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  • Published in Book Reviews

A new biography of Bob Crow shows why he can be considered as the most effective union leader of his generation, argues Graham Kirkwood

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Gregor Gall, Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter: A Political Biography (Manchester University Press 2017), 249pp.

Elected leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers’ union in 2002, Bob Crow was possibly the most awkward of the ‘awkward squad’ of union leaders, a group which emerged in the 1990s and also included Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil-service union and Mick Rix of Aslef, the train-drivers’ union. They represented a shift away from the dominant new realism of the 1980s, a view which took hold after the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 which said that workers couldn’t fight and win, and simply had to wait for a rightward shifting Labour Party to be elected as their only hope.

Depicted by the right-wing media variously as a Marxist Millwall supporter, Britain’s Jimmy Hoffa or a dinosaur, Bob Crow was in fact the most effective union leader of his generation, winning significant improvements in pay and conditions for his union’s members and building the RMT into one of the most successful and militant trade unions we have seen in the past twenty years. Although often at odds with him when he was London mayor, Ken Livingston said on Bob’s tragically early death in 2014 at the age of 52; ‘His members are one of the few groups of working-class people who have still got well-paid jobs and a lot of that is down to him’ (p.230).

Bob grew up in a working-class family in the east end of London. His father, a Communist Party (CP) member, instilled in him a belief in socialism and trade unionism. He was advised to read the CP daily newspaper, the MorningStarand the bosses’ daily, the FinancialTimes, and to believe the opposite of everything said in the latter. His early demonstrations of mental abilities included as a primary-school child buying sport rule books and memorising them by heart. Later in life a feature of his would be his grasp of issues, John McDonnell said of him: ‘There wasn’t a subject of interest to his members that he didn’t have a thorough knowledge of’ (p.130).

One measure of his success as a union leader was the increase in membership from 63,084 when he was elected in 2002 to 77,549 in 2012. The RMT at the time he took over was widely regarded as a union in crisis, and in danger of being swallowed up by a larger union. Bob Crow built a new infrastructure, set up an organising unit, and invested in the education of reps and members. He said: ‘if we want the best reps, we have to educate them to the highest standard’ (p.115).

The other measure of success, as Livingston says, is the increase in salaries of members of the union, at least in the strongest areas like rail, and in particular London Underground. Of course, the crucial factor in all this was the union members’ militancy, but he assisted in this of that there is no doubt. The tactics adopted of maximising the effect of strikes, selecting days of importance, not wasting member’s time and money coupled with his ability to strike a deal, made a difference.

Bob’s attitude to money was amusing. In defending his high salary as general secretary of the RMT he simply said he was: ‘worth it’. He certainly was worth it more than other trade-union leaders, although the danger remains of living in a different stratum to his members. However, he was attacked by the press for, on the one hand, holidaying in Brazil and on the other for living in a council house. He said: ‘I’m proud when workers come to me and say they’ve been on a cruise, and they have a nice house’, (p.131) and when asked by a Guardian journalist who was aghast that London underground train drivers might earn £40,000 plus, he responded; ‘Yeah! But we’ve got people on far more than that. Technical officers and signal workers are on £54,000. Basic. For a flat week. All pensionable’ (p.131). Why not.

Politics

A member of the CP from 1983 to 1997, he credited them with his education and it certainly informed much of his politics and practice. His CP political training possibly did affect his approach to union building, placing an emphasis more on getting left officials in place rather than building up the rank and file. Having said that, there is a lot of evidence in Gregor Gall’s biography that he spent a lot of time and energy building up the infrastructure in the RMT to enable reps and lay members to improve themselves politically and have a say in the running of the union. He is credited with improving democracy in the union, restoring power to elected reps, reducing the power of the central bureaucracy, and changing the RMT to a more democratic, member led union. He had a willingness and ability to work with groups across the spectrum on the left, including Trotskyists.

Gregor Gall’s book could have benefited from a more detailed analysis of Bob’s relationship with the movements, in particular the Stop the War Coalition, and the socialist groups he supported such as the Socialist Alliance and the Coalition of Resistance, forerunner to the People’s Assembly, and the effect these may have had on his practice. He was a key supporter of the Stop the War Coalition, a familiar face at the front of demonstrations carrying the banner. His summing up of Tony Blair is the most succinct and accurate I have come across:

‘He squandered a massive landslide from an electorate hungry for change, poured billions of public pounds into private pockets and accelerated the growing gap between rich and poor’ (p.78)

Bob’s hero was Arthur Scargill and he joined Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in 1997 although left fairly soon after. It was only Arthur Scargill who could claim, in current times, to have been vilified by the press more, and interestingly only Scargill who appeared as a union-leader panellist on the BBC Question Time more often, a sign of grudging respect or at least a recognition of their popularity among the general public.

One of the strengths of Bob Crow’s politics was his ability to work easily outside the Labour Party, unlike many union leaders where support for Labour is hard coded into the rule books. This might not seem such an issue now with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, but think back to the Tony Blair days and you can quickly see how restrictive this one-party policy can be for activists in unions trying to challenge government policy or support organisations to the left of Labour. Far from taking a syndicalist approach as some on the left have accused him, his multi-party approach to political representation led the RMT to have one of the largest parliamentary groups of any union in the House of Commons.

Privatisation and the anti-union laws

The most interesting area covered in Gregor Gall’s book and explored in some detail is Bob Crow’s relationship with the anti-union laws and the issue of privatisation. As Gall says: ‘strikes against privatisation per se and the breaking of the anti-union laws, in spite of Crow’s advocacy, were absent under his tenure as they had been under Knapp’ (p.200), Knapp being the previous leader of the RMT. Tory anti-trade union legislation is deliberately designed to make strikes difficult to call and are particularly aimed at outlawing strikes over the outsourcing of industry and services in the form of privatisation. Although Bob Crow was an outspoken opponent of them, the evidence points to a separation of politics and economics where he was reluctant to lead any strikes which might have led to such a political confrontation with the government. No doubt the threat of sequestration of union funds, had they fallen foul of the law, played a major factor, but the question remains, how do we defeat these laws if we are not prepared to tackle them on head on?

Crow’s legacy

The first duty of a union leader should be to be on the side of the union’s members as they fight to win better terms and conditions from their employers. It is clear from the evidence assembled by Gregor Gall that members of the RMT could be confident their leader was on their side and fighting to win. I contrast this with my own union, UCU, where at times it feels like the leadership are more obsessed with fighting the left inside the union than successfully progressing disputes. The terms and conditions achieved by RMT members, in particular the most militant on the London Underground, are a testament to Bob Crow’s non-sectarian approach.

Gregor Gall’s book is full of interesting facts and does bring to life this extraordinary man. Whether it achieves its objective of critically analysing his life from a Marxist perspective is debateable. I feel it would have benefited more from an analysis of Bob’s involvement in the movements and activism outside the RMT, and how this influenced his practice along with more detail on his interaction with and the rank and file of the union he led.

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