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Gregor Gall: Bob Crow was unashamedly blunt

Bob Crow. Picture: PA

Bob Crow. Picture: PA

Bob Crow was a big man, not just physically but also industrially and politically. For some, he was public enemy number one. For others, a working class hero.

Few will sit on the fence when it comes to assessing his contribution and legacy.

He was the best-known union leader of his generation, despite the fact he led a small union. It was his unashamed bluntness in an age of anodyne soundbites and his members’ potential power that let Crow punch well above his weight.

His members on trains, the Underground and buses could immediately halt their employers’ operations. This was power used to good effect by the RMT under Crow’s leadership since 2002, when he was elected general secretary. Good pay rises were gained and while not all redundancies were halted, the terms for going were improved.

As a result, membership of the RMT rose by more than 25,000 while other unions floundered. It was not just those with obvious industrial muscle that he represented. Under Crow, low-paid cleaners on the railways were organised and, through hard battles, secured wages above the minimum and living wages.

It would be easy to make Crow synonymous with striking. But he was the master of using ballots for action to create leverage with employers to get better deals without striking. He ended up not using mandates for action far more than he did call strikes with them. This was the militant mandate he was elected on after the tenure of Jimmy Knapp, who was seen as being too soft with employers.

But it was also a strategic one as the RMT became the best defender of public transport by allying with the downtrodden traveller.

Crow was quite humble and shy away from the radio or television studio, where he played up the unrepentant militant character. But it was that forcefulness in person and practice that made him so beloved by his members. It also allowed him to play a leading role on the political left.

He supported his branches which affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party even though this meant expulsion from Labour. And he backed numerous other attempts to build a left-wing electoral alternative to Labour. As a Millwall supporter, he very much operated on the basis of “they don’t like us but we don’t care”.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford

 

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