11 March 2014

Two thoughts on Bob Crow (RIP).

I shared perhaps only one or two of the many political stances of Bob Crow, who has died at 52, but, boy, did he show what a union could do if it stays focused on a sector and on the radical concept of promoting members' needs. While the rest of the union movement has been cannibalising itself into super-unions, the three covering rail - Crow's RMT, plus ASLEF and TSSA - have resisted the temptation and appear to be all the more effective for it. Pay and conditions for tube workers are the envy of the majority of those they transport every day. And good luck to them. Their General Secretary certainly understood the 'conservatory principle'.

A conservatory, yesterday.

In addition, RMT provoked its own disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 2004. Now I'm proud of the union link and would hope that at some point the rail, maritime and transport workers will be reaffiliated to Labour in the new system. But that's 10 years now of RMT members and officers not fannying about at GCs, AGMs and selection processes and, perhaps, finding better things to do. I wonder whether a union's priorities can get skewed. For if it's a choice between a union that gets above inflation pay deals for its members but is out of direct party politics, or one that has, say, a major employer close on its watch while its local officers are perhaps a little distracted by (ahem) helping to select the next Labour Party PPC...well, I'll take the former, thanks. Like I say, focusing and prioritising matter and Crow was good at both.

My second point though is that, while admiring what he achieved in the present, he never really seemed to address the future. Today's £50/60k-plus and the rest is great for tube drivers in their fifties and sixties who will continue to work in that role until retirement. But in 10 years' time the job of Tube Driver won't exist anymore. Meanwhile, public transport commuting won't be as necessary (home and remote working, flexible hours, personal hover-boards*, etc). So the rather blunt tool of striking to shut down the Underground for a day or two won't be as effective in negotiating on behalf of a dwindling membership. The RMT knows that this is the way of things. Look at what containerisation and GPS has done to those under the 'M' part of their name.

Like nearly all industries and professions, mass transit systems will eventually move from high numbers of semi- or un-skilled workers to low numbers of skilled workers. And overall, this is good. But what we want for workers in the transition is re-skilling, so they can adapt to the changes within their sector or transfer into new ones. Crow and the RMT were defensive on this, rather than seeing the opportunities. 

But at least he, and under him the union he shaped, were not afraid of their members' aspirations in the here and now. And as of today, I bet there's a few members of the choir invisible measuring up for a new conservatory and eagerly awaiting Mr Crow's representation.

(*Shut up. A boy can dream).