Workers Hammer No. 226
Bob Crow: bogeyman of capitalist rulers
In life, Bob Crow, leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was reviled by the capitalist press, which frothed against his big salary and expensive holidays. What really made the million-pound bonus boys of the City of London choke on their foie gras was that Crow — an East End cockney living in a council house — led a militant union which has its hands on the levers of the London Tube network.
In his death, he was honoured by fellow trade unionists and by leading representatives of the bourgeoisie alike. Even the piggish Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the boss of the Underground, had a kind word for him; Labour leader Ed Miliband praised him, while former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, told Sky News: “The only working-class people who still have well-paid jobs in London are his members” (bbc.co.uk, 11 March). Comparatively well-paid jobs in London Underground are certainly no thanks to Livingstone, who ran the capital for eight years. As the employer in the London transport system, in June 2004 he attacked the RMT for striking over pay and said if he were an RMT member he would cross the picket lines.
What is to account for this seeming consensus ranging from overt class enemies of the labour movement to working-class militants? On the one hand, in this period marked by one-sided class war by the bourgeoisie against those it exploits, Crow managed not only to hold the line but to improve the wages of his membership. The union organised the heavily immigrant cleaners in the Underground and has grown overall from some 50,000 to around 80,000 members, in a period when union membership generally has sharply declined. On the other hand, unlike, say, Arthur Scargill, notwithstanding the bust of Lenin he displayed on his desk, Crow did not really rock the boat of British capitalism.
In the 48-hour strike in February against Boris Johnson and London Underground’s plan to slash around 950 station jobs, the RMT membership were solid, but ASLEF, which organises a larger proportion of the drivers than the RMT, was not on strike (although some of its members honoured RMT picket lines). There should be one union for all of transport — including bus drivers; the craft divisions work only in favour of the bosses. But forging a leadership in the unions committed to the kind of class struggle that would shut down the city requires a political struggle against the reformist politics of the leadership of all the unions in the Underground.
Crow was part of what the media in 2001-2002 began calling the “awkward squad” of trade union leaders, who supposedly wouldn’t toe the line under the viciously anti-union Labour government. But in reality the CVs of these ostensible class-struggle warriors are a catalogue of betrayals.
A Communist Party member in the 1980s, Crow was never a member of the Labour Party. When the RMT was expelled from Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 for allowing some branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party, he welcomed the split. But Crow’s politics remained firmly “old Labour” reformism, based on the myth that socialism could be achieved through legislation in Parliament without smashing the capitalist state and without establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. And despite Crow’s rift with the Labour Party, he baulked at mobilising his members in class struggle against the Blair Labour government. Such struggle was posed concretely for the RMT and other unions in the Underground in 2002 during the strikes by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) over higher pay. In the run-up to the firefighters strike, Crow pledged that his members in the Tube would refuse to work during the strike, because with no fire cover it is unsafe to run Underground trains. With Tony Blair’s Labour government mobilising troops for the invasion of Iraq, and with 19,000 troops mobilised to operate “Green Goddesses”, the prospect of RMT support for the embattled FBU had the Labour government in a frenzy.
A joint strike by both unions against the Labour government could have dealt a blow to the anti-union laws — and done more to spike Blair’s plans for the invasion of Iraq than all the speeches Crow ever made on Stop the War platforms. But when push came to shove, far from calling its members out on strike against the Blair government, the RMT leadership left it up to individual union members to decide whether it was safe to drive trains during the FBU strike. Leaving it to individuals was contrary to the principles of trade unionism, setting up those members for victimisation. It was also a cop-out from elementary class solidarity with the FBU who were battling the vicious Labour government.
The political bankruptcy of “old Labour” reformism is obvious in the electoral campaigns that Crow supported. In 2009 he teamed up with the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain and other groups in an electoral effort, No2EU. It was to Crow’s credit that he opposed the European Union. We Marxists oppose the EU, an imperialist trade bloc and a vehicle for the European capitalists’ co-operation against the working class and against immigrants. Our opposition is based on proletarian internationalism in contrast to Crow’s campaign.
No2EU opposed what it termed “social dumping” by the EU. A statement on its website proclaimed: “The economic term for undercutting wages by using cheap foreign labour is ‘social dumping’. This process was recently played out at the Lindsey oil refinery when unorganised Italian and Portuguese workers were brought in on lower rates of pay and local workers took illegal strike action in protest.” The 2009 strikes at Lindsey oil refinery were in fact reactionary strikes against Italian and Portuguese workers. As we noted: “The strikes were not intended to secure more jobs or indeed any gains for the working class as a whole, nor to defend existing jobs. They were about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers. These strikes, pitting British workers against foreign workers and immigrants, are detrimental to the interests of the multiethnic working class in Britain and those of the workers of Europe as a whole” (Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009).
In 2010 the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was co-founded by Crow with the Socialist Party and supported by the SWP. TUSC, which is contesting the May local elections in England, calls to make the cops “democratically accountable” and for an “independent foreign policy”, in yet another version of the fiction that capitalism can be made to work in the interests of the workers and oppressed.
The starting point for a class-struggle leadership is that the interests of the working class and those of the capitalist rulers are irreconcilable. The working class needs a new party — not one committed to chauvinist protectionism and the sanctity of Her Majesty’s parliament but a multiethnic revolutionary workers party committed to leading the working class in a socialist revolution to smash the capitalist order and usher in a new era of building socialism on a worldwide plane.