After Bob Crow, What Next?

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Thus the Bob Crow era came to an abrupt and unexpected end, with the death of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s general secretary at the tragically early age of 52.

Bob Crow inspired strong feelings in many people, this blog included, but today is not the day to revisit those battles – Crow leaves behind a wife and four children, as well as countless devastated friends and admirers.

Indeed, regardless of what one may think of Crow’s ideology and tactics, the fact that he did good by his members (at least in the short-medium term) is indisputable. Tube drivers earn more than twice the starting salary of a new teacher, a remarkable if somewhat galling fact. RMT members’ loyalty to and trust in Bob Crow was well earned.

But what is likely to happen now that the gates have closed on the era of Bob Crow? Despite the efforts of a few other pretenders here and there, there does not seem to be the same appetite for the repeating, predictable, militant industrial action strategy that he rigorously followed.

And so as the RMT head office staff return to work tomorrow, the burning question will be whether the union chooses another leader willing to exploit the fact that he has London commuters gripped by the unmentionables to continue showering their members with terms and concessions that others can only dream of, or if they will decide to quit while they are ahead?

There is a compelling argument that Bob Crow’s tenure will come to be viewed as the high watermark of what activist, militant unionism can achieve for semi-skilled workers. The RMT’s most recent victory over Transport for London in the recent tube strikes was just as much a result of the abysmal strategy and negotiating tactics of TfL, and London mayor Boris Johnson’s dithering, than it was a Bob Crow triumph. A less hapless guardian of the public purse might have not allowed the RMT to get away with so many concessions.

This, ultimately, was the paradox that Bob Crow created for his members: with each passing victory, each benchmark-busting pay increase or working practices concession flaunted in the face of other workers and the general British public, the RMT only served to make the case for altering the people-to-technology ratio even further against employing real human beings.

Many lines on the London Underground are already highly automated. Indeed, the Docklands Light Railway is entirely driverless. As purchasing decisions for new rolling stock and signalling technology come around, a climate of industrial unrest – or the weary “what will they demand of us this time” mentality that it has created – can only make the case for maximum automation more compelling.

The cost of all of the RMT’s industrial relations victories – and they are short and medium term triumphs only – has been to make labour so expensive in relation to capital that the simple solution of exchanging the unreliable (labour) for the reliable (capital) has become a no-brainer. Boris Johnson, exasperated at the impact of unpredictable strikes on his mayoralty, is known to be interested. And contrary to what the RMT might say, or however they seek to misuse the memory of 7/7, most Londoners will be much happier to be whisked from A to Z under the streets of London at the hands of a computerised train than by an excessively remunerated humanoid with a tendency to go AWOL around Christmas or major international football tournaments.

Another side note of interest is the fact that Ed Miliband was so cautious in his praise of the RMT’s late leader, as the Guardian reports:

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: “Bob Crow was a major figure in the labour movement and was loved and deeply respected by his members.

“I didn’t always agree with him politically but I always respected his tireless commitment to fighting for the men and women in his union. He did what he was elected to do, was not afraid of controversy and was always out supporting his members across the country.”

How far Ed Miliband has seemingly come since the days when he willingly leaped on stage with anti-austerity protesters and a cast of characters from all over the left wing political spectrum.

Could it be that so soon after Bob Crow’s latest triumph over the hapless Transport for London negotiating team and reconfirmation that public sector workers are being paid more than their private sector counterparts – at the height of his power – Crow had become somewhat politically toxic?

And so, when Robert Crow of Woodford Green is buried, dead at the height of his influence, his legacy is far from being set in stone. Mourned by his trades union colleagues, and his RMT members most of all, Crow’s ambition and determination helped them to prosper in recent years, while many other workers did not.

But, when we are all zipping around London in efficient driverless trains at 3AM on a bank holiday, will they still be so grateful to his memory?

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Tribute to RMT leader Bob Crow, who died on 11th March 2014, written on the Service Information board at Covent Garden Underground Station

 

The text of the impromptu memorial to Bob Crow at Covent Garden Underground station, written on the Service Information board:

“Fear of death follows fear of life. A man who lives life fully is prepared to die at any time” – Mark Twain

R.I.P. Robert Crow RMT

13/06/1961 – 11/03/2014

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