The Tragedy of Bob Crow

On Tuesday the famous and infamous leader of the RMT (The Rail, Maritime and Transport) union, Bob Crow, passed away from a heart attack aged 52. According to the BBC, the late Mr Crow “steadfastly” described himself as a “socialist slash communist” and had a bust of Lenin on his desk.

I’m writing about the late Mr Crow because, for rather odd reasons, he’s someone I’ll always remember.

In my late teens I briefly played for an amateur football club that the late Mr Crow managed. At that time I had no idea he was the assistant general secretary of the RMT union, a member of the communist party, nor that he had a penchant for busts of balding dictators. To me he was just a burly, amiable chap who was a little on the blunt and brash side.

One night, something like fifteen years later, as I sat watching the news, Mr Crow appeared larger than life on my TV screen under the heading ‘general secretary of the RMT union’. “That’s Bob Crow!” I exclaimed in total astonishment, spitting bits of pasta everywhere. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The man masterminding these annoying tube strikes was the same man who managed that pub football team I used to play for; the same man who would comically mix-up or mispronounce people’s name when reading out the team sheet. Here he was speaking on BBC news in his East London, working class vernacular in exactly the same way he delivered his team talks – i.e. almost incomprehensibly. I would never see Bob Crow in the same light again.

From the point of view of members of the RMT union, and from the perspective of workers’ unions in general, the late Mr Crow was a much-loved and successful leader. Under the first seven years of his leadership, the RMT ranks swelled from fifty thousand to eighty thousand as a result of his securing regular wage rises, often above inflation, generous terms and conditions, and wages for London tube train drives significantly higher than the private sector equivalent. London tube train drivers now command a wage of £50,000 a year, which is four thousand pounds a year more than the highest private sector train driver wage and seven thousand more than the lowest. Not only that, tube drivers also receive free travel in London for themselves and one other nominated person for life, which is a perk that is worth thousands a year in itself.

In a TV interview, Mr Crow set out his goals as a trade unionist.

“Job security, being safe, best possible pay, best possible conditions, decent pensions, and a world that lives in peace.”

Trade unions, as groups of people with a common interest, currently have certain privileges granted to them by the state, which no other groups of people are given. When the members of a trade union refuse to perform the duties they are contractually obliged to perform – i.e. go on strike – the law prevents their employer from dismissing anyone for doing so. The law also prevents the employer from hiring temporary agency staff during the strike action. This is how unions leverage the coercive powers of the state in order to, essentially, extort more money from their employer – in this case tax payers (non-unionised workers). They exploit the threat of government action – i.e. imprisonment or fines – in order to force their employer to comply with their demands for a wage rise or more benefits etc. Extortion, of course, is universally adjudged to be immoral by individuals and therefore we all strongly prefer not to be subjected to it; this is reflected by the fact that in all instances other than those involving trade unions such behavior is prohibited by the law.

The simple truth is that trade unions are granted by the state the ‘right’ to engage in an act that is morally wrong and otherwise deemed illegal. This power necessarily comes at the expense of everyone else in society, especially other workers. If it was possible to benefit each other by blackmailing each other, then we would all be doing it. And yet it’s obvious from the late Mr Crow’s statement above that he believed that unions, privileged by the law, are a force for social/economic good – i.e. that such unions lead to an increase in wages for and generally benefit all workers in the long-run. No doubt it was this belief that drove him to join and eventually lead the RMT union. 

Unfortunately for the late Bob Crow, this belief has long ago been exposed as a delusion by a number of economists of the Austrian school. One of the best expositions, written to be understood by the layman, is by Henry Hazlitt in his book ‘Economics In One Lesson’ (available to read here in PDF format).  In the chapter ‘Do Unions Really Raise Wages?’ he concludes:

“Thus we are driven to the conclusion that unions, though they may for a time be able to secure an increase in money wages for their members, partly at the expense of employers and more at the expense of non-unionized workers,do not, in the long run and for the whole body of workers, increase real wages at all.

The belief that they do so rests on a series of delusions. One of these is the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc,which sees the enormous rise in wages in the last half century, due principally to the growth of capital investment and to scientific and technological advance, and ascribes it to the unions because the unions were also growing during this period. But the error most responsible for the delusion is that of considering merely what a rise of wages brought about by union demands means in the short run for the particular workers who retain their jobs, while failing to trace the effects of this advance on employment, production and the living costs of all workers, including those who forced the increase.”

No society can “live in peace” as long as there is a group of people with the legal ‘right’ to engage in extortion in order to raise its own wages and benefits at the expense of all other workers outside of that group. Any society that believes it is living in peace under these conditions is living a lie.

As a quick aside; there’s nothing inherently wrong with peaceful and voluntary unionisation, which can and has led to progress in conditions and safety for workers. But there is no economic reason or evidence for all workers being economically better-off in the long-run as a consequence of unions having the legal ‘right’ to indulge in extortion. For a more detailed analysis of this topic please read my other post entitled ‘Some Unions Divide Us‘.

Mr Crow was once accused of being a “champagne socialist” and his response illustrates the perverse foundation of the socialist/communist ideology, basic envy:

“This trade union fights for the right of our members to enjoy the finer things in life,” he said. “Why should it just be the bankers, politicians and the idle rich who get all the best things? As a militant trade union we demand a standard of living for our members that enables them to share in the fine wines and fine times that the likes of David Cameron and his Old Etonian mates take for granted.” 

A right is a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. Mr Crow believed the group of people he represented have the ‘right’ to enjoy “fine wines and fine times” in the same way that everyone has the right not to be murdered, which therefore entitles his members to engage in blackmail; just as everyone’s right to not be murdered entitled us to engage in violent self-defense. The justification for this ‘right’ is that it is unjust that only people who can afford to acquire and consume more expensive things can acquire and consume more expensive things. This is like arguing that it is unfair that only people who can ride bicycles get to enjoy riding bicycles, or that only people who can swim get to enjoy swimming.

At least he was being honest when he said “we demand a standard of living for our members…” because that’s what socialism slash communism is: a demand for money/goods produced by others – at the point of a government gun.

The best that can be said for the late Bob Crow is that he was a passionate man, capable of leading men, who acted upon what he believed, and that he had almost no regard for politicians. It’s just a great shame for him and society that he never found the strength or the courage to question the premises of the political ideology that he became enraptured by at an early age. If he had he may have actually brought his goal of a world that lives in peace closer instead of pushing it further away.

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