News of the death of Bob Crow, the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT), caused quite a few memories of mine to come flooding back.
I remember first hearing Crow speak at Cockfosters train depot in the mid-1980s, when I was working as an electrical fitter for London Underground. He stood out even then as a loud, charismatic character who had the ability to impress. I didn’t know it at the time, but Crow was well on his way to becoming an important official in the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).
After a couple of years with London Underground, I became a union representative and started to think more about what trade unionism was all about. During the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, privatisation, and with it, union bashing, became the issue of the day for all trade unions. The biggest union on the underground was the National Union of Railwaymen (later to become the RMT), led by Jimmy Knapp, a Scottish ‘red’ firebrand. Knapp was Bob Crow’s mentor and clearly a great influence, both in terms of left-wing politics and trade-union tactics.
I remember huge meetings at Friends Meeting House on Euston Road with Knapp as the main speaker. We used to laugh at Bob Crow’s role as Knapp’s ‘warm-up man’, where he played the role of management basher/stand-up comedian to great effect. Once the crowd had been softened up, Knapp would come in to tell us, ‘They’re trying to destroy our union, boys!’. He would then proceed to lay out his tactic of one-day strikes. It was accepted that jobs would be lost, but the union must survive. Those of us who argued against this in favour of a better defence of jobs had little success. Bob and Jimmy were a powerful double act. After Knapp’s death in 2001, it was not surprising that Crow became leader of the RMT.
London Underground was an unusual place to work. It had come to resemble, both in its management structures and in its working practices, something akin to a large family, with recruitment at all levels being mostly in-house. To be a relative of a Tube worker was a good leg up the underground’s employment ladder.