The death of Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT transport workers union, received a surprising amount of media attention. These days, trade union leaders rarely appear in newspapers or on television. When they do it is mostly as villains of the piece – members of the ‘awkward squad’ and so on. But after his death Crow was at least grudgingly recognised as a significant figure. Partly this had to do with his personality. He was tough, blunt and unapologetically working class in a period when political culture is dominated by middle class blandness. Quite simply, he stood out.
Yet beyond his qualifications as a celebrity something much more important was at stake it seems to me. Above all Crow was a fighter, a union leader who was not afraid to rally his members and go head to head with the management of corporations on the membership’s behalf. He represented workers, but he also inspired them with the idea of their own power. If they stuck together and struggled on a collective basis then wages and conditions could be improved.
Whatever one thinks of this approach in political terms, it could be highly effective as Crow often pointed out himself. The recent tube strike in London is a case in point. Before the two day stoppage in February, Transport for London had refused to negotiate over the closure of ticket offices. After the strike negotiations began almost immediately.
Significantly, Crow the bluff trade union battler always saw unionism as part of a larger struggle for social justice. He never failed to link demands for ‘his’ workers with the campaign for socialism and a fairer world for all. Again, his willingness to talk about these issues marked him out. Crow took an ethical stand in a political world which according to some social scientists has been ‘hollowed out’ over the last thirty years as mainstream politicians have abandoned principles, and try instead to follow the vagaries of public opinion generated through polls or focus groups. It was rarely reported on, but Crow took a leading role in setting up an electoral alternative to the mainstream parties, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.
Last year I worked with Kath Woodward and Geoff Andrews from the Faculty of Social Sciences on the BBC/OU two part series, ‘Paul O’Grady’s Working Britain’, which focused on the life and times of the working class. We suggested Bob Crow might be an important figure to feature. In the event he did not make appearance, but the BBC did film an interview with him for the OU.
I want to take this opportunity to remember Bob Crow the man, but also his views on class, unions, history and most of all why the world needs to be made a much fairer place. His death is certainly a great loss to trade unionism and the cause of social justice. But Crow placed his faith in ordinary working people themselves. Crow was really a mirror reflecting the power of collective action back to the people who hold it. I certainly hope he’s remembered that way.