“He walked the walk” – remembering Bob Crow

Bob CrowSaturday is the third anniversary of the premature death of Bob Crow, the former RMT general secretary.

He died just aged 52. He was just about the only union leader known in households up and down the land – and for good reason.

His personality, his politics and the power of his members enabled him to punch well above his weight. He didn’t just ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walked the walk’.

His larger than life public personality allowed him, without fear or favour, to put across his politics – ‘communist/socialist’ as he said – and defend and advance the interests of his members. He learnt his politics from his father and his early membership of the Communist Party. He was later a member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.

The personal ability to prosecute these politics was developed over a number of years, starting with an epiphany as a young track worker on London Underground when he felt he had been victimised by his gaffer. In the battles to come, Crow developed the wherewithal to command respect and attention with his no holds barred approach.

It was this combination that made him so unique. Before he was elected as RMT general secretary in 2002, he had served his apprenticeship as a national executive member and then assistant general secretary. His legacy for the RMT was a stronger, larger and more financially sound union.

Such was his impact that his successor, Mick Cash, said he would carry on with Crow’s militant legacy even though when Cash (unsuccessfully) challenged Crow for the assistant general secretaryship in 1999, Cash had said that the RMT had become too militant.

So what are the lessons can the union movement from Crow’s life?

First, 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.

Second, the job of leadership is to impart confidence and certainty in members – the confidence to fight and the certainty that the battles can be won.

Third, 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.

Fourth, if you say you are going to fight, you must be prepared to fight if your opponent tries to call your bluff.

Fifth, unions that stand up and collectively win for their members – through their members’ own actions – are an attractive proposition. This then becomes a good recruiting sergeant.

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

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