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Rest in power.
March 11, 2014 4:10 AM   Subscribe

Arguably the most successful UK trade union leader of our time, the tireless Bob Crow, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union has passed away.
posted by Mistress (37 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by AFII at 4:23 AM on March 11


A good interview with him from a month ago.

While he had many faults (listed towards the end of the interview), his detractors generally failed to understand that the point of a trades union is to campaign on behalf of its members, which Bob Crow did very effectively.

RIP Bob.
posted by DanCall at 4:23 AM on March 11


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The centre of gravity in the UK political landscape just shifted to the right. There weren't enough loud left wing voices in British politics, and now we have lost one of the loudest.
posted by knapah at 4:25 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


Tories hated him. The Daily Mail hated him. From all accounts he was an awful man, a lumbering dinosaur from a bygone era. But he was a man who was incredibly good at his job, who was good for his Union, who stuck to his principles and believed all the way down to his soles in what he was standing for. He was a man who fought on behalf of his fellow men. Try and say the same for anyone in our government right now.

My enemy's enemy is my friend. I'm sad I never got to stand him a pint and tell him to fuck off.

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posted by fight or flight at 4:25 AM on March 11 [25 favorites]


A BBC Radio 4 interview with him yesterday.
posted by fight or flight at 4:26 AM on March 11


Ken Livingston- "He fought really hard for his members. The only working-class people who still have well-paid jobs in London are his members."

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posted by threetwentytwo at 4:27 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


I work in the rail industry, although in positions somewhat at a distance from the striking end.

I was sitting here trying to write what fight or flight just did.
The worst part is that Boris Johnson is that this news will make Boris Johnson actively happy, which probably tells you all you need to know.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:36 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


My partner works in the rail industry, at the striking end. In what we like to feel are more enlightened days, the militancy of unions like the RMT, and people like Bob Crow, sometimes feels like it's misplaced or old fashioned - but it isn't. Crow was unpopular precisely because he did exactly what you want your union leader to do, and that single-mindedness is still very much needed when shareholders are seen as the most important people to protect, rather than workers or passengers.

(speaking from a general railway perspective - he didn't represent just London Underground workers, but workers from lots of other train operating companies)
posted by tinwhiskers at 4:58 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


RIP, Comrade Bob.

When people talk about Bob Crow being a left wing dinosaur, they are not necessarily being unkind. He was Cnut fighting back the tide. In effect, Bob Crow maintained a 1970s era mini socialist republic within a 21st Century company. He is virtually the last of his type, the old school union man. Many others before him were exposed as poor politicians and/or greedy politicians. Crow, apparently, was not cut from the same cloth. That is to his credit.

I don't begrudge him fighting for his members, but I think history will rightly record him with mixed feelings. On salaries and working conditions Bob Crow managed to fight the tide successfully - no small feat. He was exceptional at working on behalf of his members. Although many people outside the RMT did not like him he was widely, secretly, respected.

But he got what he wanted by holding millions of London commuters hostage and fighting the modernisation of the tube network, insofar as it involved any changes in staffing levels or conditions. In that respect, corporate life has moved on - companies and workers are no longer islands but ecosystems with stakeholders. Crow never really talked the language of stakeholders. He talked about his members.

His personal politics were also interesting. As a committed socialist, Crow still lived in a council house despite being a relatively wealthy man. He also viewed the EU as a Tory neoliberal project, and wanted out. In effect, he viewed it like hardline right wingers - getting in the way of the country we should be building.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:01 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]


Tories hated him. The Daily Mail hated him.

High praise, then.

RIP.
posted by eriko at 5:06 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


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Didn't agree with everything he did but we do need more like him.



also agree with the comment above: "The worst part is that Boris Johnson" full stop!
posted by runincircles at 5:24 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Owen Jones tweeted: Bob Crow refused to accept the mantra of the "race to the bottom" and he was hated for it. Honour his memory: join a trade union
posted by DanCall at 5:25 AM on March 11 [6 favorites]


When people talk about Bob Crow being a left wing dinosaur,

He died at the age of 52 which is too young to be calling anyone a dinosaur. He seemed to be the sort of man you could profoundly disagree with and still have the highest respect for.
posted by three blind mice at 5:28 AM on March 11


He was widely respected and liked even by the management side at LU and among the mayor's staff, even if that wasn't always apparent. Far from being a totally intransigent radical dinosaur, he was solidly at the centre of the RMT leadership and could always be counted on to come to a reasonable agreement eventually. That those agreements always ended up being rather good for his members without pushing the companies they worked for farther than they could afford to be pushed is a testament to his political acumen, comprehensive industry knowledge, and good tactical senses.
posted by atrazine at 5:28 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Jesus Christ, I was just listening to him on Radio 4, yesterday.

