The untimely death of Bob Crow, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, at the age of 52, has been mourned by railway staff, family, friends and a wide circle of admirers – many of whom did not share his views. Andy Milne reports
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Tony Blair’s takeover of the Labour Party many people in Britain may have dismissed socialism as dead. Bob Crow proved them wrong. His tenure of the RMT leadership saw union membership soar from 57,000 to 80,000. Pay and conditions for thousands of transport workers were boosted as a result.
Robert Crow was born on 13 June 1961 at Shadwell in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. His father, George Crow, was a dock worker and his mother Lillian, a cleaner. His grandfather was said to be a great amateur boxer who went by the nickname ‘Punch Crow.’
The family moved to Hainault, in northeast London. Bob Crow went to Kingswood Upper School – now Hainault Forest High School. After leaving school at 16, he joined London Transport as a track worker. Early work included tree felling and track maintenance.
Sense of togetherness
After a disagreement with his foreman, Bob Crow went to his union to complain. Impressed at how the case was dealt with, he quickly became involved and joined the branch committee. Crow found the railway camaraderie of the track gangs and mess rooms deeply engaging. The sense of togetherness, of looking out for your friends, found ready expression in his subsequent involvement with trade unionism.
For Bob Crow the sense of a close- knit railway fraternity always informed his politics. Age 22 Bob Crow became a representative of the National Union of Railwaymen. He joined the Communist Party and remained a member until 1995 when he joined Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. As a union leader he did much to bridge the gaps between ASLEF and TSSA. Crow had met Mick Rix, one-time general secretary of ASLEF on a trip to the German Democratic Republic. The two played football together and became firm friends.
Crow moved up to become NUR national officer for track workers in 1985. After the merger between the NUR and the seafarers’ union in 1995, he was elected assistant general secretary of the RMT. The new union had to grapple with the emerging world of the privatised railway.
Crow proved very able to cope with the new structures, constantly pushing an agenda of workers’ rights and improved pay and conditions. In 2002, following the death of Jimmy Knapp, Bob Crow was elected general secretary of the RMT.
No one likes us
Away from work Crow was a lifelong Millwall supporter and enjoyed the rousing chorus of, ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ Among his most treasured possessions was a signed photograph of former Millwall manager Dennis Wise with the salutation: ‘From one striker to another.’
In private he was a friendly and kind man, devoted to his family and friends. Criticised for taking holidays in Brazil he said, ‘‘What do you want me to do? Sit under a tree and read Karl Marx every day?’ Fond of a drink with friends, during election night in 1997 Crow reputedly downed a can of beer for every Tory cabinet minister who lost his seat. ‘Quite a lot,’ Bob ruefully admitted later.
Bob Crow was a personal friend for 27 years and we grew up side by side in our great union.
We campaigned together with our members and fought hard battles that were important for the wellbeing of our union.
When Bob was elected General Secretary on 14th Feb 2002 it was obvious that he had a special gift and ability. I actually think Bob is the greatest leader our union has produced.
He cared about working people with a passion that was an inspiration to countless people. Bob was a true internationalist. I’m sick and tired of reading in the press how he only cared for RMT members. What absolute nonsense. Bob travelled far and wide to speak up for anyone who was oppressed and suffering injustice . He was a tireless campaigner for his class.
The media tried to demonise him but that was testimony to how effective a leader he was.
Bob told me on many occasions ‘ if the likes of the Daily Mail started to praise me then I would be ashamed.’
Bob’s legacy is wide reaching. He has certainly left us a much stronger RMT. Our membership increased by 20,000, our activists doubled and our finances could not be better.
All RMT activists and officials are united in the common belief that we must now make our union even stronger as a lasting tribute to Bob.
Friend and colleague Alan Pottage
The enduring hangover of the Blair administration was to prove rather more of a headache. Nothing was done to reverse the John Major privatisation of railways although Crow had the satisfaction of seeing Railtrack plc replaced by the not-for- profit Network Rail and most of the track maintenance function brought back in house. John Prescott was expelled from the RMT for failing to deliver on an election commitment to renationalise. The RMT was itself expelled from the Labour Party in 2004.
In his council house, Crow kept a bust of Lenin and a brick from the house where Jim Connell, the Irish docker who wrote the words to the Red Flag, once lived. Bob’s dog was called Castro. Crow was a loyal railwayman who never learned to drive and routinely travelled on public transport.
The financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing banking and stock markets scandals brought a new audience for Bob Crow’s politics. The Thatcherite free economy theory became discredited and Bob found himself in demand on phone-ins and talk shows. He had a ready wit and emerged as both articulate and thoughtful, getting the better of Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Neill and the right-wing media generally.
Accused of being a trade union dinosaur, Crow replied that dinosaurs had been around a long time. What mattered was the rights of the workers, the creators of wealth. As London blossomed as a world financial and industrial centre, Crow was determined that the men and women who brought Londoners to and from work every day should share in the capital’s economic success story. Under his leadership tube driver salaries topped £50k with ticket office staff pulling down £30k. Nationally the RMT was able to negotiate better deals for its members than before.
A capitalist conspiracy
He remained vehemently opposed to the European Union which, like Tony Benn, he saw as a capitalist conspiracy. ‘I’ve got more in common with a Chinese labourer than with Sir Fred Goodwin,’ he said. However, this was not an anti-immigrant stance and Crow was keen to disassociate himself and his party, No2EU, from any hint of a link with UKIP.
Crow always remained loyal to his friends. Tony Benn he described as a true friend of workers. When reminded that Benn was a member of the upper classes with a peerage under his belt Crow shrugged and said, ‘Just because you go to the Virgin Islands doesn’t make you a virgin.’
In fact the shaven head and what has been described as Crow’s ‘night club’ bouncer demeanour concealed a complex and sensitive nature. Bob Crow was something of a romantic. One day he spied Nicola Hoarau walking down a street near where he lived. On impulse Crow followed the Marks and Spencer office worker and found out her phone number.
He then texted saying that he had worked out where she lived but was not a stalker. Next, with a daring only his political opponents completely understood, Crow said, ‘I’m going to stand under the lamp-post outside your home. If you don’t like what you see, don’t come down.’ Nicky Hoarau did and the two formed an enduring partnership.
We fought for them
Bob Crow’s politics can best be summed up in an interview he gave Andrew Neill earlier this year. ‘Unfortunately we live in a jungle and if you are not strong, the bosses will walk all over you,’ Bob said. ‘The reason why we have good terms and conditions is because we fought for them. And the reality is all the political parties, the Liberals, the Tories and Labour, have all put no programme up to defend working people. So we have to do it on our own.’
Bob Crow is survived by his partner Nicky and four children. His enduring monument is a successful union, which continues to grow and to campaign for its members. Crow may be seen as the last of the working class heroes but this is misleading.
Bob Crow was among the first to start redefining the role politics should play in advancing the interests of working people in a world increasingly orchestrated by global corporate interests and outmoded systems of privilege. Longer lasting still will be his contribution to the rise of a credible left wing alternative to the inertia of centre–right consensus politics.