Bob Crow death: A modern union man who still fought for powerless

 

Share

British politics – in fact, British society – suffers acutely from Downton Abbey syndrome. Diverting and dramatic, the theatre (or pantomime) of local class struggle so absorbs us that the fast-changing reality behind the scenes passes almost unnoticed. Forget everything you have read and heard about the late Bob Crow as an old-school union boss, a rare survivor from a vanished age – either a doughty champion of working-class interests or a stubborn, disruptive dinosaur.

The truth is that Mr Crow was in some respects a thoroughly modern figure. In one area – London’s public transport, and especially the Underground – he delivered a long-term masterclass in small-scale, hi-tech unionism. There, he could parlay his members’ supply of an essential near-monopoly service into good wages and favourable conditions. On the Tube, large numbers of prosperous and well-connected commuters and travellers depend on the skills of RMT staff. The workers who serve them are relatively few; the kit investment-hungry and sophisticated; the market affluent and well-defined; the alternatives very limited. 

This formula makes for collective-bargaining power that has more in common with (say) the British Airline Pilots Association, or even the British Medical Association, than it does with the low-waged, mixed-skill and mass-membership unionism that began to dwindle in the Thatcher-propelled 1980s. Look behind Britain’s ever-entertaining carnival of class, and the Tube-related stand-offs of the RMT may have more in common with junior doctors’ negotiations than with the rail disputes of 50 years ago.

 

The gulf between elite craft unionism – the so-called “aristocracy of labour”, according to one branch of the Marxist theory Mr Crow certainly knew – and all-inclusive general workers’ movements runs deep in the labour history of Britain, and of London. It was 125 years ago, in 1889, that the great London dockers’ strike began to shift the balance in favour of broader general unions. Now the tide has turned again. Organised labour flourishes best among small, skilled bands which can control the delivery of an irreplaceable service in key parts of a national economy. Elsewhere, the law of the jungle – or rather the ocean – often still applies.

Remember that the “M” in RMT stands for “Maritime”. There, on the high seas of globalisation, Mr Crow’s union packs a much feebler punch. On container ships, which deliver more than 90 per cent of the goods we consume, the under-regulated free-for-all of the labour market means precarious conditions for the majority of seafarers. Look at the RMT’s own website and you will find a depressing litany of the legal rights – the minimum wage, above all – that even its members may forfeit outside UK waters. And most crew – many of them Filipinos – toil on ships far out of sight of any union agreement. Here, oceans apart from the fuming pundit on a strike-day Tube platform, the borderless economy has brought back 19th-century insecurities. Mr Crow had in fact campaigned to extend the UK minimum wage to foreign-flagged ships in domestic waters. Did a single national newspaper article ever credit that side of his work?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?