Hang in there, Mick Whelan.
posted by Decani at 5:42 AM on March 11


But he got what he wanted by holding millions of London commuters hostage

That's the whole point of industrial action; the willful ignorance of news reporters shocked, shocked to discover with each new RMT strike that this meant people couldn't take the Tube drives me nuts.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:42 AM on March 11 [13 favorites]


Bob Crow's gift to the future will be a Tube system with no drivers.
posted by Segundus at 5:43 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


People who refer to strike action as "holding X hostage" really are bloody irritating. I mean, do they even get why workers withdraw their labour as a tactic? Do they honestly not understand why that's a thing?
posted by Decani at 5:46 AM on March 11 [11 favorites]


Do they honestly not understand why that's a thing?

Yes, they get it. I can't speak for everyone else, but, as you surely know as a London train driver: in virtue of running a part of infrastructure, as opposed to a car factory or printworks, strikes are especially powerful in terms of impact on customers. In effect, they give workers more leverage.

Which is fine if you believe that the inconvenience and cost caused to x million commuters is the appropriate response to whatever negotiation is causing the disagreement between management and unions. If not, it isn't.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:56 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


MuffinMan: Which is fine if you believe that the inconvenience and cost caused to x million commuters is the appropriate response to whatever negotiation is causing the disagreement between management and unions.

Why is the inconvenience and cost caused to x million commuters automatically the fault of the union for striking, and not the management for refusing to meet workers' terms?
posted by Len at 6:09 AM on March 11 [22 favorites]


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posted by lucien_reeve at 6:32 AM on March 11


It's not automatically their fault, and no-one has said it is.

However, there have been around 3-4 strike days each year for the past 10 years. That is an extraordinary level of apparently last resort action given that the unions have been successful in raising pay year on year.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:47 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Why is the inconvenience and cost caused to x million commuters automatically the fault of the union for striking, and not the management for refusing to meet workers' terms?

The question is one of monopoly control. The union has a monopoly of control over the operation of the public transportation system. If the union decides to strike, then the buses and underground don't run. Unlike in private industry, where competition might benefit from a work stoppage, the public union has extraordinary power because it is a monopoly in control of a monopoly. This is not per se unfair unless public unions use their monopoly control to extract more value from a contract they they would otherwise deserve - which is where the debate over "management refusing to meet worker's terms" occurs.

In effect, they give workers more leverage.

Exactly. But the question is how is this leverage used? Real old dinosaurs like Arthur Scargill of the miners union would have seen (and did see) the public suffer any pain in order to feather the beds of his members. He used monopoly power of the operation of Britain's coal pits to turn power on and off, over-leveraged his position, and saw the British public vote in Margaret Thatcher to see him off.

I get the impression that Crow held a somewhat broader view which would make him less of a dinosaur than his 1970s compatriots?
posted by three blind mice at 7:20 AM on March 11


That is an extraordinary level of apparently last resort action given that the unions have been successful in raising pay year on year.

Sounds like they ought to just write an automatic cost-of-living adjustment into their contracts.
posted by pracowity at 7:29 AM on March 11


"The union has a monopoly of control over the operation of the public transportation system."
I'm not sure that's true, since there's more than one union involved in the operation.
posted by edd at 7:47 AM on March 11


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Billy Bragg had it right.
posted by arcticseal at 7:54 AM on March 11


Bob Crow's gift to the future will be a Tube system with no drivers.

Isn't that why Thatcher insisted on the DLR being separate and distinct from the Tube, to be able to go driverless without picking a fight with the unions?

But if a driverless Tube (or a Tube with one staff member per train, albeit one whose job involves patrolling the train and engaging with the passengers rather than overseeing a mostly automated driving process in the cab) is as safe as one with drivers and more efficient, bring it on.
posted by acb at 8:29 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I think the difference Len, is that when a normal business strikes, it tends to hurt the business more then the customers. For example, if MacDonalds strikes, customers can easily go to KFC. When Ford strikes, there's a few less Fords on the market, and a customer on the fence might pick a Toyota instead.

The tube is more like a utility, and when it strikes, you're stuck-- the replacement bus service are rarely up to par. It's similar to if your municipal water provider went on strike, and no water came out of your tap. You could go and buy some bottled water (or use a replacement transport service in the case of the tube) but it's a painful alternative. That's especially true when you don't have an alternate option, and the businesses in question don't lose much money-- (good luck getting a day's credit on your weekly/monthly travelcard for the strike day, when you ended up catching a cab to get to work on time instead of waiting on the overwhelmed buses).
posted by Static Vagabond at 9:07 AM on March 11


Was genuinely shocked when I heard this on the radio earlier. 52 is way too young.

Crow's impact on railway union/management relations - particularly in London - is almost impossible to overstate. He absolutely got the best for his members, which was ultimately his job, and he has to be respected for that even if one disagreed with the way he sometimes went about it (and I'd generally put myself in that camp).

