Jeff Slee, Secretary, RMT South East Regional Council, assesses the significance of Bob Crow.
We have lost one of the greatest trade unionists in the British labour movement’s history. Bob Crow spoke eloquently against neo-liberalism and for the need for socialism. But more important was how he led the RMT. In an era when the organisations of the British working class have been in their weakest ever state, he spent his life working to rebuild the organisation and activity of the RMT union and the trade union movement.
After his death, there were many tributes from unexpected places, and Bob would have laughed at most of these. Transport bosses spoke of his intelligence and negotiating ability. He had these qualities, certainly, but he also knew that as a union General Secretary he had to have a strong and militant union to get taken seriously in these negotiations.
His belief in a fighting democratic union meant getting the union organising, through branches and union reps (shop stewards), in the workplaces. The RMT created a national education centre in Doncaster, with experienced reps and activists as lay tutors, passing on not just knowledge of laws and procedures but also the organising, recruiting, militant tradition of the RMT. To get our case and news to members, the union has made good use of new technology, including the use of mass-texting to members’ phones. Bob knew that to survive legal challenges to industrial action ballots, the union had to have accurate membership records. So he got the union membership department working closely with branches, and union reps, and in regular contact with members, to achieve this.
A united, fighting union extends to the way the union treats its own staff. In contrast to the horror stories of some who have worked for other unions, Bob always looked after the RMT staff, and encouraged close working between the union’s staff and its lay activists.
Between 2000 and 2008 the RMT held 50 industrial action ballots on LUL and 68 in rail, with 18 strikes on LU and 33 on rail. As a result, and with rail and LU bosses knowing that the union could take effective industrial action, the RMT under Bob had a better record than other unions in defending members and getting improvements to pay and conditions. Earlier this year the 48-hour strike on LUL against ticket office closures and cuts to jobs and pay resulted in LU bosses agreeing to talks which are still ongoing.
Bob did not just fight for the well-organised and better-paid sections of rail workers. The RMT has an ongoing campaign to recruit and organise cleaners employed by cleaning companies who are the worst paid, worst treated section of the rail workforce. This has been done through recruitment, organisation and disputes. The RMT’s aims are union recognition, better pay and conditions, and respect and rights at work. In the last few years the union has led long-running strike campaigns at three rail cleaning companies with gains made in all three.
The RMT and New Labour
When Bob became GS in 2002, the RMT was thoroughly disillusioned with the New Labour government which had refused to renationalise rail, was bringing in part privatisation of London Underground, and kept the Tory anti-union laws. Most of the
RMT parliamentary group were no help to us at all, and some were ministers working
against us. He led the union in replacing this with a new parliamentary group, based on support for four principles – renationalisation of rail, opposition to PPP on the London underground, repeal all anti-union laws, and defending seafarers’ jobs. The group has been led since the start by John McDonnell. It soon became one of the most effective union parliamentary groups with over 20 Labour MPs joining up.
This disillusionment with New Labour, the growth of the Scottish Socialist Party, and having supported Ken Livingstone in his successful campaign as an independent in the 2000 London Mayor election, led to a campaign in the union – which Bob supported – to back candidates of parties other than Labour at elections. In 2004, as a result of the RMT’s support for SS P candidates, the Labour Party expelled the RMT. Bob, never a Labour member, said that the RMT would continue to send affiliation cheques to the Labour Party but also looked for opportunities to build a socialist electoral alternative to Labour.
After the split and collapse of the SS P, the poor electoral results of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (a coalition for elections between the RMT, the SWP, the Socialist Party, and various other socialists), and equally poor showings by the RMT-led “No2EU ” candidates in European elections , the verdict must be that this has been a failure.
Bob’s legacy is that the RMT has a commitment to organising and fighting for its members, and a choice of capable successors to take on his work. The RMT will continue to be in the
forefront of the union movement in Britain and internationally.