Bob Crow

As others have noted, now he’s dead, even the people who once portrayed Bob Crow as a militant fanatic seem to have nothing but praise for him. Out of the way and no longer a danger, it’s safe to eulogise the man for his strength of character.

According to the Telegraph, some Transport for London bosses are already nostalgic for the Crow era, fearing that they are about to get someone much worse in his place.

“There is a view that one of the more radical people could now end up in charge,” one transport sources said.

“The real puppet masters in the union are much further to the Left than Bob Crow.”

Another source said: “Bob Crow was essentially a moderate in RMT terms.”

Bob Crow a moderate, eh? I bet it’s the first time he’s ever been called that.

Much of the abuse hurled at Bob Crow during his time as RMT General Secretary was based on the idea that he alone was responsible for making the tube workers go on strike. It’s a quaint old argument that was common during the 1960s and 70s. The poor workers, the story goes, are easily duped or bullied by ruthless apparatchiks pursuing their own evil agendas. Take out the militant leaders and the workers will see sense and settle down.

The trouble is, it now seems that one militant union leader might soon be replaced by another.

One reason for this might be that, far from being duped into militancy, a lot of the workers actually wanted a pugnacious union leader. Bob Crow was elected twice. If his members hadn’t wanted him in the job, he wouldn’t have been there. As he said himself, it was the Thatcher government’s trade union reforms that facilitated his rise to power. The authors of the 1980s trade union reforms assumed that imposing secret ballots on unions would make them less militant but, in the case of leaders like Bob Crow, it strengthened their hands.

As I’ve said before, thanks to the Conservative reforms of the 1980s, the argument that union leaders force their members to go on strike is very difficult to sustain. Without members willing to back strikes in ballots and vote for militant leaders there could be no militancy.

Salford University’s Ralph Darlington is a leading authority on industrial relations at London Underground. He puts half the blame for poor industrial relations on the Tube’s management.

On the basis that ‘it takes two to tango’ and that strike activity is a two-sided affair, the paper suggests that, apart from firmly rooted and influential left-wing activist traditions, managerial intransigence has also been a major contributory factor to encouraging strike activity.

In a 2009 paper, Professor Darlington noted an increase in the number of strike ballots since Bob Crow’s election but also a 27 percent increase in the number of RMT members.

[I]n the period since Bob Crow became RMT general secretary in early 2002 there were more ballots, more ballots leading to strike action, more individual numbers of strikes, and more strike days overall than in the preceding seven years 1995-2001; there were also a larger number of local strikes than previously.

Some of this, he says, was due to the more determined organisation by left-wing activists but he points out that the militant leadership was elected in the run up to the disastrous PPP deals. This caused resentment among the workforce and also had a detrimental effect on the management of industrial relations.

The separation of operational and infrastructure functions arising from the process of PPP created a mushrooming of management interfaces and the blurring of lines of management accountability and responsibility with disruptive consequences for the conduct of industrial relations.

On top of that, the management continued to push for changes in terms and conditions:

LUL management have increasingly attempted to implement radical changes in working practices, cut staffing levels, close ticket offices and reduce the opening times of others, casualise the workforce, and drive up efficiency (for example with more stringent attendance and sickness procedures) with the long-term imperative of cutting labour costs by 30 per cent an overarching theme.

The conditions were therefore right for militant leaders to channel this discontent into industrial action. Darlington’s overall conclusion is that the leaders made the union more militant but the workers grievances’ gave them plenty to work with.

[T]he industrial relations context (along with that of the political economy) has been an important factor creating the underlying material conditions that have given rise to strike activity on the London Underground. It has contributed to the process whereby workers have acquired a sense of grievance/injustice and come to define their interests collectively in opposition to employers/government. Such a context has also provided the opportunity and ability for workers to engage in effective strike mobilisation. Nonetheless the role of agency – namely the leadership role of union reps and activists – has also been a crucial resource necessary for such collective action.

So without leaders like Bob Crow, the RMT wouldn’t have been as militant but without the grievances, these leaders might not have been elected in the first place.

Darlington also points out that London Underground workers are in the sort of bargaining position that is rare these days. Their jobs are difficult to outsource and, for the most part,  impossible to relocate or offshore. There are no competitor organisations and the smooth running of the Tube is important to the sort of people who can make a lot of fuss when things go wrong.

The nature of the industry, and its tightly integrated service network which is not easily substitutable by other means, has provided an important source of workplace bargaining leverage in which strike s have a much greater and immediate impact than in many other industrial sectors. Employers are confronted by a number of interrelated pressure points: (a) industrial pressure: strikes either force managerial concessions or risk high stakes in terms of operational paralysis; (b) customer pressure: the effect of strikes on passengers are immediate and extremely inconvenient and (c) me dia pressure: stopping London ’s tube is dramatic and unwelcome news across the country, even the world; (d) business and financial pressure: strikes provoke the wrath of large companies and the City of London ; and (e) political pressure: strike disruption is an electoral liability that elicits both political party and government intervention.

This point has been lost in some of the more enthusiastic eulogies to Bob Crow. It’s not enough to have workers with grievances and leaders who are up for a good scrap. If  workers can be easily replaced or a competitor organisation can steal the work of a strike-crippled company, tactics like those used by the RMT leadership can lead to disaster. As Ralph Darlington concludes:

[The] study highlights the relatively very favourable industrial context within which RMT strike activity has occurred in recent years (despite the overall challenges posed by PPP) which have not necessarily been present elsewhere in Britain. The success of the RMT’s approach cannot necessarily be assumed to be automatically replicable by other unions that operate in less favourable contexts.

In other words, don’t try this if your bosses have got you over a barrel.

