They say that people look like their dogs so I am not surprised when Bob Crow tells me he owns a Staffordshire bull terrier, a breed used by London street gangs to intimidate their enemies. Britain’s most famous trade union leader has an alert, pugnacious face, shaved head and a thickset build from, he says, working out six days a week. I ask him how much he can benchpress. “One hundred and twenty kilos,” he says, casually; it is almost double my weight of 70kg.
“You must weigh more than that, surely?” he says, arching his eyebrows as he settles into our plush red booth at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden.
Over the past decade Crow has, as the general secretary of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) union, regularly brought London’s transport system to a standstill through industrial action. He has been described as “The Most Hated Man In London” by the London Evening Standard newspaper, while the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson, called him “demented” and has so far refused to meet him. Later Crow says he will eventually meet Johnson “at his funeral”. He is joking, probably.
Yet he argues that he is misunderstood, a bit like his dog, named Castro after one of his political heroes. “He’s better-looking than me,” Crow says sentimentally. “He is as soft as anything, he’s part of the family. When he dies I will be absolutely heartbroken, I have to admit. He’s a lovable oaf.”
What of Crow himself? Is his bark worse than his bite? “I’m a friendly bloke and always treat people as I find them, I always say please and thank you,” he says in his soft-spoken Essex accent. Does he ever hit people, I ask? “When did I last punch someone? I can’t remember. School?”
Rules, established in 1798, claims to be London’s oldest restaurant and serves traditional British food such as oysters, pies and venison. On the wall above Crow’s head are several pairs of antlers, while behind his burly shoulders are two stuffed birds, a jay and a pheasant.
A “hunting, shootin’, fishin’” establishment in Covent Garden seems an unlikely bolthole for a union boss but, though Crow might not dress like a typical Rules regular – he wears a blue shirt with the top buttons open to expose a gold chain and thick grey chest hair – he is so familiar with the menu he hardly bothers to look at it before ordering a crab salad and halibut and chips. I also pick the halibut, with potted shrimps to start.
“Nell Gwynne and King Charles used to use a room up there,” he says enthusiastically, indicating the floor above. He then offers a bit of gossip. “We had a summit here four, five weeks ago, and we were in the room upstairs, and the waiter said, ‘You know who was sitting there recently? Tony Blair was sitting in that chair you were sitting on, with Gordon Brown.’”
Crow is not a fan of either of these former Labour prime ministers, whose party was founded by – and is mostly funded by – the union movement. In fact, the RMT was disaffiliated from the party seven years ago during Blair’s time in office, for a minor rules breach involving a donation to the Scottish Socialist Party. Neither is he impressed with Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband. “He seems middle of the road, he needs to grit his teeth a bit more and start taking them on, he needs some steel.”
Crow’s exile from the centre-left mainstream has allowed him to build his own podium. While other unions curbed their criticism of the Labour government over the past decade, he felt no such restraint. With about 80,000 members, the RMT is a relatively small union compared with, for example, the 1.5m members of Unite. But it punches above its weight. Does it strike more than the other unions? “I bloody well hope so,” he says.
With Britain’s new coalition government embarking on its deepest cuts programme for generations – sweeping redundancies, pay freezes and the closure of libraries, swimming pools and public toilets – headlines are predicting an imminent clash with the unions to rival the battles of the 1970s. Yet many union leaders fear that there is little appetite among their members for industrial action. For now, their plan centres around a mass rally in Hyde Park this weekend – with hopes of around 100,000 protesters. Crow is in two minds about the rally – “It will come and go and there will still be cuts” – and is among those agitating hardest for a full-on industrial campaign against the cuts. At last autumn’s annual Trades Union Congress, he used a typically tub-thumping speech to call for a campaign of “civil disobedience”.
On the day we meet, late last month, he has been on the airwaves denouncing the government’s slow response to rescuing its citizens from Libya. I ask him how he feels about the uprisings in north Africa and the Middle East and whether there are any lessons for this country. “People are only political when something happens to them,” he ruminates. “Once an idea is ready to happen, and it’s ready to hatch, it happens, and that’s just happened in Libya and Egypt. It’s just happened.”
Recent British demonstrations have been on a relatively trivial level. But Crow was struck by events last November, when thousands of youths enraged by an imminent rise in university fees took to the streets, fighting against lines of police. “Students got their faces on everyone’s breakfast table [in newspaper headlines]. Whether you agree with them or not the issue of student fees became a big deal,” he muses. “I’m not into smashing things up but the suffragettes went around smashing windows to get the vote and it worked.”
