Does the end of Bob Crow signal an end to confrontational workplace bargaining or can we expect to see an heir apparent rise from the ashes?

On closer inspection Bob Crow, the man, seemed to embody a massive contradiction by following a course and philosophy of ‘might is right’ yet at the same time professing communist/socialist principles that are generally understood to embody strategies designed to emancipate and improve the lot of workers as a whole. By exploiting a rare set of workplace characteristics he was successful in extracting payments, benefits and working practices for his own members to raise them to an elitist position compared to similar service activities and ironically possibly to the long term detriment of them. Whilst others may want to emulate the ‘Crow’ approach, the circumstances of their workplace environment are usually such as to preclude similar confrontational approaches. As a result of these differences many have been unable to reach the exalted position of RMT members.

Crow’s assertions that it was not his success that was wrong, but that others should reach for and achieve the levels of pay and conditions achieved by his members, amounted to nothing more then empty rhetoric, though it does make an attractive sound bite, because the conditions that made his approach successful weren’t that easy to emulate.

Principally, for a threatened or actual strike to be effective, and Bob Crow’s strategy and tactics certainly were that, certain specific conditions have to be present:

  1. The work cannot have life threatening characteristics or it risks the wider public’s disapproval.
  2. It must be capable of having an immediate effect.
  3. Short term stoppages that cause long term disruption, so services take some days to return to normal long after the workers have resumed being paid normally.
  4. The importance of the working role must be able to be presented as more highly skilled than it actually is.
  5. Weak management.

Professions or trades that do not have these characteristics do not get the same results by threatening or holding strikes.

As for tube/train drivers the professed higher skills of their role do not stand very close scrutiny. For example, compared with a London bus driver it seems that the latter has a great deal more to do and be responsible for than the former. Trains go where the lines are so no steering, no traffic, no public interaction, no collecting of fares and so on, yet the impact of a stoppage on the tube is much greater as there are more people using that mode of transport. However, things are changing and one must wonder if the successful strategy of this group of workers has, in some way, hastened their own extinction.

I suspect it will be some time before we see driverless buses.

The whole ‘Crow’ approach to workplace bargaining has a real sense of selfishness and lack of concern about it. As long as we get what we want sod everyone else. With no thought for the commuter, also a worker, who needs to get to work to be paid whether they be a doctor or nurse, a care worker or fireman, can disruption for the many ever be justified to enhance further the benefits of an elite group?

Were we to sit down and design the ideal social structure who on earth would think it a good idea to allow minorities to damage everyone else just to get a leg up? Moreover, when the authority for such disruption almost always comes from a small minority of the workers in that industry one might wonder if this self sabotage actually achieves anything for the wider society that such actions usually attempt to profess.

Of course, strikes are a long held tradition and the clue is in the ‘long’’ bit. There was a time when working conditions were appalling, great private industries exploited without compassion and we see that same pattern in many places around the world today but not lawfully in the UK. Many workers rights now taken as read were embodied in the Industrial Relations act 1972, with improving amendments since then, so industrial action on the scale of that era, for most private businesses, has all but disappeared. The modern threat comes principally from the public sector and quasi public sector so by definition, as their immediate masters are servants of the state,they are politically motivated actions.

I am, however, not opposed to strikes as a last port of call for some dreadful employer behaviour; even in the public sector, though Bob Crow’s use of the ‘strike’ tool seemed to be more of the ‘go to’ action than a last resort and a tactical tool used whenever an advantage might be gained, but I am opposed to strikes being sanctioned by a small minority of the workers who would be affected.

Were conditions in any particular area to be so bad then surely forceful action would be supported by the majority? How can any society continue to let minorities rule the roost in these critical decisions? The law currently allows for a ballot but it fails to protect affected workers who do not happen to be members of any particular group. Strike ballots should include everyone in the sector of the business affected, trade union member or not. Similarly a majority vote in favour from all those people should be a necessity to embark upon civil disruption. The cause celebre should be so significant that even the normally disinterested or apathetic would positively support the extreme action proposed.

Bob Crow, then, may be the last of his kind. As common sense begins to take hold, we collectively decide not to permit small groups of potential beneficiaries to continually damage the working lives of society at large. I believe that industrial relations are better for the current legislation we have, not worse. There is still room for improvement through greater fairness and accountability and by that path we may no longer see the powerful few disrupt the many for secular advantage.

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