An intransigent fighter
Bob Crow, June 13 1961 - March 11 2014
The death of Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union and one of the most intransigent fighters for the rights of trade union members, represents a serious blow to the working class movement. Comrade Crow died suddenly, aged 52, following a massive heart attack on March 11.
Not even the most rightwing commentators could avoid giving him back-handed compliments. For example, The Daily Telegraph website reported the news of his death in the following terms: “One of the most successful trade union leaders of modern Britain, the self-described ‘communist-stroke-socialist’ shrugged off the ire of commuters and was unrepentant in advancing his members’ interests. The basic pay for tube drivers rose to more than £50,000 under him, with generous compensation for working on public holidays.”1
They could have added that RMT membership increased from around 50,000 to almost 80,000 during his 12 years as general secretary. The reason for that is not hard to fathom. He was indeed “unrepentant in advancing his members’ interests”. He was one those trade union leaders who really did try his utmost to improve the wages and conditions of workers, despite the personal attacks from the hostile media that resulted: “If I can get job security and decent pay for my members, I couldn’t give two hoots about being unpopular” - that is a widely quoted remark of his. It was not unusual to see him on the picket line or handing out leaflets alongside rank-and- file members.
Comrade Crow was working class through and through - his east London accent, simple (if sometimes disjointed) phrasing and direct manner said it all. He insisted on remaining in his council house despite being paid a salary that would have allowed him to buy a detached house in a leafy suburb (see below).
He left school aged 16 to work for London Transport and within a couple of years was active in the National Union of Railwaymen. After the NUR merged with the National Union of Seamen to form the RMT in 1990, comrade Crow was soon elected to the new union’s executive, finally becoming general secretary in 2002.
But what guided him - what stopped him from “being afraid”, as he put it - was his politics: his vision of a different, working class society. True, his vision of ‘socialism’ was in many ways abhorrent, but in the clash of labour versus capital in the industrial struggle he was most definitely on our side.
As well as being an industrial trade union leader he was also a political trade union leader. Here he is, when asked in 2009 if he still thought of himself as a communist: “Oh yeah. Absolutely, yeah. Communist-stroke- socialist, yeah.” How would he define that? “I’d say it was based on a society of people’s needs. For example, I still can’t understand how in a world that produces enough food to feed the world twice over every day, a third of the world is going to bed hungry every night. How can capitalism be working? I can’t accept that 50% of the world are working for $2 a day and I can’t accept that 10% of workers are working for a dollar a day.”
In the same interview comrade Crow went on to quote Joe Slovo, whom he described as “the great South African communist leader”, to the effect that “The Soviet Union may have failed with communism, but capitalism has failed mankind.” And he added: “I think that’s what it’s all about. People are going to say, this system ain’t working - it’s not providing me with jobs, it’s not providing me with homes, it’s breaking down socially, it leads to wars.”
But, he was asked, being so upfront about being a communist - doesn’t that make you unpopular? “Nah,” came the reply. “If I were a worker and my trade union leader was a communist and he was getting me good pay rises - bring on more communists.”2
In fact comrade Crow joined the ‘official’ Communist Party back in 1983, aged 22, and was part of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split. However, when in response to Blairism Arthur Scargill announced the formation of the Socialist Labour Party in 1995, comrade Crow was among several high-profile union figures who followed him. But the SLP rapidly went downhill thanks to Scargill’s control-freakery and dictatorial style, and within a few years comrade Crow - like the overwhelming majority of those who had joined “Britain’s fourth largest party”, as Scargill ludicrously described the SLP in 1996 - was no longer a member.
Since those days Crow has been looking for a new political home - he has consistently called for a new working class party. But, in line with his ‘official communist’ background, this new party was not to be based on Marxism, but on the unions - a Labour Party mark two, as we have described such a formation. Like so many on the left, he had illusions in the nature of ‘old Labour’ - not least the first post- war government: “The achievements of Labour in the years after World War II should never be underestimated, but they are now history.”
Although comrade Crow said he was “very sad” when the Labour leadership decided to disaffiliate the RMT in 2004, I suspect that he was not exactly devastated. Five of the union’s branches in Scotland had given official backing to Scottish Socialist Party candidates standing against Labour and the union leadership had done nothing to stop them.
