Tube strike: In praise of Bob Crow, Britain’s trade union pantomime villain

He is the most effective union leader in Britain today

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Being a member of a union is often a dispiriting experience these days. They are not what they once were.

As Tony Blair once crowed our laws are “the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”. And there are many that would seek to make them more so following this morning's Tube strike.

There's often a managerial culture about unions these days. A tendency to appease rather than fight, a tendency to over-negotiate, to over-compromise, to blink a little too quickly. With a handful of exceptions union bosses resemble politicians more than they really should.

There's often a feeling that they are balancing the interests of their members with those of the management - when really the concerns of management should be near the bottom of their list of priorities.

They're not all bad of course.

Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union springs to mind. Matt Wrack of the FBU is another.

And then there's Bob Crow - the pantomime villain of modern industrial relations in Britain, and the tubby poster boy for the campaign to make it even more difficult to take strike action in this country.

Firmly a member of the 'Awkward Squad', Mr Crow is a hard man to love. His blustery, aggressive manner and sometimes nonsensical table-thumping can grate. His high profile is also a problem.

Read more: Are Tube workers right to strike against ticket office closures?

Despite his protestations to the contrary, his holiday, which resulted in him being pictured on a Brazilian beach, was a distraction.

The criticism he regularly faces for living in a council house, despite his six figure salary, is also a distraction.

All these charges, whether you consider them legitimate or not, do not distract, however, from the fact that by a long way Bob Crow is the most effective union leader in Britain today.

And he does it by focusing on one thing - getting the best deal for his members. He's very good at doing it, and he's very popular with his members as a consequence. Mr Crow was elected to be leader of the RMT in 2002.

On election he received nearly double the number of votes of the two other candidates put together. He has subsequently been re-elected on two occasions unopposed. He is, whatever way you look at it, extremely popular with those he represents.

The RMT has repeatedly negotiated strong pay increases for its members. Tube drivers are paid around £52,000 - well above the wages of other Londoners. And what of this dispute, that sees Crow once again cast in the role of villain?

In 2008 Boris Johnson ran for Mayor of London opposing the planned closure of 40 ticket offices by Ken Livingstone. He also reiterated his promise in 2010 that he would keep manned ticket offices in all stations telling the London Assembly “The first and most important point to make is that no ticket offices will be closed, alright? They're not going to be closed...”

The reason the mayor did this is because he knew plans to close ticket offices were unpopular, and I suspect they still are.

That Boris Johnson has committed a slow U-Turn on this and now supports the decision to cut nearly 1,000 jobs is perhaps the most outrageous part of the whole story.

Rather than criticise Bob Crow for doing his job extremely effectively, or for having expensive holidays, or for living in a council house, isn't it time we gave him a bit of credit for challenging hypocrisy, standing up for workers' rights and being unbowed in the face of considerable pressure?

Men like him are rare in British public life and those who would focus on his few failings are missing the point.

 

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