Bob Crow, RMT union leader: eight lessons from his life and legacy

By | March 10, 2017
Bob Crow

© 2012 Jarle Vines / Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Bob Crow, the former RMT rail and transport union general secretary, died at the tragically young age of 52 three years ago this week. He was without doubt the most high profile union leader of his generation – and that was despite the union he led being one of the smallest. The reasons for this apparent contradiction are to be found in the troika of his personality, politics and power of his members. Here the whole became more than the sum of the parts.

Students and scholars of employment, industrial and labour relations can gain valuable insights into the issues of power, ideology and material interests in work and employment by examining the lessons of his life and legacy.

Here are just a few of the lessons from my biography of Crow called Bob Crow – socialist, leader, fighter which is published this week by Manchester University Press, priced £20.

  1. The job of being a union leader – at whatever level – is to impart collective confidence and certainty in members – the confidence to fight and the certainty that the battles can be won. This is to engage in transformational leadership, where members collectively become more than they thought they could or would be.
  2. There is the need to understand how leaders develop socially and politically. Some skills and traits can be taught but others cannot and are generated organically. Classroom lessons and mentoring cannot substitute for being battle hardened.
  3. Identify where the weak links in your opponents’ chains are and target them ruthlessly. So knowing the ‘where’, the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ become critical in order to develop the leverage to advance and protect members’ interests.
  4. Understand that strikes need to have both an economic and political force to them. Hurting employers ‘in the pocket’ is important but some will resist no matter the cost so political pressure must also be applied in order to reduce the psychological barrier to capitulating.
  5. Innovate so that old tactics are refreshed and become more powerful. For example, a 24 hour strike held over two days (12 noon to 12 noon) causes more disruption than a simple midnight to midnight strike.
  6. Be prepared to work with others but always be ready to rely on your own members and don’t let others in the union movement hold you back from pushing ahead. But don’t push any head too far that your union becomes isolated from others.
  7. Unions that stand up and collectively fight and win for their members – especially through their members’ own actions – are a very attractive proposition. This then becomes a good recruiting sergeant, leading to a virtuous circle where a stronger union recruits more members, and when mobilised, attracts more members.

And, lastly, if you say you are going to fight, you must be prepared to fight if your opponent tries to call your bluff. Only march your troops up to the top of the hill if you are prepared to march them down the other side to confront the enemy.

These and many more lessons are contained in the biography itself.

Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford

About Gregor Gall

Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. He is Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and wrote the report mentioned above. Prof Gall was previously Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Stirling and Research Professor of Industrial Relations and Director of the Centre for Research in Employment Studies, University of Hertfordshire. He is also Visiting Lecturer, International Labour & Trade Union Studies, Ruskin College, Oxford, and Visiting Lecturer, Labor Education Program, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois, Urbana.