Of course, Bob Crow understood this which is one of the reasons he was such an effective union leader. His job was to represent his members and get the best deal for them that he could. That he didn’t (or appeared not to) care much what anyone thought about him no doubt helped him hold his nerve when others might have failed. He had the courage to confront his opponents but he was no reckless firebrand. He understood the balance of power in his industry and how far he could push his case. That is the secret of a good negotiator.

Bob Crow knew his job and did it well. Ultimately, pay is a function of power. The reason Tube drivers earn £52,000 a year is because Bob Crow and the RMT leadership recognised the extent of that power and exploited it. Until London Underground introduces robot trains, which is a more complicated task than it sounds, its workers will continue to have a strong bargaining position.

But while media comment was focused on the union’s leader, something else was going on inside the RMT. Here’s Ralph Darlington again.

One of the legacies of a highly politicised industrial environment, and of previous internal battles over strategic direction within the union, is that there is a significant layer of left-wing political activists inside the RMT who have also played a contributory role to the level of strike activity.

One important fruit of the left’s rising influence and the combative mood of the union’s members in the wake of PPP was the huge majority in support of Crow’s election on a platform of creating a ‘fighting trade union’. Similarly the Regional Council now has a combination of what one union activist has termed a ‘political left’ (members of far-left parties) and a ‘syndicalist left’ (non-party industrial militants), both of whom adopt a consistently adversarial approach to management with a more or less politically informed agenda.

More broadly a wide network of prominent left-wing figures (from Crow and other national officers to lay union reps and activists) have been increasingly influential in shaping the union’s rejection of social partnership in favour of the use of strike ballots and mobilisation of members as the means to win concessions. This has made it easier for an internal union culture of militant oppositionalism directed towards employers and New Labour, combined with robust collectivism and assertive style of leadership, to pervade the union with ramifications for the level of strike activity on the Underground.

Which explains why some people might be getting worried about who is going the replace Bob Crow and what they might do once elected. Better the devil you know….

Whatever else people might say about Bob Crow, he knew what his job was and he was very effective in doing it. He understood his members and their grievances and he was aware of his own power base and how much leverage that gave him. It is unlikely that his death will see an end to union militancy on London Underground though. Bob Crow has gone but many of the conditions that led to his leadership and to the RMT’s confrontational style are still there.

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6 Responses to Bob Crow

  1. A very well put article about the balance of power in modern industrial relations – and also in leadership. I think Bob Crow will be sorely missed – on many levels.

  2. P Hearn says:

    Very interesting post, as always.

    As stated, the fact that there’s no [real] competition to the Tube in London made his bargaining position very strong, and enables the business to be run in the producers’ interest, rather than the consumers’. Public sector “management” was never going to be anything other than an appeasing patsy when faced with Crow and Co.

    Take that away, and Bob Crow was merely a cartoon union leader from central casting. Hilarious for those of us who didn’t have to suffer the disruption his frequent strikes provoked, a nightmare for Londoners.

    The sudden outbreak of grief at his passing reminds me of an old Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch

  3. Needs2Cash says:

    Rest in Peace Bob Crow.

    Will Bob, and others, be replaced by Union Leaders who re-educate and re-train their members for the future so they can continue to look after their families, communities and themselves?

    Persuading members that they should resist the changing need for their knowledge and skills and not preparing them for automation is to do them a disservice.

  4. Machiii says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and the links you provided.

    You said
    Bob Crow knew his job and did it well. Ultimately, pay is a function of power. The reason Tube drivers earn £52,000 a year is because Bob Crow and the RMT leadership recognised the extent of that power and exploited it. Until London Underground introduces robot trains, which is a more complicated task than it sounds, its workers will continue to have a strong bargaining position.

    I agree. But your linked articles (see ) how that Automatic Train Operation, with a driver in place rather than Unattended Train Operation is, at best, a semi skilled operation. Even acknowledging that driving through tunnels for much of the time, early in the morning, late at night and on weekends and public holidays may be unlikely to be seen as a vocation by most, there should be no shortage of suitable candidates. If the Union still has sufficient strength to prevent the employer training more people, might it be possible to make being a tube driver more like being a lorry driver or a fork lift operator and make it possible for those who want to be considered for a job get their own training, supported by a certificate and a driving license if they are successful?


  5. JohnR says:

    It isn´t a 5-minute training course.
    It´s a 22-week course.
    Loads drop-out along the way.
    And it isn´t ¨hold a handle down for 8 hours¨
    And there are no private trainers, they just don´t know the system.
    Even the people who run the system know little about it, the amount of bodging is monumental.
    There are people working the job who spend an hour driving, and the rest of the time going to another location to pick another unit up…ask mainline staff…across the city to drive a unit, empty, to another station for another driver to take…then back again. Since everything has to be in a particular place at a particular time, both staff and units……and then there is the repair and maintenance…..of a deteriorating system. Nightmare.
    Lots of moaning about sick staff….except that staff on the railway are not allowed to work when ill….

  6. David says:

    From the little I know of him there is no doubt that he was a very intelligent and perfectly decent man who most of us would enjoy having a pint with . However , his effectiveness was greatly flattered by the combination of restricted available labour (closed shop in all but name) and a limp wristed ‘management’ . The man was paid to be a bully and that’s precisely what he was able to be due mainly to the these reasons . Shades of 1970’s lunacy when due to a strictly enforced ‘closed shop’ and other aggressive tactics my colleagues and I were able to pull off even more expensive ‘agreements’ year after year . With hindsight and the wisdom of passing years I’m more embarrassed than ashamed .
    None of this detracts from the shocking tragedy of a good man dying far too young . So , yes RIP Bob , but I suspect you had no illusions about your role and were the bigger man for that .

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