What the New British Union Leaders Are Saying:
Go Into the Streets—Like the Italian & Spanish Workers
The following are excerpts from a British radio show featuring Bob Crow, recently elected head of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport union (RMT). Bob Crow was formerly a leader in the British Socialist Labour Party; he is one of a number of leftist militants in Britain who have been elected to lead their unions in the past year or two.
Bob Crow (answering a question about an upcoming firefighters’ strike): What I would say is that I think it’s an absolute disgrace, in the year 2002, that our fire-brigades’ members have got to take industrial action to get a living wage. They’re on £21,000 per year as a starting fire grade and they’re asking for £30,000. Our union, the RMT, have made it absolutely clear, we will give them 101% support to make sure that the fire-brigades’ members get the justified claim that they deserve. So what other unions do is up to them. All we know is that if they do decide to take action, we’ll give them our full support.
Newshost: One of the things you can’t do in offering them support, because of the Tory trade union laws, is you can’t secondary picket. Would you like to see a return of that? Would you like to be able to be in a position where you could give firefighters and other public sector workers that sort of support?
Bob Crow: Absolutely yes. Solidarity action is how the trade union movement was built and I [ ask:] Why should nurses go on strike and why should fire-brigade workers go on strike? I want the fire-brigades to be working to defend mine or someone else’s home if it catches fire. I believe that other workers in the industry should be able to take action for other groups of workers—like nurses and the fire-brigade and doctors.
Newshost: A lot of people see that as the old style old Labour rhetoric—language that led to things like the winter of discontent and kept Labour out of power for 20 odd years. Do you not see that as a threat or worry?
Bob Crow: I don’t know about the old Labour—it’s traditional Labour, I would call it. I don’t know what this old and new means. I believe in traditional values, and what that means is that at the end of the day, if a group of workers ask for support, you give them that support and you respect a picket line. As far as I am concerned, the trade union movement’s eleventh commandment is, you don’t cross picket lines.
Newshost: Clearly something that Tony Blair is not about to do though. Is there any way you can pursue that sort of demand of secondary picketing?
Bob Crow: Well, this week we’ll be asking for, at the TUC [Trades Union Congress], the total repeal of all trade union legislation brought in by the Tory party.
Newshost: That’s not going to happen, is it?
Bob Crow: Well, the TUC next week will make a policy on it, and if they do carry out that policy next week, they’ll be calling a major public rally in Britain. Now, Italian and Spanish workers have gone onto the streets. They just haven’t put up with resolutions and they’ve taken direct action on the streets.
Newshost: Do you support that?
Bob Crow: Yes, I do support the Italian workers and the Spanish workers and any other group of workers taking action.
Newshost: And you’d like to see it here?
Bob Crow: Absolutely. I will be campaigning next week that we go on the streets—like the Italians did, like the Spanish did—and say basically you can stuff your anti-trade union laws.
Newshost: Sounds like Tony Blair will get a good reception at the TUC next week if he addresses it on Tuesday.
Bob Crow: That’s all according to what he says. If he wants to repeal the anti-trade union laws, then he’ll get a standing ovation.
Newshost: Another issue now that’s clearly gripping the unions and also we’ve had a number of e-mails, summed up to a great extent by Harry Lowe, who asks about pensions. Whilst the closure of final salary schemes may be detrimental to employees, it does not mean that money purchase alternatives are necessarily a bad thing. Money purchase, per se, is not bad, what really matters is the total level of contributions from employer and employee.
Bob Crow: The money purchase schemes, I don’t think will deliver. I’m not saying that all of them are bad but they’re not as good as a final year salary scheme—that’s the reason why the employers want to change them. The fact is that what has happened is that in Gordon Brown’s first budget, he stripped most of the fat out of the pension funds through the new accountancy rules that he brought in.
Secondly, what has happened is that the majority of pension funds have put vast sums of money onto the Stock Market and the Stock Market has crashed and as a result of that they’re in real trouble because what’s happened is there’s a contradiction taking place—people are living longer and as a result of that they are wanting a longer pension. The same token goes, if you improve the National Health Service and make people live longer, then the pensions funds are going to cost more.
But the only way around it at the end of the day, is that pension funds should not be for management to take holidays and take money out of those pension funds. Pension funds should be for one thing and one thing only—pensioners and the beneficiaries of the pension fund.
Newshost: It is interesting you point to Gordon Brown. Kim Humberstone, United Kingdom, also points out that the most significant adverse change to pension return values recently was the abolition of the reclaim of tax credits by Gordon Brown. A decision, he says, by MPs supported and funded by you and your union—well, maybe not supported and funded for much longer.
Bob Crow: Well they are, hence the reason why we changed them.
Newshost: And clearly you’re highly critical of that decision by Gordon Brown?
Bob Crow: Oh, highly critical. As I said before, we wouldn’t be in the situation that we are now, if Gordon Brown didn’t bring that new way of accountancy in, in his budget. There would have been more money in the pension funds and what we’re seeing now is streams of companies closing down their final pension schemes.
What’s not being looked at is that a lot of the youngsters were told—join a company pension fund because your state pension fund won’t be worth anything. Now we’re seeing a situation that when people retire, in 25 years time, there’ll be no state pension fund worth having and the company pension fund won’t be there. What we’re really basically doing is creating mass poverty for the generations to come. I think that the Government needs to jump on that straightaway.
