Public enemy or committed fighter for workers' rights?

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The Independent Online

An irate commuter loudly exclaimed "bloody outrageous" as he passed Bob Crow yesterday. As public reprimands go, it was one of the milder expletives to have been hurled in the direction of the head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union in recent days.

Since 2,300 of his members who work for the London Underground exercised their right to go on strike at 6pm on Monday, the closely-cropped fan of Millwall FC (slogan "No one likes us, we don't care") has once more resumed his role as the union leader who everyone – from the Prime Minister to the millions of Tube users – loves to loathe.

Even as the striking Underground staff returned to work yesterday after a late-night agreement was struck with Transport for London (TfL), which has taken over as caretaker for the defunct Metronet maintenance company that employed the workers, the anti-Bob bandwagon was still gathering pace.

In a nod towards the growing world of virtual activism, there were, last night, more than 30 groups on the Facebook website expressing the feelings of disgruntled commuters about the RMT and its 46-year-old general secretary.

Among the less explicit titles for the groups were "Bob Crow and the RMT need a good shoeing" and "Disrupted by the RMT strikes? Show your support and post them a turd."

Meanwhile, a London radio station called for a "Boycott Bob" campaign under which shopkeepers, landlords and any other service provider was exhorted not to serve Mr Crow. Several newspapers published articles vilifying the union leader as "the man who brought London to a grinding halt".

Under the weight of such opprobrium, Mr Crow, the son of an east London docker delivered a characteristically robust justification of his union's action. He congratulated his members on their "rock solid" support for the strike in the face of "enormous pressure and hostile media". He added: "Our members will now actually have their pensions restored to them, which is rather different than promises from a man in an expensive suit."

But the RMT, which has increased its membership by nearly 50 per cent since Mr Crow took over as general secretary in 2002, was facing claims that its72-hour walkout over assurances on pension rights and job security for former Metronet employees had achieved nothing more than an estimated £100m loss to the capital's economy.

TfL bosses insisted last night the union had agreed to end its action on Wednesday night on the basis of identical assurances given to two other transport unions, Unite and the TSSA, who considered them sufficient to call off their own planned action on Monday.

A TfL spokesman said: "The guarantees given to the RMT were the same as those given to Unite and the TSSA. Only the RMT can explain why assurances rejected on Monday were accepted last night."

Industry sources said the RMT had gone ahead with its walkout, backed by a 98 per cent vote in favour by its affected members on a turnout of just 5 1 per cent.

For his part, Mr Crow has a reputation as a quick-witted negotiator who does not shirk from threatening industrial action when negotiating with employers. After leaving school at 16, he joined the London Underground, working as a track engineer and lumberjack before becoming a union rep in 1983. One industry source said: "It is tempting to write him off as some sort of baseball cap-wearing yob with anO-level in Marxism. The reality is that he is someone who is paid to get the best for his members and will eventually do a deal."

Workers are yet to vote on another strike next week.

His right-hand men

Pat Sikorski

The RMT assistant general secretary is considered one of the most influentialfigures in the union. In June, he was the subject of a complaint about his alleged actions during a social evening at the union's AGM. The details of the allegations and the result of the internal investigation are not known but Mr Sikorski strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Bobby Law

The senior London organiser for the union is one of its most high-profile members and regularly seen on RMT's picket lines during disputes in the capital. He is currently suspended on full pay following an allegation of assault against another RMT member outside a pub in Euston, central London, in March. He denies any wrongdoing.

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