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Bob Crow: what future for the unions?

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
RMT rail workers’ leader Bob Crow spoke to Socialist Worker on the eve of this week’s TUC conference
Issue 1968
Bob Crow (centre in white shirt) joining Chubb strikers last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Bob Crow (centre in white shirt) joining Chubb strikers last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The RMT is the fastest growing union in Britain. What do you put that down to?

We are in an area where we can recruit. It’s not like the coal industry, for example, which has declined terribly. The railway is an industry where people are being taken on or are often re-employed within the industry if they change jobs.

Secondly, the age profile of the union is pretty young and we have, I would say, probably more activists than any other union for our size. And that’s what really counts — having people on the shop floor who are a beacon for the union.

One current dispute for the union is by security guards employed by Chubb on Eurostar. They are new to the union and work for a contractor. Do you see such groups of workers as an area of growth for the RMT? They are often stereotyped as unorganisable.

Over a century ago there were large numbers of often small companies in the rail industry. Under privatisation that is essentially what we have returned to today. Our position is that at the end of the day they are all doing a job for the railway. So in that respect it is irrelevant whether workers are employed by contractors or subcontractors.

The issue is that they are working to provide a service for passengers. So if they are on the railway, they should be in the RMT, which is the industrial union for the railway.

In 1899 they said the dockers were unorganisable. But they became the most organised group of workers in Britain.

Every group of workers can be organised. But it needs effort, it needs energy and it requires unions to be asking for the things that workers actually want on the shop floor.

There are debates inside the union movement over mergers and how to organise. What’s your view?

Well, I’m not against mergers. It’s just that they have to be mergers that give workers more muscle, more bargaining power.

For example, I’d love a merger with Aslef and TSSA. It makes obvious sense industrially to have a single union covering the rail industry.

We organise seafarers and I’d like a merger with Numast, the ships’ officers’ union, for the same reason.

What I don’t understand is a merger for the sake of a merger. A lot of mergers take place where the first question asked by the union officers is, “Am I still going to get the same size car and what are my expenses going to be?”

What makes sense are mergers that end duplication of resources so we are better positioned to take the employers on.

You’ve been prominent in supporting two current disputes — at Rolls Royce and at Gate Gourmet. Why are these two battles significant?

First Jerry Hicks at Rolls Royce in Bristol. What’s happened there is quite clear — workers did what any group of workers would have done, and that’s to walk out quickly before the employer could organise scab labour to come and do their work.

Jerry was fitted up by the employer as being a troublemaker. I don’t look at Jerry as a troublemaker. I look at him as the organiser of workers at Rolls Royce.

That’s borne out by the industrial tribunal. It’s hard enough to win a tribunal, but to win an interim relief hearing where the employer is called on to reinstate and pay wages until the full tribunal, that’s very rare.

It shows what this company is all about. If it was interested in getting a settlement, it would have taken Jerry back by now and awaited the full hearing. Instead, it’s offered £100,000 to get shot of him. Jerry has said no.

The whole case shows that leading trade unionists in the workplace need full backing from their union and from the rest of the trade union movement.

It’s obvious that if they get away with sacking Jerry then we’ll be in a weaker position in a year or two years’ time when they go for other groups of workers in other industries.

That’s why I give full support to Jerry. He’s an executive committee member of his union elected to represent workers outside his own company, so it’s a serious attack.

Second, Gate Gourmet shows what privatisation has done. These workers would have been working for British Airways (BA). But BA was privatised and started contracting out the cleaning, the catering and other areas.

What they basically do is tell the contractors and subcontractors they’ve got a fixed cost they are going to pay for the contract. They divorce themselves from the consequences for the contracted out workforce, which are pressures on pay and conditions. But they are responsible.

This is happening across the economy. That makes the dispute at Gate Gourmet very significant.

I’m very proud of that group of workers and of the way they reacted on the day they were sacked. I’m proud of the BA workers who walked out in support of their brothers and sisters.

What you’ve got here is a company that says it’s going to cut people’s pay and conditions, and then expects that the trade union will do nothing to resist.

But it’s clear the workers are determined to get a just settlement, and they have the full support of our union.

Both disputes also raise the question of the anti-union laws and workplace rights. We’re opposed to all the anti-union laws brought in by both the Tories and Labour. It is actually harder to ballot for industrial action under Labour than it was under the Tories. So it’s not just the Tory laws we want repealed.

On top of that we are looking for a framework of laws based on International Labour Organisation standards that will enshrine the freedom to organise.

Eight and a half years into a Labour government it’s clear they have no intention whatsoever of ending those anti-union laws.

The only way that’s going to change is both by putting pressure on those MPs who rely on financial support from the unions and secondly by raising activity, organisation and consciousness in the workplace.

These Labour MPs who rely on the support of the unions should start showing some support for the unions.

We put a resolution to the TUC conference for a trade union freedom bill and calling a national march and rally outside parliament. So we are raising the issue, but at the end of the day you’ve got to break through these laws.

Are you hopeful of the TUC moving away from the idea of partnership which has dominated relations with the government, certainly until recently?

Partnership is going to go nowhere. There are problems with the TUC leadership. The inner circle is taking it in no direction.

There are individual unions that are doing very well, in my view — the PCS, the CWU, NUJ and recently the T&G at Gate Gourmet. They are taking a line that the only way they are going to get something is to fight for it.

The employers are not going to hand you something on account of feeling sorry for you.

What does that mean for cooperation between unions at executive level and downwards?

We have good relations with the majority of unions, with the unions on the left in the TUC.

But what people have got to recognise is that we are not going to win things just by passing resolutions.

Resolutions are fine in making sure that the strategy and theory are right, but that has to be turned into practice.

That means solid trade union organisation, with unions that are prepared to lead from the front and take workers with them. That’s how the anti-union laws were defeated in the 1970s and that’s how they will be in the future.

The RMT has played a major role in the anti-war movement. What are you saying in the build up to the 24 September demonstration?

We put an amendment at the TUC highlighting the link between the terror attacks on London and the Iraq war, calling for the return of troops by Christmas and supporting the demonstration.

Our view is that this is a trade union issue. First, money is being spent on the war that could be spent on public services. We have a right to say where our money is being spent.

Second, we’ve got members directly involved. They are in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which replenishes the Royal Navy ships in the Gulf.

More importantly than all of that, we stand for peace and socialism. We don’t accept a Labour government going into war when it should be standing for peace and socialism. That’s why we are at odds with what this Labour Party is doing.

So what’s the union’s political strategy, given you’ve been expelled from the Labour Party?

We are a trade union, not a political party and our job is to represent working people. But necessarily that means acting in the political arena.

We have more MPs in our parliamentary group since we’ve been outside the Labour Party than when we were in it. So it hasn’t done us any harm.

Politics is, however, about more than parliament. All politics is about persuading other people that you are right.

What we are doing is calling a meeting of trade unions, branches and political parties in January to discuss working class representation. There is a crisis of representation because workers’ concerns are not being represented properly in parliament.

We are now outside the Labour Party and there is no mood in the RMT to go back in.

Do you detect any move inside the Labour Party to move back to what it once was?

It’s gone. It’s finished. And they have adopted a scorched earth policy behind them so there is no democracy left inside the Labour Party.

The Labour conference last year shows it. A resolution was passed to renationalise the rail industry. The leadership just turned round and said it was ignoring it. The same thing happened over stopping the privatisation of council housing.

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