Bob Crow: 'I believe in peaceful civil disobedience. I don't believe in going round smashing things up'

The Monday Interview: General Secretary, Rail, Maritime And Transport Workers' Union
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The Independent Online

Do not expect hand-wringing apologies from Bob Crow when the expected strikes by his members bring the country's rail network to a halt next month. "I'm not one of those union officials who continually say they regret the inconvenience caused by industrial action," he says. "People would say I was crying crocodile tears.

Do not expect hand-wringing apologies from Bob Crow when the expected strikes by his members bring the country's rail network to a halt next month. "I'm not one of those union officials who continually say they regret the inconvenience caused by industrial action," he says. "People would say I was crying crocodile tears.

"Our job is to represent working people. Management is refusing to negotiate. We either accept that or do something about it. You cannot have a dispute without inconvenience to the travelling public. It's not selfish. Our job is to defend and improve our members' terms and conditions."

Unlike some other union leaders, the general secretary of the RMT union has not been house-trained by public relations consultants. What you see is what you get; and you could be getting a great deal of it over the coming months.

This week, 7,000 employees at the infrastructure organisation Network Rail will begin voting in a ballot for strikes which would halt most trains, probably all of them. If workers at the state-backed organisation vote yes - and Mr Crow confidently expects they will - it would be the first serious national industrial action suffered by passengers for nearly a decade.

The burly, shaven-headed Mr Crow, an Eastender who shoots from the lip, will be the target of the "pop" papers. His support of Millwall football club will be alluded to - "motto: no one likes us we don't care"- his former membership of the Communist Party will be savoured, and his respect for Arthur Scargill, the former miners' leader adduced as evidence that he is potty.

A dispute with Network Rail will do for the right-wing press what Andy Gilchrist, leader of the Fire Brigades Union did for them last year. Mr Crow, and his family, can expect to be pursued by packs of hacks. His motives will be suspected, his integrity challenged and any skeletons skulking in cupboards will be torn from their hiding places.

Unless management produces a large rabbit from its corporate hat quickly, a dispute looks inevitable. Some of the issues at the heart of the argument are more easily addressed than others. A 3 per cent pay offer, which, the union argues, is the lowest offered in the industry, could doubtless be tweaked if management had a mind to.

A more difficult issue is complementary travel. All those who joined the railway before privatisation in 1996 enjoy an unlimited 75 per cent discount on rail fares and 10 to 20 free trips a year, depending on seniority. The four out of 10 present employees who joined after that date get nothing.

The company has told the union it will be spending £14m a day on maintaining and improving the fabric of the network over the next five years. Mr Crow says management has estimated it would take £12m to introduce similar travel benefits for all employees.

"If you work on the Irish railways you get 75 per cent off rail fares in Britain but if you work on the British network you can get no such concession. Is this some kind of Irish joke? Seafarers get travel concessions, the police get it. Why not people who work on the railways?"

The most problematical issue is the argument over pensions. Network Rail wants to do away with a "final-salary" scheme which ties retirement payments to wages.

Under proposals tabled by the company, all those recruited by the company after 1 April this year will join a "money-purchase" fund. That is the most difficult issue because the cost of resolving it is potentially huge.

Mr Crow says a money-purchase scheme - the kind being introduced all over other industry - leaves pensioners at the mercy of the "luck of the investment manager". He says: "I want all my members at Network Rail to have the same terms and conditions. There's nothing revolutionary about that."

But is Mr Crow using genuine grievances as a stick with which to beat the Government? Is it partly a protest at ministers' refusal to countenance renationalisation? "We are concerned about purely industrial issues. Management has simply refused to negotiate and we have to decide what we are going to do about it. I expect members to vote yes to strike action but, yes or no, I will respect their wishes."

Mr Crow is very much a political animal although he has no discernible attachment to an ideology. Arguably he is more a devotee of Robin Hood than Karl Marx, although he has a bust of the latter in his office.

He is a convinced republican. "I think the royal family is very privileged. I wouldn't like to see any harm coming to them, but I do believe they lead a very privileged life. Why should they be able to start out in the world with far more benefits than other people?"

He would like to see Tony Benn as an elected president because he is a "true representative of working people". But was Mr Benn not a born aristocrat, one who renounced his title? "Just because you go to the Virgin Islands it doesn't make you a virgin does it?" says Mr Crow, a man known for occasionally abstruse one-liners.

As to the war in Iraq, he is deeply opposed to it,as is his union. But he would not support violent demonstrations against it. "I believe in peaceful civil disobedience, that's the kind of extra-Parliamentary action I'd like to see. I don't believe in going round smashing things up." He says 1,000 RMT members are serving in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the civilian service which replenishes the British military.

He insists he does not believe in using industrial action for political ends, but says workers should be allowed to stage sympathy strikes. He believes the trade union movement should be allowed to support doctors and nurses who might think twice about walking out.

Sop what is his political manifesto? "I'm not looking for Utopia. In my view, everyone should have the chance of a job at a decent wage; to have the opportunity to buy or rent a house. There should be a decent National Health Service and good schooling for everyone."

He believes all companies privatised by Conservative and Labour governments should be renationalised.

That would not only include public utilities like gas electricity and water but companies including BT and British Airways. And he is no soft-hearted liberal. If he had more faith in the criminal justice system, he says he would support the death penalty.

He believes the Labour Party has betrayed the working class. He was highly influential in his union's historic decision to affiliate to other parties, a move which led to the union's recent expulsion from Labour.

The RMT leader left the Communist Party over its insistence that its members should actively support all Labour Parliamentary candidates. Ironically, he later parted company with Mr Scargill's Socialist Labour Party because it opted to mount electoral challenges in all constituencies, whether or not Labour candidates were "good socialists".

He says he would probably join the Scottish Socialist Party, an offshoot of the old Militant Tendency, if he lived north of the border. It was the decision by the Scottish region of the union to affiliate to the SSP that finally provoked the split with Labour.

He adds: "The only parties I'm really interested in now are garden parties." But he agrees an invitation from the Palace is unlikely.

THE CV: Robert Crow

Born: 13 June 1961, Wapping, London

Educated: Kingswood High, Hainault, Redbridge

1979: Joined National Union of Railwaymen

1982-92: Sectional NUR representative

1983-85: Chair of Sectional Council NUR

1985-92: Secretary of NUR sectional council

1984-86: Chair, Holborn Branch NUR

1987-93: Secretary, Stratford Branch NUR

1988-91: Delegate to the union's AGM

1992-94: Council of Executives member

2002: General Secretary