Bob Crow grew up on a council estate in the East End of London: his father was a docker and his mother was a cleaner. He left school at 16 without any qualifications with dreams of becoming a professional footballer, and when this failed he got a job working for the London Underground.
He came from a political background: his father was part of that radical tradition of dockers who were communists, read the Morning Star, and active in their Union. Like my father who worked in the building trade, they were highly politicised workers who knew what side they were on and, as Bob says “When we used to come home at 6 o’clock at night, the news was always on and old man had an opinion about everything. All the big industries were unionised. All my mates’ dads’ families were in unions. It was just a fact of life.”
Bob joined the NUR when he was 18 on 6 May 1979 –the week that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. He became active in the union following a fallout with his supervisor and went to a union meeting to complain. This began his lifetime commitment to trade union activity. In 1980 he was elected as a local union representative, working on behalf of thousands of Underground infrastructure maintenance and renewal workers called Permanent Way staff. By the time of his early death in 2014 he had become not just the leader of one of the most militant trade unions in the country, but a leader who was loved and inspired by his members and who articulated the views of socialism and compassion which led many people in this country to see him as a working class hero.
In this well –written new biography Gregor Gall explains how and why Bob Crow achieved this fame. Central to Bob’s rise to power was the position of the RMT workers on the London Underground. Unlike any other part of the railway system in the UK, London cannot function without its public transport system. Bob Crow understood this, and used the privatisation of British Rail to strengthen the RMT and make it an effective fighting force which would defend its members jobs and working conditions. Gregor shows that Bob was much more than a Daily Mail caricature of a strike happy trade union leader. “In all, Crow led from the front in making sure that – whether through threats or action or action itself – an increasing amount of pressure was put on employers to settle on terms acceptable to RMT members.”
Bob Crow was much more than a union leader. His leadership of the RMT led to the creation of three organisations that would act, or try to, act as vehicles to promote the interests of working class people and socialism, filling a vacuum he felt that had been vacated by the Labour Party. By 2007 he was telling the RMT AGM, “Any hope of the Labour Party working for workers is dead, finished, over. I think all of you who are staying in the Labour Party are just giving credibility to it.” His response to this political vacuum was to work with selected Labour MPs,but also to promote organisations that he believed would lay the groundwork for a new party of labour, including the National Shop Stewards Network, the No2EU and the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition.
Crucial to all this politics was Bob Crow’s personality, the larger than life working class male who loved his family, his football team and having a good time. He was attacked constantly by the media because of his accent, his no- nonsense up front defence of his RMT members and calls for a better world for all people. He defended himself; “To be a general secretary of a union you’ve got to be larger than life…You want someone who’s got a bit of spark about them…And perhaps sometimes where some people might keep their mouth shut I have expressed a point of view where sometimes you should listen a bit more.”
One of the reasons why Bob Crow was loved by his members was because he was on their side and would do whatever he could to win them better pay and conditions. He inspired people like Lorna Tooley whom I interviewed in 2015 when researching a pamphlet on Manchester Irish Trade Unionist Mary Quaile (1886-1958) I interviewed several modern “Marys”: women active in the trade union movement today. My aim was to show the relevance of trade unionism today, and in particular its relevance to the lives of younger women.
Lorna Tooley, who is in her twenties and Branch Secretary East Ham RMT, told me that trade unionism turned around her life; “The union helped me a lot and showed me what they can do and why they are there. They inspired me, all my life I have had so much shit happen to me, it was a lightbulb moment, that there are people who will stand up for each other, and will help other people who are not as strong as them….Through the union I have gained an education, gained confidence and it has also opened my eyes to injustice, not just in this country but across the world.”
Gregor Gall’s biography gives one a fascinating insight into Bob’s life, covering many aspects of not just his union work but his relationship with his family, the media and the Left. Communist and trade union activist Eddie Frow used to say that there were only two kinds of history; bosses’ and workers. Gregor has definitely written the latter.
Buy it here