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Obituary: Bob Crow

Bob CrowI’m shocked I have to write this piece now. Bob Crow, probably the most effective trade union leader of this generation has been cruelly snatched away from our movement. Our thoughts have to be with those who feel his passing most keenly – his family, his friends, his close comrades.

Now is not the time for a critical appraisal of his industrial and political career. That can wait. But we can appreciate what Bob represented to our movement. In the first place, enemies and fair-weather friends in their effusive (some might say fulsome) obituaries all agree that Bob won significant gains for RMT members on the London Underground. They flatter him in death as they fought him tooth and nail in life. But behind the flattery is the recognition Bob represented something assumed long gone: a hardy trade unionism resting on working class solidarity. As Ken Livingstone observed, tube workers are the only group of working class people in the country who have successfully protected their pay, their pensions and their working conditions since the stock markets crumpled. No mean feat.

Every bit of credit coming to Bob he thoroughly deserves. While crudely caricatured as a union bully boy who regularly held the capital to ransom – recall the shrill cries prior to the Olympics, before every Christmas – it takes a strategic brain and serious tactical nous to win and win again against would-be macho management and an almost universally hostile press coverage.

For labour movement people he was someone who did a good job simply by demonstrating that trade unionism, far from being obsolete, could still make the powers-that-be tremble. But as we mourn our comrade’s passing – and the likes of the Tories breathe a sigh of relief – we must avoid deifying him, of holding Bob up as some kind of ‘great man’. A smart, charismatic labour leader he was, but it is not the case we won’t see his like again. His personal qualities were forged by the collective experience of the RMT and the National Union of Railwaymen, and he rose to prominence because he was able to condense the collective memory of those struggles with a plain speaking manner and a keen sense of what was possible at any given moment.

If anything, the experience of the RMT on the London Underground has been even more tumultuous than the time prior to Bob’s election in 2002. It’s been a period of fierce battles under successive mayors. Bob has led from the front throughout. But most importantly, the workers have an acute sense of their own collective power, of taking on management and the establishment … and winning. In so doing the pitched battles between the mayoralty, London Underground and the RMT have and continuously create the circumstances out of which one, two, many Bob Crows emerge. And when they start coming to the fore, there won’t be a more fitting tribute.

Sleep well Bob.

This post first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

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