SOME people would resent being treated as the pantomime villain of London politics. Not Bob Crow, who died early this morning. The leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) loved to ham up his tough, uncompromising image: the theatrical scowl, the flat cap, the jabbing finger. He was one of the most obdurate of the socialist “Awkward Squad” of union bosses; never shying from the public opprobrium that came with calling strikes paralysing London’s public transport network.
Mr Crow was born in Shadwell, near the London docks, in 1961. He left school at 16, joined the railways and worked his way up the union hierarchy before becoming General Secretary of the RMT in 2002. He was known as a proud left-winger; his office was an Aladdin’s cave of communist trinkets, busts and portraits and his dog was called Castro. After the RMT was booted out of the Labour Party in 2004, Mr Crow was involved in a series of attempts to set up a left-wing alternative. The most lasting was No2EU, a socialist, anti-EU outfit established in 2009. He was planning to run on the party’s ticket in the next European elections in May.
But for such a dogmatic character, Mr Crow’s belligerent negotiating style as RMT leader was borne of sheer pragmatism. His members enjoyed excellent pay and conditions. Under the latest deal, drivers on the London underground will see their salary rise to £52,000 by 2015, much higher than that of equivalent workers in other public services. Strikes by the union last month—in which its leader angrily clashed with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London—forced bosses to suspend planned job cuts.
Under his leadership, RMT membership grew from 59,000 in 2002 to 78,000 last year—at a time when overall union membership in Britain was declining. Mr Crow’s methods may have made him unpopular with commuters forced to walk to work in the cold February rain (newspapers hooted with derision when he was photographed sunbathing on Copacabana beach shortly before the strike). They may have exasperated tube bosses attempting to modernise the network. But to those whom he represented, he was a working-class hero.