Remembering Bob Crow, a fighter for workers everywhere…

The leader of the UK’s Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union  (RMT), Bob Crow, died suddenly three years ago, in March 2014. He was 52. “Bob’s untimely death has left a giant gap in our lives,” said the ITF’s Stephen Cotton at the time, “both personal and as a global activist. He never faltered from the certainty that the global trade union movement could make a difference to workers’ lives. His work mobilising international support for workers, including those of Cuba and Palestine, will live on.”

 Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford, has published what he describes as “a political biography” of Crow to mark the third anniversary of his death. USiLive asked him to write about why Bob Crow was so important to the global labour movement:

“In my new biography, Bob Crow: socialist, leader, fighter: a political biography, I try to draw out the lessons that Crow’s life and legacy have for other workers and their unions. He displayed a unique combination of personality and politics — ebullience mixed with deeply felt socialist principles — and enjoyed the support of a membership (particularly among railway workers) with an unusual degree of economic and social power.

“But I do not draw simplistic parallels between rail workers and others or conclude that all it takes to have more effective unions is to have more leaders like Bob Crow. After all, there are specific characteristics of the power that rail workers can wield, not least because of the monopoly nature of the service they provide and the immediate and dramatic impact of their actions.

“Of course, all workers have their relationship with capital in common. It goes without saying that capital exploits labour, but that makes it dependent on the cooperation and consent of labour. Labour can, if it chooses, name the price for its consent and cooperation. This was a key lesson Bob Crow learnt and tried to teach others, while recognising that the circumstances of workers differ markedly. Working in call centres, for example, does not provide as much collective leverage over capital as working on the railways.

“But he was always keen to stress to other workers (and their unions) the need to locate the sources and points of potential leverage in terms of the fragility of the work systems they operate (whether as a result of just-in-time production techniques or particular events). Workers whose jobs are being outsourced or offshored, for example, can refuse to help train their replacements; office workers can threaten to slow down the flow of work in the run-up to time-critical audits; and lorry drivers can disrupt finely-tuned delivery systems with short, selective action.

“Not all of this requires striking. Indeed, Crow spoke at site rallies in support of construction workers and their rank-and-file organisation in the 2012 dispute over the proposed national agreement. In this dispute, the workers and their supporters blocked site entrances, stopping time-critical deliveries of material getting on to site.

“Crow also showed that strikes can seldom rely solely upon wielding just one kind power. He showed that effective action must complement the main source of power, whether economic or political, with the other.

“Notwithstanding the increased indemnity provided by the state to cover losses from strikes, rail workers’ power is primarily economic. But because of the integrated nature of rail services to the rest of the wider economy and society, political power derives from the consequent disruption. Of course, on London Underground, the reverse is true given that the service remains largely in public hands. In its disputes with Transport for London, political power has been exercised first, followed by economic power.

“Whatever the case, the RMT under Bob Crow’s leadership pioneered the practice of mobilising members and supporters in displays of solidarity with its strikers so that there was a colourful and noisy aspect to any dispute. Protests, lobbies and demonstrations would often be targetted at employers’ events, making good opportunities for media reporting. That was part of his extraordinary spirit. As the ITF’s president, and national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Paddy Crumlin, said at his funeral, ‘Bob was a character larger than life… loved by his friends, respected by his foes and admired by all those who wish for a better world.’

“Given that Crow described himself as a ‘communist/socialist’, internationalism was a critical aspect of his politics and practice. He was, said the ITF’s Steve Cotton, ‘a true internationalist’. He supported the liberation struggles in Cuba, Palestine, South Africa and Venezuela. More importantly, he was — as Joe Fleetwood, national secretary of the New Zealand Maritime Union, said — one of the trade union movement’s great fighters for a better world. He fought for workers regardless of which country they inhabited or were born in. Starting with fellow rail and transport workers in other countries, he offered solidarity and support especially to workers in struggle.

“Today supply chains are becoming progressively longer, more multi-layered and complex, and the role of transport and logistics workers is becoming increasingly critical to the global economy. Under Crow, the practice of the RMT was to focus on the weak links in the processes of production, distribution and exchange, identify them and then mercilessly target them with effective pressure in order to reduce exploitation and ameliorate the conditions of workers across the world.

“The most obvious case of Crow’s global, socialist perspective was his support for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Under his leadership, the RMT held annual garden parties as fundraisers for it. This led to one of his best quips. After leaving both the Communist Party and then the Socialist Labour Party, he was never a member of another political party. So he said the only parties he was now interested in were garden parties.

“Such an ability to express issues in simple, pithy and accessible terms was the hallmark of Bob Crow. One of the main lessons from his life is that union leaders need to be the same as, but also different from, the members they represent. They need to share a broad social and cultural outlook, but possess an extraordinary ability to articulate and pursue the interests of those members.

“Bob Crow was such an individual. At his funeral, Ray Familathe, vice president of the US-based  International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), paid him perhaps the greatest compliment a union leader could hope to earn. ‘Bob,’ said Familathe, ‘was a true leader when it came to fighting for trade union rights and social justice.'”

More details

Details of Gregor Gall’s biography of Bob Crow, and how to purchase it, can be found here.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Gary Herman

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