Bob Crow: Britain's most militant union bruiser

Bob Crow, militant leader of the RMT union, keeps a bust of Lenin in his study and calls his dog Castro. But whatever you think of him and his politics, there's no doubting his effectiveness.

One of Bob Crow's traits is his tendency to fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. The latest to feel "the Crowbar's" cosh is Mervyn King. After urging comrades "to take to the streets to fight cuts", Crow was in no mood to hear the Bank governor's counter-arguments at this week's TUC Congress. What seemed to enrage him most was a picture of King wearing cricket whites in the TUC magazine. "The next minute we will be playing cricket with him," he told colleagues angrily, "to try and warm relations."

Perish the thought, says the Daily Mail. For without the impetus of class warfare, where would Crow be? Almost certainly not on the £133,183 package that he gets as leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union. Crow has carved "an unenviable reputation" as Britain's most militant union baron. A former communist, he models himself on Arthur Scargill.

Crow makes no bones about his combative tendencies. When The Times ran an editorial stating he was class obsessed, he responded. "Yeah, spot on." Perhaps it's no surprise that he's an ardent supporter of Millwall Football Club the fans' motto is, "No one likes us, we don't care."

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Nonetheless, Crow is effective, says The Guardian. During a period of overall union retrenchment, the RMT's membership has flourished on his watch (see below). That might, in part, be down to his forthright style: "If the Sopranos was remade in Britain, you could do worse than cast him as Tony." But he's also got a ready wit and can be lethal in debate. Not many have seen off London Mayor Boris Johnson quite so effectively on live TV as Crow did during last year's Tube strike. "He walked away with all these wires hanging from him," he recalls. "He looked like Frankenstein!"

Crow, 49, might keep a bust of Lenin in his study and call his dog Castro, but he views himself as a salt-of-the-earth Eastender, with a deep sense of British working-class history. He is also frank about his fondness for a drink. The son of a docker, Crow was born in Shadwell, and trade unionism was the norm in his family. He left school at 16, joined London Underground as a track repairer, and "fell in love with the movement". In 2002 he succeeded Jimmy Knapp at the RMT.

One former adversary sums up Crow as a master of "low cunning", says The Observer. "He thinks quickly, he's a good negotiator and he knows how to manipulate the media." He was certainly the "vein-bulging, lectern-thumping" star of this week's TUC conference, geeing up the crowd with calls for "civil disobedience", says The Times. He believes the Left is on the march again. Will it be an autumn, winter, or spring of discontent? Crow isn't fussed he's "a man for all seasons of malcontent".

Will Crow meet his Thatcher?

"Watching Bob Crow in action is an instant history lesson" in "everybody-out" trade unionism, Seventies-style, says Christian Wolmar in The Times. So why do his members, "most of whom are as likely to want a socialist republic as they would fancy a winter break in Siberia", put up with it? The answer is that it works.

"A crucial ingredient of RMT's organising approach is its militancy," says Professor Ralph Darling of Salford Business School. In the eight years to December 2009, the RMT balloted for strikes on no fewer than 141 occasions roughly once every three weeks. Fear of disruption means employers cave in.

No wonder Crow inspires loyalty, says The Guardian. RMT membership (up from 50,000 to more than 80,000) has increased "almost as fast as workers' salaries" while he's been in charge. He even managed to get Network Rail to reintroduce a final-salary pension scheme. Crow is seen as so crucial to the good fortunes of the union that not even an austerity-busting 12% rise in his salary this year causes a stir. Forget allegations of cronyism or pocket-lining as one union member told the Daily Mail: "He's worth every penny."

Crow now hopes to get full support for his anti-cuts agenda by joining forces with other unions to extend strike action across Britain, says Matthew D'Ancona in the Evening Standard. So can the Coalition see him off? I suspect David Cameron is "more Thatcher than Heath" when it comes to industrial conflict, "possessed of the will to prevail in a long, arduous battle". The question is whether the rest of us are likely to follow suit. In a stand-off with unions, it's anyone's guess how tolerant the public is likely to be over the stance Cameron chooses to adopt.