A giant of our movement
WHEN RMT GENERAL SECRETARY BOB CROW died suddenly of a massive heart attack in March 2014, the British labour movement lost a giant. Even the bosses and his enemies in the right wing press had to grudgingly admire Bob as a highly effective voice for the interests of his members. Yet the picture they painted of Bob was perhaps the last of a dying breed, a dinosaur, a man of the past, the aggressively militant union baron prepared to “hold the public to ransom”.
For some of his supporters on the left Bob represented an ideal model which, if only it were to be universally replicated across the movement, would lift the TUC off its knees and re-empower the wider working class. Which, if either, is true?
Gall did not have official support from, or access to, Crow’s family or co-operation from the apparatus of the RMT in writing this biography, although a wide range of interviewees from general secretaries to rank-and-file RMT members helped to plug the gaps. The result is not a work of hagiography, but attempts a critical analysis of Bob’s achievements - by looking both at the structural factors which allowed Crow to be the sort of trade union leader he would become, while also acknowledging the subjective contribution he made in shaping the union in his own image.
Implicit in parts of the book is a critique: that Crow failed to grasp that the conditions which enabled his success at the RMT (high rates of trade union density in a relatively self-contained labour intensive industry) were very different to those in other sectors of the economy, so tactics like threats of industrial action - crucial to his own union’s success - didn’t have the same purchase elsewhere. Gall seems to regard Crow’s call for the TUC to organise a general strike against austerity, for example, to be naive at best.
This risks opening out into a highly tendentious narrative suggesting that Crow’s form of trade unionism, while undeniably effective in its own terms, was essentially a vestige of the past with dwindling application for modern conditions. At the same time Gall is honest enough to recognise countervailing factors - such as the RMT’s work under Crow’s leadership in organising cleaning workers on the London Underground, a highly casualised sector often composed of women and migrant workers.
In terms of his wider political contribution, which Gall covers well overall, Crow’s legacy is still to be determined. Bob’s absence from the scene by the time of the Brexit referendum was a tragedy, since here was a powerful working class voice who would have put a clear left wing alternative case for withdrawal from the EU on the national stage, contesting the reactionary nationalism of UKIP.
Meanwhile, Crow certainly did not foresee a left wing leader like Corbyn emerging to make the Labour Party once again a vehicle capable of representing the interests of the working class. He was hardly alone here. Bob could hardly have thought of TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition), a formation he helped to launch, as a resounding success. However whether he was ultimately wrong to argue that the machinery of the Labour Party would always prove inimical to the interests of our class, and that therefore an alternative vehicle would need to be built, remains an open question.