfare of rail passengers, as well as fares, and did not leave the bosses' media free to pose as friends of commuters. 

It was under Bob Crow's leadership - assisted by good well-motivated officers and lay activists - that the RMT took up a fight for contract cleaners, many of them insecure migrant workers, employed on the Underground and other services, as well as taking its stand for ticket office and other station staff's jobs, and safer stations.

From the Underground to under water, as well as taking up the tough job of defending seafarers against international owners, the Maritime side of RMT brought in divers, and made sense of its accepting the oil rig workers' Offshore Industries Liaison Committee into the union. Some jealous leaders in other unions thought they could make this a pretext for removing the RMT from the Trade Union Congress, but fortunately they were persuaded to think again about this daft idea.

With Bob Crow as general secretary the RMT's membership increased from around 57,000 in 2002 to more than 80,000 in 2008, making it one of Britain's fastest growing trade unions, and still growing. It's a resounding raspberry to the hacks and pundits who kept telling us unions were a relic and that Bob Crow's militant style acknowledging class struggle was particularly outdated. As well as leading the RMT, Bob Crow became one of the best known and best-liked members of the TUC General Council, well-regarded by members of other unions.

What I will particularly remember is not just Bob Crow's independence of Labour leaders and willingness to confront employers, but his readiness to meet and give his time and help to the grass roots and wider labour movement. He was one of the few trade union general secretaries, possibly the first, to give up his weekend to address the annual conference of trades union councils, and it was with his backing that the National Shop Stewards' Network got under way. I also remember Bob turning up at the Casa (dockers' club) in Liverpool, to present awards at the Construction Safety Campaign's annual conference. And those of us who appreciate the Easington Colliery brass band's continued enlivenment of labour movement events have the generosity of the RMT union to thank.

We got used to seeing Bob, not just on TV but in all sorts of places and meetings, among us sometimes as one of the crowd rather than always the star.  As a speaker he could say things I disagreed with, but what struck me more was his warm and genuinely human perspective. Unpretentious, as when he told a trades councils' conference in London that he knew a little about what was happening in education through his daughters who were teachers; amusing yet thoughtful, as he told how a docker home from fighting in the Second World War was not prepared to accept bad conditions or bullying at work, telling the boss "We just beat Hitler, do you think I'm scared of you?!'

And giving us something to reflect on, when he pointed out that sadly, thanks to austerity policies, we must be the first generation since the end of the Second World War who could not say our children would be better off than we were.

Bob Crow was proud of his roots in the East End of London, as my mate Dave Rosenberg found when they discussed his East End walks and football fanship together.  To the media pack, he justly insisted on his right to stay in a council house like the one where he grew up, and to reject the "right to buy" from which he might have profited. He likewise insisted on his right to enjoy a holiday in Brazil, asking nonchalantly whether they thought he should just "sit under a tree reading Karl Marx"!

He was loyal to his class and believed in its future. He set an example. He will be hard to replace.


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At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Sue Katz said...

Thanks for this wonderful profile. As a union activist here in the States, I can see how much we have to learn from Bob Crow.


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