Newshost: Francis Oldfield, UK: I think that the RMT have every right to strike for better pension deals. I would like to see workers in the rail industry and myself, when they reach the age of retirement, that they will not be pitched into poverty.
Clearly there’s a lot of feeling in the union movement about that. John Monks [head of the TUC] himself has said he’s a militant on this issue and would be prepared to support action on that. Do you think this is an issue, unlike some of the other issues troubling the Government at the moment, around which the union as a whole can coalesce and force the Government into compulsion for employers?
Bob Crow: I’m glad John’s a militant on that issue. I hope he gets militant on a number of other issues as well. But it’s quite clear what is taking place. We’ve got a situation where people now are being asked to work beyond 65 years of age and there’s youngsters of 19–20 years of age who are on the dole. It’s absolutely madness to me that people are being asked to work to 70 years old and at the same time there’s going to be youngsters not getting a job.
Wouldn’t it be better that we bring the retirement age down and give those jobs to youngsters who are kicking their heels on the dole to put them into work? What my belief is and our union’s belief is, is it shouldn’t be 65 years as the age of retirement, we believe that people should voluntary retire at 55 years of age.
Newshost: Indeed, in fact, there’s a threat to your own pension scheme, I believe. Is that something you would be prepared to see strike action over?
Bob Crow: My union’s pension fund is pretty healthy. We have a final year pension scheme for all of our members and our pension scheme is probably one of the best pension schemes in Britain. Certainly there’s no change from my union to alter that scheme.
Newshost: An interesting e-mail here from an address you might recognize. It has Scargill’s knight as the address. But it’s from an Ian Croft who wants to know, quite simply. Why did you leave the Socialist Labour Party?
From what you’ve said today, it sounds like a good question. It sounds like you’re very much in tune with the aims of the Socialist Labour Party.
Bob Crow: It’s not really that I left the Socialist Labour Party. I never put my
membership in again for this year. It’s not against Arthur Scargill. I think Arthur Scargill is one of the most principled trade unionists in
history, never mind in modern times. He’s a personal friend of mine.
But personally, I didn’t agree with the tactics at the last general election, which I wouldn’t have said at the time, of standing candidates against people which I would say are true people on the Left, for instance, Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbin, and Dennis Skinner. There were attempts to put candidates up from the Socialist Labour Party against them. To me that was a very sectarian move. Whatever the reason was, that was up to them. But I couldn’t support standing candidates against people who are, I would say, our natural friends.
Newshost: But you’re quite happy to stand candidates against members of the Labour Party, sitting MPs, who you consider were right-wing?
Bob Crow: I see no reason what the difference is between someone wearing a red rosette carrying out Tory policies and privatizing something and someone wearing a blue rosette carrying out the same policies.
Newshost: It’s quite plain to see which side of the Labour Party you come from. Clearly, there’s also been a rise in union leaders from the same wing of the party. People point at Derek Simpson, for example. Do you think there’s a genuine return, if that’s the right word, to militancy now in the union movement?
Bob Crow: What people mean by militancy, if it’s “militant tendency,” I don’t think I’d be supporting that. If it’s about militancy on the basis that we fight for better pay, better conditions and are prepared to take industrial action to achieve those aims, then I think militancy is on the rise. It’s not just Derek Simpson, but we’ve got Mick Ricks my good friend from Aslef, Jeremy Dear from the National Union of Journalists, Julian McKnight from the Probation Officers union, and so on. So, there’s a trend taking place now and the trend is all for the same thing—the tradition of trade unions fighting on behalf of their members and prepared to put their head above the parapet.
Newshost: Why is it always that when there’s a Labour Government that union militancy seems to increase?
Bob Crow: Well, number one that I think we’re all united on is that we don’t want the Tories in. They were an absolute disaster for this country and they’ve got no credibility at all whatsoever. But I think the reason why militancy does come on the increase is that people appreciate that the Tory Party’s against them and when Labour is elected, they want a better society. We want a better society. We don’t want to continue the same society as the Tories, that’s why Labour has got a big majority. My personal view that if the Labour Government, purely on its own, said it would renationalize the railway network, it would win the next election just on that item.
Newshost: But they’ve ruled that out—there’s no chance of that.
Bob Crow: They’ve ruled it out? But I see last night that British Energy is in trouble in the nuclear industry. But when a private industry wants money, like Railtrack did, the Government can give it. And if Network Rail, the former Railtrack goes into problems, they’ll renationalize them. Don’t forget Margaret Thatcher nationalized Rolls-Royce, she didn’t nationalize it as a socialist principle, she nationalized it as a nationalized principle. My view is, don’t just nationalize lame ducks—nationalize the white swans.
Newshost: Colin Bannister, Scotland: Do the leaders of this country’s unions not remember the last time they embarked on a whole series of strikes? It brought the Labour government down and we were subjected to nearly 20 years of Tory government.
Bob Crow: It’s a democratic decision whether we take action. I’ve never seen any of our ballot papers that this vote is about bringing down the government. It’s about issues with the employer. What we would say is: we want a strong Labour Government in there, a traditional Labour Government that’s going to represent working people. The fact is that in Parliament at the moment, there’s an under-representation of working people. The Tories represent big business and Labour is totally confused at the moment, and what it should really do is show its colors and say, “We represent working people,” and by doing that it will be in for decades.