The fact that a significant number of the people on the other side of the table genuinely respected him - and that's not just lip service people are now making because he's gone. They did - speaks volumes in that regard.

I think it's also really hard to overstate how much this changes the political landscape, in transport terms, over the next five years. TfL are currently pushing for a huge organisational change in how they approach staffing both in stations and on trains, and whilst I think their plans are solid, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be pushed and questioned every step of the way to make sure that what is done is right. Crow would have played a huge role in that, and he leaves some huge shoes to fill on the Union side.

Bob Crow's gift to the future will be a Tube system with no drivers.

The standard joke in railway circles used to be that you could tell how much a politician knew about transport by how he pronounced "Bombardier." In London, the test is rapidly becoming whether they use the phrase "driverless trains" with a straight face or not.

That's because it's a meaningless phrase. Over half the network is already automated in terms of actual operation and most of the rest will be within five years as well.

The trouble is that too many people - whether accidentally or maliciously - treat "driverless" in this context as a synonym for "unmanned." But the London Underground isn't one consistent network in infrastructure terms, it's about five different ones each of which present their own problems and challenges in terms of how they operate and how they interact with rail networks outside of TfL's direct control. It is also the world's oldest underground system which brings with it the most horrific set of "early adopter" problems you can ever imagine.

All this means that anyone who thinks the Underground will ever be entirely unmanned is huffing glue. Cabs will eventually disappear but people won't.

Which is why it's such a tragedy that Crow is no longer with us - because he would have helped ensure that this transition resulted in a good balance between the way those people were treated, and the requirements of the job. I have no doubt I would have disapproved of the way he went about getting that balance, but he would have managed it.

Not saying that won't now happen, just that we've lost as close as we had to a guarantee that it would.

Isn't that why Thatcher insisted on the DLR being separate and distinct from the Tube, to be able to go driverless without picking a fight with the unions?

The DLR was the product of doing the absolute minimum that could be done with virtually zero cash. Worth remembering that Thatcher hated the DLR the way she hated everything that didn't run on tarmac and pay road tax. Under her orders the DfT spent a good chunk of the eighties trying to pave over various railways - including the lines out of Marylebone which would have been converted to a coach station. Nuff said.
posted by garius at 9:21 AM on March 11 [12 favorites]


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posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:09 AM on March 11


He was Cnut fighting back the tide. In effect, Bob Crow maintained a 1970s era mini socialist republic within a 21st Century company. He is virtually the last of his type, the old school union man.

He was, however, not yet out of his teens by time the 70s drew to a close. I had, somehow, always assumed he was much older.
posted by rongorongo at 10:30 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


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posted by NailsTheCat at 1:00 PM on March 11


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posted by amil at 1:25 PM on March 11


The standard joke in railway circles used to be that you could tell how much a politician knew about transport by how he pronounced "Bombardier." In London, the test is rapidly becoming whether they use the phrase "driverless trains" with a straight face or not.

One of the problems is that you can't really have "driverless" trains without platform edge doors, you can't have those doors without trains which can consistently stop at the same place every time (and you have to be sure that the door positions on the rolling stock match the positions of the doors). Since the current rolling stock can't actually stop that accurately, you need to have the new stock operational before you can start phasing in the doors.

That means that you'd expect the next generation of trains to still have drivers of some sort because they have to operate the trains for years without the doors.

The real advantage from better train control systems is being able to increase the train frequency, although the extent to which you can do that without upgrading station cooling and capacity is limited.

Given that:
-Many of the sub-surface lines have just received new rolling stock with cabs
-Many other lines will have new rolling stock soon, already ordered with cabs
-Modern stock lasts 40+ years
We can pretty confidently say that the last generation of tube drivers isn't even out of school yet.
posted by atrazine at 2:58 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


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posted by brilliantmistake at 3:19 AM on March 12


One of the problems is that you can't really have "driverless" trains without platform edge doors

I've seen driverless lines without edge doors. Lyon's 'D' Metro Line is driverless and doesn't have platform doors. However, it carries a fraction of the passengers of any London tube line.

But I agree with you, and garius above. A driverless tube is a pretty much an endpoint of modernisation. When you think it can take London Underground a year to replace escalators in a station you realise the challenges that a legacy infrastructure poses and how slow the pace of change will be.

One day they'll shut each line and bore out the tunnels again and we'll get nice rectangular rolling stock so people don't have to bend their heads inwards at rush hour. And we'll get air conditioning. And they'll completely revamp stations do that disabled passengers can actually get out at inner London stations. And each train will have a special carriage for unicorns.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:44 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


And now Tony Benn has died. A sad week for the left.
posted by knapah at 3:54 AM on March 14


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