March 15, 2012
By Ray Parker, Staff Writer
While taking pains to emphasize his friendly comradeship with American unionists, RMT General Secretary Bob Crow, speaking a a left labor forum on Wednesday night, had an edgy message for his colleagues on this side of the pond. In some ways, his message of organize – organize — organize was the same as labor leaders hear from the AFL-CIO every day. In other ways, it was radically different.
Caustic, witty, and blunt-spoken, Crow made demands on his audience that resonate because of his successes in the British Isles. As he traced the British workers’ trajectory from the depressions of the 20’s and 30’s, through the dramatic growth of labor and Britain’s socialist government after World War II, to today’s pitched battle between the capitalist class and the working class, he also illustrated how successful organizing works. It works for the RMT, he said, because his union is flexible and ready to take on the private companies that crop up like weeds when public infrastructure is sold off. Rather than depend on “compulsory unionism,” or closed shops, the RMT aggressively organizes with both a local (better pay and benefits) and a big picture message for workers.
Crow is unapologetic, as many American labor leaders couldn’t afford to be, about the term “socialism,” which, he says, straightforwardly and in the tradition of British reformers, is about equality of income. In practice this means things like fighting later retirements because the longer people work, the more jobs they take from the younger workers who would replace them. He also makes no bones about calling Britain’s system of cradle-to-grave free health care and education a welfare state, and he’s proud of the term. Listening to Crow’s defense of working class gains makes an American listener ashamed of how language has been corrupted by our political discourse.
From a national union comprised of 200,000 members, representing both maritime and land transport workers, Crow’s RMT declined from a high of 200,000 before the administration of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to 50,000, but has rebounded in recent years and claims a membership of 70,000. For his part, Crow has just been re-elected as General Secretary for another term, without opposition. He sees the RMT’s future as bright, so long as dedicated organizers throw everything they have into educating the public and drawing its attention to the clear benefits unionism provides.
His approach to political action is also refreshing. He notes that the RMT was kicked out of the Labour Party because of its support of a Scottish Socialist party. After that event took place, the RMT sent a questionnaire to all Members of Parliament, sounding them out on which elements of the RMT’s agenda they would support. As a result, even without Labour Party backing, the RMT doubled its delegation of supportive politicians. In response to a question about New York State’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees, Crow intimated that whether or not a politician supported Taylor Law reform could be a litmus test for union support.
And the RMT’s big-picture agenda is dramatically different from that of his American counterparts. It is a vision of a labor union not only organizing the unorganized, but reaching out to the unemployed with training clinics and asking workers what they want before going to the boss with cards in hand. He has called for job sharing in hard times, so that those who have relative security can lend a hand to those who have none. When bosses come up with job efficiencies involving automation, he said he would not necessarily be opposed, so long as the gains were put not into the boss’ pockets but into supporting workers.
Crow also takes strong positions on social and international affairs, using the term “imperalism,” which is generally verboten in U.S. Labor circles. He questioned why America is ready to project military might into countries where oil is produced by did not intervene in South Africa during apartheid’s long reign. He also used the term apartheid to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the treatment of non-Jews within Israel.
Listening to Crow, it was hard not to reflect on an inconvenient truth – that the left’s criticism of the banking elite is similar to the right’s constant critique of unions – that they are selfish. With a more progressive social agenda like Crow’s on display, that criticism would not have so