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EDITIONS
Monday, 9 September, 2002, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
The RMT's Bob Crow

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  • Click here to read the transcript


    On the eve of a crucial TUC conference, BBC News Online will be talking to the leader of the RMT union, Bob Crow.

    The Railworkers Union has been organising a series of strikes on the London Underground, opposing the government plan for a public-partnership and warning that it could jeopardise safety.

    And Bob Crow is organising opposition to any invasion of Iraq at the TUC.

    Open in new window : Trade unions guide
    The big unions at TUC 2002

    Should the tube be privatised, or should unions back Tony Blair's drive to reform the public sector?

    Should they support the war on Iraq?

    And should strikes in public services be banned? Tell us what you think.

    Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) answered your questions in a live forum.


    Transcript


    Newshost:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online forum. I'm Nick Assender and with me today, I have the General Secretary of the Rail Union, the RMT, Bob Crow. He will be answering some of your question that you've sent into us.

    Mr Crow welcome. Before we get onto the questions, can I perhaps ask you about an issue that is dominating everything at the moment - Iraq. Are there any circumstances at all in which you personally would support military action against Saddam Hussein?


    Bob Crow:

    Well, we do support military action when there's a case for military action. But it's got to be said - is there a case for military action?

    Only this week we've been told that Tony Blair would produce facts as to the reason why we should have a war against Iraq. But already last night, bombing took place without any United Nations Security Council giving the authority. I've got to say that why aren't they bombing Israel? Why aren't they bombing the northern part of Cyprus?


    Newshost:

    On the basis they're breaking UN resolutions?


    Bob Crow:

    Well they're breaking UN resolutions, but on the basis why aren't they implementing UN resolutions? It seems to me that when there's a country involved that's got oil, there must be priority by the Americans - the American Government not the actual American people - to do something about it. But when it's Cyprus and there's only figs and citrus fruits involved, they don't seem to want to know.


    Newshost:

    So you think it's simply down to oil and you don't accept that last night's raids were an implementation of the no-fly zones? You think this is more than just a coincidence that it's a bigger raid than we've had up to recently?


    Bob Crow:

    I think it was laying a marker down to Iraq as to what's going to happen. We warned about Saddam Hussein, 15 - 16 years ago, when he was murdering trade unionists, murdering people in the Communist Party out there and the western governments were quite happy with him. All of sudden he turned into a Frankenstein's monster and as a result of that, it seems to me that by President Bush, Daddy didn't finish him off and old Sonny Boy is going to.


    Newshost:

    With Tony Blair's help presumably? Do you see Tony Blair, as some people describe him, as the President's poodle, for want of a better word?


    Bob Crow:

    Well he is the Prime Minister of the country. I think what should happen before anything takes place is that MPs should be recalled. There should be a debate about what takes place out there. This is a different situation now - this isn't 10 - 12 years ago when all it was, was to get him to move out of Kuwait. This is about now finishing Saddam Hussein off and that is even dangerous because there's nothing worse than a cornered rat and a cornered rat gets desperate.


    Newshost:

    So what do you want to see? You want to see obviously concrete evidence presumably in this document that the Prime Minister produces and you want that sooner rather than later and then a debate in the Commons?


    Bob Crow:

    Well concrete evidence. Also I've got to say that what we don't want is contrived evidence which the CIA are known for. But even if there is that evidence there, what we want to look at is further economic sanctions first of all, if need be. The last thing that we should be talking about is a war - that should be the real last resort and it's something that my union does not support.


    Newshost:

    It sounds to me as though you're going to take a lot of convincing that even this document and even a debate in the House of Commons, if MPs were swung behind action, you would still be sceptical?


    Bob Crow:

    Yes, it seems to me that what's taking place, by the Bush Government and by Blair, is that whatever happens there's going to be a war. It's a bit like Henry Ford - you can have any colour car you want as long as it's black. Whatever happens, there's going to be a war.

    We don't think that the normal Iraqi people support Saddam. We think there're the people that's going to be injured, they're the people that's going to be maimed, they're the people that's going to go through this economic ruin of their country and I don't think that the genuine people of America or Britain want a war. On top of that we're coming up to September 11 and I think it has been done on purpose that this is being brought together regarding September 11th - September 11th on the basis of the al-Qaeda network - we understand that Bin Laden is still alive.


    Newshost:

    You see it as revenge for September 11th, just as simple as that?


    Bob Crow:

    I think that it certainly is a revenge tactic and there'd be no one more than me or my union that will stand up to terrorism. We lost members and comrades in the Trade Union movement last September 11th in America with the events of the fire-fighters out in New York and with underground workers as well.


    Newshost:

    But surely we can't just let Saddam Hussein continue, as George Bush would say, stiffing the world. There does seem to be circumstantial evidence if not more, that he is building weapons and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Wouldn't it be better to stop him now before he turns into an even more dangerous threat?


    Bob Crow:

    When is he going to stop it? The danger of this is you could create another 100 Saddam Husseins out there as a result of this.


    Newshost:

    Do you think it would inflame fundamentalism?


    Bob Crow:

    I think it could do and if he has got an arsenal, and there is a change of regime out there, where is that arsenal going to go? Is it going to fracture into splinter groups and are those splinter groups going to be even harder to track down.

    We don't have any truck whatsoever with Saddam Hussein but we first of all need to find out what the evidence is and secondly economic sanctions. What I would say is that the Israeli Government is carrying out actions against Palestinian people against the United Nations resolutions and the American Government is not prepared to do anything to stop that crime that is taking place against the Palestinian people.


