I am Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. I’m also the author and editor of over twenty books on unions and politics. Amongst my public engagement roles are being co-editor of Scottish Labour History, the journal of the Scottish Labour History Society; being editor of Scottish Left Review; and director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the left wing think tank that most major unions in Scotland are affiliated to. I undertake these roles because I believe that academics should relate their work as recipients of public money to the general public. As a socialist, I choose to do this with the union movement and the political left.
It was partly for these reasons I decided to write a biography of Bob Crow. But it was also because Crow 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.
Five lessons that can be learnt from Crow’s life are:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you say you are going to fight, you must be prepared to fight if your opponent tries to call your bluff.
- 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.
If you like to know more about the union movement, the following are good starting points:
- ‘Trade Unions in Western Europe: Hard Times, Hard Choices’ by Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick & Richard Hyman (Oxford University Press, 2013)
- ‘Women Workers and the Trade Unions’ by Sarah Boston (Lawrence and Wishart, 2015)
- ‘Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World: British Trade Unions under New Labour’ by Gary Daniels & John McIlroy (eds.) (Routledge, 2009)
- ‘Union Revitalisation in Advanced Economies: Assessing the Contribution of ‘Union Organising” by Gregor Gall (ed.) ( Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
- ‘Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class and Society’ by Richard Hyman (Sage, 2001)
- ‘Rethinking Industrial Relations’ by John Kelly (Routledge, 1998)
- ‘United They Stood’ by Robert Seifert & Tom Sibley (Lawrence and Wishart, 2011)