So I saw a biography of Bob Crow in a bookshop in Windsor of all places and did some #crowtweets. As readers will know, he was a long-standing interest of this blog (see how to get the look) and in any case he was surely the only modern British trade unionist to have a revolutionary militia unit, the Kurdish YPG’s Bob Crow Brigade, named after him. It wasn’t the Roger Lyons Regiment, was it? Anyway, my comments. This post is the first in a series – the others are here and here.
Crow’s strategy at the RMT was based on two important insights.
The first of these was that the Thatcher anti-union laws made it very difficult to strike over anything except pay, or else individual grievances. He drew the conclusion that many of the union disasters of the 80s had come about through minimising the importance of the law. The RMT, instead, chose to focus relentlessly on disputes over pay and the redress of grievances. Strict observation of the law forced management to rely on its own skills in negotiating with the RMT and exposed that the management’s position was relatively weak. The focus on pay also had the advantage that no issue united the membership quite like cash, and successful action on pay created political goods like legitimacy, authority, and more members.
The second key insight was that the travelling public had never accepted railway privatisation. Public indignation about privatisation created a greater degree of public consent for RMT action than one might have expected. Also, because the public didn’t accept that the railways were indistinguishable from Tesco, the railways remained a political issue. Gall argues that strikes in a public service are political while those in the private sector are economic, but Crow’s strategy was to use the political status of the railways to pursue economic goals, which could then be parlayed into political aims.
The focus on economic goals simplified a lot of issues. Crow didn’t need to agonise about technology or automation. The question was simply how the productivity gain would be shared out. Similarly, the RMT aimed to unionise everyone in its sector regardless of trade or class status, on the basis that they all had a boss and could all do with a raise.
Tactically, privatisation had some paradoxical effects that Crow exploited. The sheer number of employers meant there were more potential disputes to fight and a greater range of battles to pick from. He employed a strategy similar to the game theorist Bruno de Mesquita’s advice on how to buy a car, picking the weakest or most sympathetic employer first and then challenging the next one to match or beat their offer. Strike action was usually concentrated into one or two days’ total shutdown rather than spread over time – this seems to have been a lesson learned by the UCU recently – and if possible coordinated with other unions or other RMT disputes. Very often the two days were chosen to be either side of a weekend, a subtle appeal to the travelling public’s desire to skip work too.