Crow has a bust of Lenin in his office and embraces communism, though his priority is not so much a Soviet-style state as ensuring “opportunities for all”. A “utopian society” where everyone is earning the same amount of money would be unrealistic, he admits; lucky, given his own six-figure remuneration package. Brain surgeons deserve more than general secretaries, he says. He just wants everyone to have a chance to be a brain surgeon. So is he really a communist? “Just because you go to the Virgin Islands doesn’t make you a virgin,” he says bafflingly.
He believes in aspiration, but only up to a point. “They should ban private schools and private health. It’s OK if someone wants to spend money on a car or a holiday but when it comes to health and education that’s a different matter,” he argues.
Other elements of his political philosophy include an aversion to free trade and a desire for much heavier import and export duties. He insists: “They say the only way that we can compete now with China is making robots build cars. Now, that might be cheaper, but if you have robots build cars, how are robots going to buy them?”
He says he is not one of those leftwingers who opposes all cuts, castigated as “deficit deniers” by the government; instead his proposed alternative to the cuts is a one pence tax on all e-mails. According to Fullfact, an analytical website, this would only raise £12m a year – not exactly enough to plug the UK’s deficit.
Our starters arrive. My potted shrimps are deliciously buttery and come with just the right amount of toast. We are drinking tap water from a jug. Crow is off cheese, bread and alcohol for a month, an annual test of discipline. “No vodka, nothing at all. I’m on Ramadan at the moment. I feel terrible for it, to be honest with you,” he says.
Crow was born in 1961 in Wapping, east London. His father was a docker who advised him to read the Morning Star and the FT – and to believe the opposite of everything the pink paper said. When he was four the family moved to suburban Essex; he is still there, in Woodford.
He has spent his working life in the rail industry and the unions – he got his first job on the London Underground at 16 – and doesn’t hold a driving licence. The worst job he ever had was “rodding drains” deep in the Underground as a 19-year-old. “There was a stench, it was full of rats, all kinds of sexual contraceptives you could think of, we used the long rods to clear out debris and leaves from the drains along the lines.”
It is not the most fortunate image to have in our heads as the main course arrives; two large slabs of grilled fish with hot, golden chips. But the halibut is thick and tastes smoky and firm while the chips are perfect. “That’s the healthiest fish you could have, halibut,” he observes. “Full of oil, good for everything, bones, joints, healthy glow.”
His greatest negotiating triumph, he says, came in 2001 when he won long-term job security for London Underground workers as the service was part-privatised. It was a deal criticised by some in the press as a “job for life” agreement. According to Crow, after weeks of grinding talks, management just gave in, saying: “Please, just give them whatever they f***ing want.”
It’s easy to see why transport executives and politicians would dislike this kind of stubborn brinkmanship. But why, I ask him, do others hate him? (“I’d love to get my hands around his neck”, said one colleague as I left to come to Rules.) The question doesn’t faze him: “I travel on the Tube every day and don’t get any aggravation,” he says, though this may be because he looks like a bouncer who could kill other humans with his bare hands.
“Some people obviously dislike me and what we’re standing for, I accept that,” he concedes. “But 10 times that amount of people come up and shake my hand.” The most recent bad press around Crow was that a Tube strike might deliberately be called at the time of the royal wedding in late April; an abhorrent concept to Middle Britain. I suspect he’s just winding people up.
“Haven’t been invited,” he says of the wedding, polishing off his last chip. “Was waiting for the postman to come but Tara Parker [I think he means the socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson] got it instead. I have not arranged to call a strike on the royal wedding; however, if there is a strike we can’t really say that that strike won’t happen on the same day.”
A waiter brings dessert menus but accidentally drops them over Crow, leaning over to pick them up: “I’ve only come ’ere for a meal,” he wisecracks, and chooses sponge pudding. I order a plum trifle.
For all his macho hobbies – he is a boxing fan and a supporter of Millwall Football Club, whose fans’ favourite chant is: “No one likes us, we don’t care” – Crow has one surprising pastime; the weather. “It just amazes me how they can tell where low pressures are coming from, high pressures are coming from,” he marvels. “On Wednesday, they said, ‘There will be heavy rain.’ Thursday, they said, ‘The temperature could change overnight’ – and it was spot on.” I’m going on holiday up north tomorrow, I tell him, and ask if I’ll get rain: “Who cares?” he replies, “I’m not in Yorkshire.”
