Bob Crow: Polarising but respected trade union leader who dedicated his career to improving pay and conditions for rail workers

  • @andymcsmith

Bob Crow was one of those public figures who seemed to loom larger than the organisation he represented. To many people he was the only recognisable face in the modern trade union movement, yet the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union that he led from 2001 until his sudden death was barely a twentieth of the size of the biggest TUC unions.

It was Bob Crow's dominant personality, his left-wing politics and his belief in using industrial muscle to obtain a better deal for his members that helped make the RMT a much bigger presence on the industrial scene than its size warranted. He was the nearest the trade union movement had to a celebrity, in an era when most general secretaries stay out of the news.

He rose to prominence in the fight to try to prevent John Major's government from nationalising the railways, though many of his most high-profile political battles were against the Labour Party, which was never left-wing enough for Bob Crow. John Prescott, as a shop steward in the seamen's union, had a long association with the RMT, and used to have his London home in a Clapham flat owned by the union. But the Labour government in which Prescott served as Deputy Prime Minister refused to renationalise the railways, for which the RMT leadership, under Crow, expelled Prescott, forcing him to surrender that flat.

Ken Livingstone, as London Mayor, also became exasperated by RMT militancy, and symbolically crossed a picket line, prompting Crow to resign from the board of Transport for London. In 2003, some Scottish branches of the RMT voted to give money to the Scottish Socialist Party, which caused its long affiliation to the Labour Party to be severed.

Crow was also the master of the short, sharp quote that added to his political notoriety. When Margaret Thatcher died, Crow remarked: "I won't shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I'm concerned she can rot in hell." His verdict on Tony Blair's premiership was that "He squandered a massive landslide from an electorate hungry for change, poured billions of public pounds into private pockets and accelerated the growing gap between rich and poor."

There was a down side for the RMT in having this colourful character at the helm, because whenever a dispute loomed on the railways or the London underground, the focus of an unsympathetic mass media would be on Crow's personality and politics, his council home and high salary, and most recently, his £10,000 holiday in Brazil, rather than on the union's case. That Crow was an elected leader, answering to an elected executive, and that every industrial dispute he led was preceded by a ballot, was usually lost in the telling. Even so, a railway employee or seafarer wanting better pay or working conditions could not have asked for a tougher negotiator fighting their corner.

Robert Crow was born in Shadwell in the East End of London in June 1961, the son of George Crow, a docker, and Lillian Hutton. The family moved to Hainault in Essex when he was small. A lifelong Millwall fan, he dreamt as a boy of being a professional footballer, but did not have the ability to match his ambition. He left school at 16 to work on the London Underground.

By the time the National Union of Railwaymen merged with the National Union of Seamen to form the RMT in 1990, Crow was established as a tough union activist and an able speaker. He was elected RMT assistant general secretary in 1994. The union head, Jimmy Knapp, was in his fifties but looking older. He died in 2001 and Crow won the resulting election, scoring more than twice as many votes as his rivals put together. During the election campaign, he was attacked near his council home by men wielding an iron bar.

He took over a union that had been in chronic decline. In 1945, the NUR had over 400,000 members. By 2002, the combined RMT membership was around 60,000. Under Crow's leadership, it grew to almost 80,000, in a period when union membership generally was in decline. That growth was achieved through a ruthless strategy of using strikes or the threat of them to force concessions, including several strikes over pay. The strategy bore fruit: by 2012, tube drivers were being paid £50,000 a year, as wages rose faster than in other industries.

His most recent dispute was over Boris Johnson's decision to close booking offices and rent out the available space, which threatened the jobs of RMT members. Bob Crow was exposed by the Daily Mail as taking a £10,000 holiday in Brazil as disruption on the tube loomed. His retort was that he had booked the holiday months earlier, after seeing an advertisement in the Daily Mail.

Within his own terms, Crow was one of the most successful union leaders of his day. As a political leader, he achieved less. A former communist, he was linked with various attempts to organise the disparate elements left of the Labour Party into some sort of force, including the tiny Socialist Labour Party which was founded in the mid-1990s by the former miners' leader, Arthur Scargill. In 2009, Crow ran for the European Parliament on a "No2EU" ticket, and polled 17,758. Unusually for a figure on the political left, he believed in restoring the death penalty.

Crow, who died of a suspected heart attack, leaves a partner, Nicola Hoarau, three daughters and a son.

Robert Crow, railwayman and trade union leader: born London 13 June 1961; General Secretary, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers 2002-; married Geraldine Horan (marriage dissolved; one daughter), partner to Nicola Hoarau (one son, two daughters); died 11 March 2014.