Perhaps surprisingly for an ‘official communist’, comrade Crow has supported the efforts of the Trotskyists of the Socialist Party in England and Wales in their campaigning for a new “mass workers’ party”. He addressed several rallies of the (now defunct) Campaign for a New Workers’ Party from 2008 and up to his death he was centrally involved, alongside SPEW, in both the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’, for whom he headed the London list of candidates in the 2009 European elections. He was set to do the same again this coming May - although the ‘Democracy’ in No2EU’s name has now been replaced by ‘Workers’ Rights’.
Less than a week before his death comrade Crow had an article published in the Morning Star in which he urged readers to vote for the national-socialist No2EU on May 22. The article ended by reproducing the campaign’s bullet points, starting with “Exit the EU on the basis of socialist policies” and ending with “Restore democratic powers to EU member-states”. Comrade Crow assured us that “No2EU wants to see a different Europe - one made up of democratic states that value public services and does not offer them to profiteers; states that do not put the interests of big business above that of ordinary people. We believe that EU structures and rules make this impossible.”3 This totally ignores the fact that the EU agenda is set by the very member-states to whom No2EU wants to “restore democratic powers”. But that is left nationalism for you.
Of course, the No2EU anti-Europe campaign is entirely based on the CPB’s programme, Britain’s road to socialism. There are several senior RMT figures - not least full-timer Brian Denny of the CPB’s ultra- nationalist wing - who share comrade Crow’s views, and the union itself is officially backing No2EU. It is the only union that is doing so, and the same goes for Tusc, which is also standing candidates on May 22 - this time in the local elections in England and Wales.
The question now arises: for how long will the RMT continue backing No2EU and Tusc, now that comrade Crow is no longer with us? There is no doubt that this support was primarily due to Crow’s own drive and political commitment. But he was one of a kind among even left union bureaucrats - it is very difficult for members of this intermediate layer between workers and employers to resist the pull towards the ‘middle ground’ of safe, Labour-type politics.
Bob Crow was able to do so on a purely individualistic basis: ie, without the support and direction of a principled working class party. It was this individualism that accounted for his own particular take on a number of questions. He was in the news just a few hours before his death thanks to an interview he gave to Radio Four, in which he not only restated that he was a “communist-socialist” who believed in “a society that is based on need rather than greed”, but also came out in favour of official proposals for an 11% pay rise for MPs. Despite his contempt for most of the occupants of the House of Commons, he linked their work to his own: “We are all civil servants - we are serving civilisation. That is what a civil servant does, and they should be paid accordingly.”
This led to questions about his own £90,000 salary (plus £30,000 pension payments, etc), which Crow defended in this way: “I am worth it, yeah. Our members, in the main, have had pay rises every single year right the way through austerity.” That comment provoked the Daily Mail to run with a typical anti-Crow piece of union- bashing on the very day he died: “My £145,000 pay? I’m worth it, insists Crow: militant union chief defends his six-figure salary during interview.”4
Coming from the Mail, with its unstinting support for fat-cat capitalism (not to mention the salaries paid to its executives and top managers), this is the height of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, the fact that comrade Crow not only accepted such an inflated salary, but attempted to justify it, points to a big contradiction. Full-time union officials should be paid no more than the average wage of the members they represent (plus, of course, legitimate expenses). In this way we attempt to prevent them from acting first and foremost in their own caste interests.
The contradiction can be explained by his continued adherence to ‘official’ communism - think what a leader he could have been had he been won to the genuine article: to internationalism, to the fight for a Marxist party, to the principle of a worker’s wage for working class representatives.
It is fitting that he was vilified by the right to the very end. That says more about him than the polite tributes made a few hours after his death by leading Tories like London mayor Boris Johnson and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin. Despite his weaknesses, he was something of a working class hero.
- The Guardian June 20 2009.
- Morning Star March 6.
- www.dailyMail.co.uk/news/article-2577866/My- 145-000-pay-Im-worth-insists-Crow-Militant-union- chief-defends-six-figure-salary-interview.html.