So, what of the political weather? Will there be a breakdown in industrial relations in the coming year? Crow reckons that 5,000 of his members are at risk of redundancy. He predicts that rising food and energy prices will coincide with pay cuts and redundancies to create febrile conditions: “We’re going to see an explosion,” he says.
“All of a sudden, they’ll be disputing in one particular industry, and there’ll be another dispute and another dispute, I can’t say when it will happen or how it will happen, but there will be a spark, and it will take off.”
Drumming his fingers on the table, he says he is not planning to co-ordinate strikes with other unions. But he adds: “If there are disputes in rail, shipping or bus industries and other transport industries at the same time over cutbacks, we would be fools not to co-ordinate the timing.”
He seems bemused that he is cast as the bad guy when the likes of Bob Diamond, chief executive at Barclays, are paid “scandalous” salaries. Yet his views on the City are less straightforward than what you might expect from the caricature – an impression created by Crow himself, who has castigated bankers as greedy “spivs”.
I ask what he would say to his four grown-up children if they had gone into banking. The response rather undermines the Bob Crow of popular folklore. “Good luck to them. I have never interfered, I have never said to them do this or that.” Really? Wouldn’t he give them an earful? “No. They have to live their lives.”
Crow then reveals that his brother is a stockbroker who lives in commuter belt Berkshire. They get on fine, he says. “I have differences with him. He’s made a lot of money; he’s stock market, dividend first and the rest comes after. We’re good mates but we’re chalk and cheese.” Then he deadpans: “I hate him much more for supporting Arsenal.”
Jim Pickard is an FT political correspondent
35 Maiden Lane, London WC2
Crab salad £13.95
Potted shrimp £12.95
Grilled halibut x 2 £53.90
Chips x 2 £7.50
Side spinach £3.75
Sponge pudding £7.50
Plum trifle £7.50
Cranberry juice £2.50
Virgin Mary £6.50
Total (including service) £130.56
People Power: Brian Groom on the union movement’s kings and emperors
Britain’s trade union movement has had more than its share of charismatic leaders – from Ernest Bevin, the stout (in all senses) rightwing transport workers’ chief who became minister of labour in the second world war, to “King” Arthur Scargill, the militant miners’ leader whose 1984-1985 strike against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government failed to halt pit closures.
Along the way came the likes of Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, the transport and engineering union leaders known in the media as the “terrible twins” for their fight against trade union reform legislation under Labour and Tory governments in the 1960s and 70s. Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, once allegedly told Scanlon to “get your tanks off my lawn”, though Scanlon later said he never heard this from Wilson’s lips.
For the most part union leaders have been men, though Annie Besant, writer and women’s rights activist, organised matchgirls in a successful strike for better pay at Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, London, in 1888. Less successfully, Brenda Dean led one of the two main print unions in their 1980s struggle against Rupert Murdoch’s move to a new technology newspaper plant at Wapping.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, trade unionists such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of farm labourers transported to Australia in 1834 for swearing a secret oath as members of a friendly society, struggled against repression. The Trades Union Congress was founded in 1868, unions were given legal recognition in 1871 and they created a labour representation committee that formed the basis for today’s Labour party.
The unions reached the height of their influence in the 1970s when Jack Jones, more than any other, was responsible for the “social contract” on wage restraint and a partnership between the TUC and the Labour governments of Wilson and James Callaghan. An austere former Liverpool docker who had been wounded fighting against Franco’s fascists, he became widely known as “Emperor” Jones. One opinion poll in Callaghan’s term reflected the popular view that Jones had more power than the prime minister.
The social contract collapsed after Jones’s retirement in 1978 and was followed by the 1979 “winter of discontent” of strikes against pay restraint. Margaret Thatcher’s legislation to curb union power in the 1980s led to a sharp decline in membership and influence.
Today’s successors, marching in London on the TUC’s rally against public spending cuts, face the movement’s biggest test for 30 years. Some, such as Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services union are, like Bob Crow, part of the “awkward squad” of leftwingers elected between 2000 and 2003.
Many, though, are subtler than they appear. Dave Prentis, a pragmatic leftwinger who leads Unison, the largest public sector union, will be a pivotal figure in decisions about strikes over pension reforms. The TUC is led by Brendan Barber, who has so far held a delicate balance between campaigning and strike threats. But never again will these figures be seen as kings and emperors.