Bob Crow

A look back at one aspect of the life of Bob Crow, the RMT union leader who died on 11 March, by NEIL ROTHNIE, a North Sea oil worker and trade union activist.

Bob Crow was head and shoulders above all of the other national trade

Bob Crow. Photo: Jarle Vines / Creative Commons

Bob Crow. Photo: Jarle Vines / Creative Commons

union leaders. That is why, in 2008, I supported the merger of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), the independent offshore oil workers’ union of which I was a member, with the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) of which Bob was the general secretary.

I had been a member of the National Union of Seamen (now part of RMT) in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Then I was a founder member of the OILC, when it was set up in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster [the explosion on board a North Sea oil rig in which 167 workers died] in 1988.

The official trade unions had proved to be worse than useless in organising offshore workers, or even standing up for those sacked and black during the big strikes in 1989 and 1990. A decade later, at the time of the OILC-RMT merger, I thought Bob might take a personal interest in organising the North Sea workforce – a task that the OILC had found impossible in the face of hostility from the oil industry employers and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

As it happens, I was then deeply disappointed after the merger by his position with regards to the North Sea workforce – with the exception of his intervention on the issue of helicopter safety, which was very welcome.

I was particularly critical of Bob’s failure to fight on the Council of Executives (on which I represented the offshore membership of the RMT for about a year) for the implementation of policies proposed by the OILC branch and adopted by the union at the first RMT conference that OILC participated in.

Our demand (passed unanimously at the 2009 AGM) that the RMT approach the successful Norwegian offshore unions, “with a view to establishing a North Sea Liaison Committee charged with the task of spreading trade union organisation to the UK sector as a first step towards organising workers throughout the global industry”  was just not pursued.

Nor was our demand (passed with one abstention) that the RMT launch a campaign inside the TUC to persuade UNITE to end . . .  the sweetheart agreements entered into by UNITE (and which aided) the employers to subvert the spirit of the Employment Rights Act 1999”. By doing this, UNITE had denied offshore workers the opportunity to be organised by the union of their choice.

Bob Crow was however charismatic, and personable, and it is easy to see why so many members and friends of the RMT will be feeling a deep sense of loss at his death.

Many other workers throughout the country will also be feeling the loss of the only national figure who spoke out fearIessly in the interest of the working class, as he saw it.

I am no longer under any illusion that the RMT represents something “different” in the trade union movement. It is just the best of a movement that has been in decline for decades and has failed to meet the challenge of a new period of capitalist crisis. No leader, however charismatic, was going to change that.

The RMT did buck the trend of falling membership, making a 20,000 membership gain including 3,000 oil workers, but it has not provided a template for the renewal of the trade union movement as a whole.

Now with the sudden death of its outstanding leader at a shockingly early age, the RMT is faced with a huge hole in the organisation.14 March 2014.

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