A personal aspect in how shocked I was at Bob Crow’s early death is that he is almost exactly the same age as me, born just one day earlier, and indeed not many miles distant.
I didn’t know the man personally, although we had spoken on a few occasions over the years.
Now is not the time to debate the complex issues of whether the RMT’s industrial and political strategy has been an overall success; although there is a debate to be had there. The RMT’s strategy has of course also not sprung from the head of one man: it has also been shaped by other leading members of that union, and endorsed by their elected governing committees.
Bob Crow was the leader of an industrial transport union with particular strengths and opportunities, and he played the hand of cards he was dealt, with no small skill. Exhortations from some commentators that other unions should learn from the RMT model need to be contextualised by recognising the different membership demographics, membership densities, and economic and social clout.
However, the sad occasion of Brother Crow’s passing is a fitting time to reflect on the personal strengths of the man. There is enormous personal responsibility in trade union leadership, especially as general secretary. Every industrial dispute is pregnant not only with the possibility of victory, but also of defeat. Every industrial dispute requires the membership to be held together: inspired, persuaded and motivated to act. Every industrial dispute involves danger that the management has developed plans for a counter-attack on the union. The stakes are high as the livelihoods of members and activists are in the balance.
Bob Crow never believed that trade unionism was all about cultivating a comfortable affinity with management; though of course he understood that all trades disputes are ultimately resolved by negotiation, and industrial action is just the pursuit of negotiation by other means. Crow therefore recognized the importance of outlining areas of common ground with management, and of the travelling public, for example a commitment to the public service aspects of the transport industry.
The skills behind successful trade unionism require some unglamorous work of networking, capacity building, training and building loyalty, trust and identity with the union from the members. But it also requires qualities of psychology and combativity. Bob Crow was adept at using the media, knowing that every strike ballot is a news story. He also had the skill which military experts used to call coup d’oeil – the ability to quickly assess the point of weakness to attack.
Above all, Bob Crow had moral courage. He was prepared to take responsibility, and to maintain resolution, even when he was the target of extraordinary hostile media attention, and even in the face of set-backs. This is a genius of leadership that is rare and also necessary.
Bob probably dealt with this hostile media pressure, as many do, by adopting a public persona as a carapace, he also of course had the respect and support of other RMT leaders and members; but nevertheless it takes a strong person to resist, and no one that faces the bullying of the tabloids comes away unscathed. Bob Crow was also subject to more insidious pressures to conform even within our movement, which he admirably resisted.
It is not surprising that the response to Bob’s death has seen such strong expressions of affection and respect. He was a truly admirable trade union leader who has left us too early, unbowed and undefeated.