RMT general secretary Bob Crow died last week. He fought hard for his members, but he always knew his way out of a fight

The bane of our lives, of course, but what Bob Crow did not actually do is shut the railway. His disputes did not actually spiral into chaos. It was one of his mantras: don’t get into a fight you don’t know the way out of. There was none of the bloody-mindedness our older readers would remember from the 1970s when the laggers prevented the Isle of Grain power station ever being finished.

Just now, of course, the RMT dispute is with London Underground over the role of ticket office staff, which parallels an earlier dispute on the railway over the “role of the guard”.

We came close to chaos at various points during this dispute which seemed to dominate industrial relations for years after privatisation. It was about the fear that jobs would be lost and that trains would be run under driver-only operation, as then happened on the South Eastern train operating company.

Was a train guard, as it said in the old rule book, “in charge of the train” or, as the operators said was now the case, “in charge of the passengers”? Did a guard have a safety critical role in the event of an accident? Were they to protect the train by getting down onto the track and attaching clips to the rails to turn the signals red? If they had a safety critical role, their presence on a train would be essential; driver-only operation could not creep further across the whole railway; and jobs would not be lost or changed to the less prestigious role of customer care. Guards would not become what Jimmy Knapp, Bob Crow’s predecessor, had called “Kit-Kat sellers”.

Jimmy Knapp gave a very moving speech shortly before he died, almost with tears in his eyes, saying that for 40 years his only task was to limit job losses and manage decline and that now for the first time – this was in 2000 – he could look forward to a growing railway and that he did not oppose the privatisation of the railway. In this he was quite unlike Bob Crow, who called constantly for renationalisation of the railway. Politically, even at a TUC conference, Bob Crow stood out like a sore thumb, with his communist-socialist agenda. In day-to-day life, he was far more practical.

The role of the guard dispute came to a head with an appeal to RSSB, the Rail Safety and Standards Board, under Len Porter. RSSB had acquired considerable respect for its independence and its rational approach to safety decisions. Bob agreed that its decision, either way, would be accepted. It was his route for getting out of the fight, as winner or loser. In this case he lost. RSSB decided that guards did not have the safety critical role claimed. But he did not lose for long. Disputes with all the TOCs were engineered and a gun put to their heads: sign this paper saying no driver-only operation or face a strike. All TOCs signed. It was a high point for RMT influence.

Soon after, in a dispute about, I think, money, RMT took on South West Trains. By then however the operator had plans in place for running trains during an RMT strike. About half the services ran, passengers and the public turned against the union and the RMT climbed down after two or three days of strike action. SWT had shown that the RMT could no longer simply dictate to the train operators. Some balance was achieved between management and union.

Since then, as he said in his last interview with Becky Milligan on the radio, his members have had good pay rises every year. This is his real achievement and is the country worse off because railway staff are paid more than the market rate and far more than bus drivers? Arguably not. There has been much complaint that wages in the UK are not keeping up with prices, that 90%, or whatever, of wealth from economic growth goes to the top 1%. Bob did his best to buck this trend. Besides, it is hard to object to wages on the railway when there are a thousand bankers paid a million pounds.

The closure of ticket offices on the Underground will happen (there are almost but not quite none on the MTR in Hong Kong). The bigger dispute on the horizon is of course about driverless trains, now on order for delivery in about 10 years’ time on the Piccadilly Line. While it was easy to see that the old technical functions of train guards and ticket office staff were changing and that customer service was where the focus now had to be, the prospect of widespread driverless trains raises a different question. Bob Crow put it well: “If you get robots to drive your trains, how are you going to get robots to buy your products?” That is a big question which has to be answered sometime.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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