Mark Steel: All those touchy-feely baristas need someone like Bob Crow fighting for their right to behave like normal people

If your hours are up and your wages frozen, at least you’re up to date with fashion

Mark Steel
Thursday 13 March 2014 19:44
Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, attends with other activists and demonstrators a rally at Bedford Square to protest against government spending cuts in central London
Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, attends with other activists and demonstrators a rally at Bedford Square to protest against government spending cuts in central London

What a shame Bob Crow will never get to read the tributes paid to him, especially those written by Conservatives that tended to go: “He was honest, loyal, charming and will be sorely missed. It’s true we had our disagreements, such as when I referred to him as a communist terrorist Luddite whore hell-bent on torturing decent commuters like a cockney Spanish Inquisition, a one-man North Korea who must be boiled in mercury on live television if we’re ever to run an Underground train again without deferring to his squalid Bolshevik thuggery. But that doesn’t detract from his personal good grace and he is a sad loss to public life.”

One reason Conservatives were confused by Bob Crow is they can’t seem to believe anyone spends their time defending the conditions of others, unless there’s some personal gain for themselves. So they spent years trying to expose him, coming up with revelations such as: “So-called ‘Man of the People’ Crow has no fewer than FIVE cushions in his living room. Among the luxury items our reporters discovered in his private residence were a set of cups and saucers, which is a form of crockery often seen in DOWNTON ABBEY, and a packet of CHEESE, not Dairylea triangles as eaten by common working-class folk.”

The most common accusation was to call him a “dinosaur”, who didn’t understand that old methods of trade unionism, such as resisting job losses and threatening strikes, were outdated and don’t work any more. According to this theory, the modern trade union needs to adopt more modern slogans, such as: “Ooh blimey, oh well what can you do?”

To prove how ineffective the methods of Bob Crow’s union, the RMT, has been, London Underground has one of the few workforces in the country with protected job numbers, wages and pensions, whereas everywhere else they’ve fallen to bits. And this shows how out of date it is, because protecting the workforce is so 20th century.

If you’ve had your hours increased and wages frozen and your union dismantled and been put on a zero-hours contract and had to start delivering pizzas in the evenings to get through the week, you might be a gibbering wreck but at least you’re up to date with fashion so that’s the main thing.

The RMT’s antiquated methods seem to have resulted in its membership growing by several thousand, at a time when most unions were in decline. Once again, this shows how out of touch it is, as commentators have made it clear that people don’t join things any more. The ideal trade union for today calls an annual general meeting, and when not a single person shows up, it’s finally proved it’s in touch with the current generation.

But it does leave critics of the RMT on the Underground with a puzzle: the more they insist it’s unpopular, the more popular it seems to be, both within the workforce and outside it, as a majority of Londoners supported the union in its recent strike. Their case is to shout: “Don’t all like them, you idiots. Can’t you see they’re unpopular?”

It could be argued that a traditional trade union might be suitable for old-fashioned workforces, but has no place in more recent industries. It’s true that unions haven’t made much impact in call centres or chains of coffee shops, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be handy. For example, in Pret a Manger cafés, the staff not only have to serve all day for a wage just over the legal minimum, but they also have to touch each other regularly, as this conveys a cheeriness that apparently boosts sales. Maybe this comes from one of Freud’s theories, that when you see two Latvian lads put their arm round one another, you can’t help buy a crab and camembert salad.

But this is a control over the workforce that goes beyond anything from industrial times. Dockers, as far as I know, weren’t expected to stroke each other in order to boost the speed of unloading bananas.

Maybe one day the staff will all join a union, and if that union suggests to the management that requiring staff to touch each other or face the sack was a little bit mental, and if they carry on the workers will all stop work, even if the newspapers scream, “They’re holding our blueberry porridge to ransom,” that could be considered perfectly modern and reasonable.

The modern employee is to be seen tapping at iPads on trains, arranging spreadsheets and yelling “Hello, hello, hello, oh NO, I’ve lost you” at customers as it goes into a tunnel, whereas even miners weren’t asked to finish their shift, then carry on digging coal all the way home. So perhaps the newest jobs are the ones that need the oldest-style unions most of all.

This may be why Bob Crow was admired by many who didn’t think they agreed with him. And why the next Bob Crow might be a woman who paints the froth on a latte into pretty colours.

It’s unlikely however, that anyone will have Bob’s command of language, such as when he insisted, “It has got to the point where some of our members are no longer allowed out for a urination”, or the speech he made two weeks ago that ended: “All three parties are the same, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and, er, Tweedle some other thing.”

When a man can run out of Tweedles and still carry on, it’s no wonder some people will want to follow him.

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