Bob Crow (1961 – 2014)
Fifty two!! No kind of age at all, a time to be enjoying life, your kids grown up, kicking back, taking stock. Bob Crow, the larger than life former leader of the RMT trade union, whose passing in March of a suspected heart attack, aged just 52, was marked by the full trappings of a traditional East End funeral, never took that option. Never really got the chance, or maybe, just maybe, never really fancied the quiet life.
The horse drawn carriage bearing his coffin, draped in the blue and white colours of his beloved Millwall F.C, made its way through packed East London streets to spontaneous cheers and applause. And for all the barbs of a right wing press who regularly labelled him ‘the most hated man in Britain’, a truer picture emerges in the genuine affection showered upon his funeral cortege. Not just in the thousands of ordinary Londoners who lined the streets to pay their respects, but in the massively increased membership of the RMT trade union under his stewardship at a time when the whole union movement was broadly in decline. The figures alone tell the story. With Bob Crow at the helm, the RMT increased its membership from 57,000 to around 80,000. Such stats at any time would be impressive, but more so given the legacy of Thatcherism and anti-union legislation, largely left intact by ‘New Labour’, which the trade union movement was saddled with at the time of Bob Crow’s ascent.
Equally impressive is the principled stance taken by this most bullish of leaders, often in the face of hostility from his own members, to argue in favour of supporting the rights of low paid workers, for example cleaners, who were not directly employed by the rail companies, but formed a pool of cheap, outsourced and otherwise easily exploitable labour. And of course the legendary pay deals he was able to secure for his members were testament to his skills as a negotiator and as a constant thorn in the side of ‘management’. In these dark days of zero hours’ contracts, Ken Livingstone has wryly observed that RMT members, for example tube drivers, are amongst the last bastions of the London working class to enjoy some degree of job security.
And there’s the rub. Yes the man earned a six figure salary and still lived in a council house. Yes he appeared with a winter tan to complete a hectic round of media interviews during the last wave of RMT strikes protesting the proposed closure of ticket offices. And yes he would regularly ham up his cockney geezer image as a way of intimidating management during often fractious negotiations. But so what? And I say this as someone whose journey to work has been complicated on more than one occasion by RMT strike action. Of course those are days when I too have cursed his name and been at the end of my tether, but I’ve then had to remind myself that there is more at stake here than just some personal inconvenience. This man who once said he left the Communist Party because it was ‘too moderate’ and would flag up his militant credentials all the while demonstrating a readiness to cut a deal, deserved to be taken more seriously than that.
In an age when ‘working class’ has been replaced in every politician’s speech by, at best, ‘working people’, but more usually with silence; when New Labour is as much a friend of ‘the City’ as its traditional Tory chums; and when to dissent from such a ‘consensus’ is to be marked out for public ridicule, the wrath of the tabloids, or at the very least as ‘chippy’, Bob Crow stood out like a colossus amongst the weeds. My guess is what bothered his detractors the most was the singular lack of apology from this working class stalwart. He didn’t forelock tug; never needed to. And what’s worse (from the point of view of his opponents, and there were many – don’t be fooled by their retrospective eulogies) is that this strategy made him wildly popular amongst the grassroots of the union movement. But also (and this is the bit that really sticks in their craw) amongst members of the general public even when, like myself, they were frequently inconvenienced by the actions of his rank and file. By and large people implicitly understood that the RMT was holding the line as much for the right to a particular, and now largely disappeared, form of working class life as for the specifics of any given industrial dispute. And when large swathes of the country seem to have either forgotten, or given up on, any possibility of working class solidarity, that kind of manoeuvring matters even more.
And that’s when I remind myself that we’ve grown up together, he and I, albeit in different corners of this city, perhaps wrestling with many of the same questions facing ordinary youngsters at the time. I’m guessing again that Bob was no stranger to the rough and tumble of being a teenager, then a young man, when Old Labour was collapsing, and the milk snatcher was in her pomp. In some ways his story marks an extraordinary journey from humble origins. The school leaver who joined a tree felling gang before rising through the ranks during some of the darkest hours for modern day trade unionism. The street smart negotiator who ran rings around managerial adversaries, TV presenters and expensively educated politicians. Tell yourself that and you can only smile, the inconvenience a fading irrelevance.
Of course there’s more, there always is with lives this fully lived. Many of those who just want to celebrate his geezer-dom, probably remain unaware of the conscious drive spearheaded by the RMT union to support working class literature, which has already led to the release of several cult titles through London Books, the brainchild of Football Factory author, John King. Jew Boy, written by Simon Blumenfeld, was launched in the Brown Bear pub, near Cable Street, a locale with impeccable revolutionary credentials and which for the record used to be run by Bob Crow’s aunt. And the man himself addressed the standing room only at the launch. Then again for those more comfortable with the regulation image, there’s always this amusing tale. Rumour has it that one Human Resources Director who had previously invited Bob to watch a weekend Leeds Utd match with him from the comfort of the director’s box, was less than thrilled at how his hospitality was reciprocated. For his troubles he was made to spend an afternoon watching Millwall at the Isle of Dogs; and truly in the Lions’ den, he found himself right by the touchline where Bob and his mates wholeheartedly abused the ref and the visiting team for the duration.
Some years back, Bob Crow was quite seriously injured in an attack at his home by two men brandishing an iron bar. For the longest time, the finger of suspicion pointed at either West Ham fans, disgruntled at the presence of such a high profile Millwall fan in their midst (Bob lived in Dagenham at the time); or at the far right, unhappy at Bob’s active campaigning against their sectarian politics. Crow himself put the attack down to ‘management’ and refused to be cowed.
So there you have it. Physical bravery, mental courage, steadfast principle. And all in a few short years.
R.I.P Big Fella. People Liked You, and (just a guess), You Did Care.