    Newshost:

    You're not suggesting actions against Israel?


    Bob Crow:

    If you're going to have worldwide peace and a worldwide security council, you can't just say when America decides that it has got to take action that's ok but anywhere else round the world you can put up with it.


    Newshost:

    Let's move on now to some of viewers questions. As you can imagine probably the issue that's angering them more than anything else at the moment is the rail and Tube strikes.

    Robin Brown sums a lot of the feeling on the question, when he asks: Why do insist on bringing misery through blackmail and bully-boy tactics to the citizens of London? The truth is you remain stuck in a time warp. You're not interested in modernising or reaching agreement through consensus and comprise. Your real interest is bringing instability and chaos to the country.


    Bob Crow:

    Well number one, on the Tube, it is as a result of London Underground not going to mediation that we're in this situation. We signed a modern negotiation procedure three years ago which said that the trade unions couldn't take industrial action and the company wouldn't impose an offer so long as we went to mediation. We said let's go to a mediator to see if a mediator can find a way forward to resolve the dispute and London Underground said no.

    So we're left with two options: we either accept the offer or we take action. I would say that our members have got the right to say yes or no and we respect their wishes whether they vote yes or no and they voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking action. It's not blackmail. Don't forget we're moving 30% more people now on London Underground with 30% less staff.


    Newshost:

    Well you say an overwhelming vote, in fact one or two of our e-mailers have pointed out that in fact it depends how you count that vote in total. As somebody who just calls himself Martin points out: only a small proportion of your members actually vote in strike ballots rendering the results rather unconvincing.


    Bob Crow:

    There's not a majority of people voting for MPs. The majority of people in Britain didn't vote for Tony Blair. In fact if you look at all the people that could have voted in the last election, the Labour Government only got around 31% of the population's vote - so they haven't got a majority. But they had the opportunity to vote and whether the people vote yes or vote no or abstain, they had the opportunity to vote. The main point is that once our members vote either yes or no, the majority gets behind the decision.


    Newshost:

    It's quite clear from general public view and certainly things that are coming through in the e-mails that people are quite exercised about this - people get quite angry. Needless to say, commuters tend to be the ones who are getting angry about this. A number of them are saying, why hit them? Why is it always the commuters who get hit? A Ross Breckenridge asks: To whom is the first duty of care from the tube drivers? Their passengers or themselves?


    Bob Crow:

    We look after the passengers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and we are proud to be public servants serving the travelling public out there. There's nothing else you can do when you've got a dispute with an employer in the public sector, it affects the public. But what I can say - and they are not crocodile tears - we do actually apologise for any disruption that we cause the travelling public. But at the end of the day, what do you do when you've got an employer that refuses to go to mediation?


    Newshost:

    So you think this is your only course of action and there's not other way you could pursue this dispute other than bringing chaos to the Tube system?


    Bob Crow:

    Well no, we've looked at the situation where our members come to work and refuse to collect tickets and give tickets free and let people go up and down. But what would happen is that our members would be breaking their contract of employment and could be sent home and dismissed. So we couldn't have that situation because we'd then have to end up having a dispute to protect the people that were dismissed. So that's the only course that we've got at the end of the day. That's the only course we've got at the end of the day. We're a trade union representing our members. Some people might say it's a selfish way of looking at things.


    Newshost:

    A number of people are saying exactly that.


    Bob Crow:

    But we are a trade union and our members pay their money for us to get them the best possible pay and conditions and that's what we intend doing.


    Newshost:

    Ross goes on to say and it's a point that been made in a couple of the e-mails. He is a hospital doctor and has witnessed at first hand the mass disruption that the strikes have caused for patient care in particular - drivers directly jeopardising patient care in London hospitals when they strike.


    Bob Crow:

    I sympathise with what Ross is saying but he hasn't come up with an alternative about how we can achieve a settlement. The only way we can get a settlement is accepting what management are giving to us and our members in a democratic ballot have said no.


    Newshost:

    Paul Groves, London: I would like to ask Bob why his union is persistently holding the travelling public to ransom on an almost quarterly basis. Tube drivers earn, in my opinion, perfectly good wages, especially when compared to nurses, fire-fighters and teachers. So is your case a just one?


    Bob Crow:

    Well, because people get paid less than you it doesn't mean your rate of pay is ok. What is not mentioned is how much lawyers get, how much TV broadcasters get, how much the director of the BBC gets. At the end of the day, our members - not just train drivers - run the railway system, whether it be selling tickets, cleaning stations, maintaining the track, working in signal boxes.

    But it's not just about pay. What this about is about equality because what has happened is that since 1996, members working for London Underground don't get reduced travel benefits like the people that got them before 1996 and their pension is inferior. What that has caused is resentment and it has caused jealousy and a two-tier system, where two people doing the same job get different rates of pay and different conditions.

    But what I would say is that our members have to start at 4 o'clock in the morning and sometimes don't finish until 2 o'clock in the morning. They work down in extreme heats. In fact there was a report done only two weeks ago saying that it would be harmful to take a dog on the Tube but for a human it's ok and that might only be for an hour's journey. Our members are working down there sometimes 8 hours at a time. So the money that we get may seem high but what we're saying is that our members can't even get on the mortgage ladder at this moment in time in London and the South East because of the price of property.


    Newshost:

    Like so many other groups, particularly in the public sector. Michael Smith, UK asks: Mr Crow, why are tube drivers worth around 50% more than the national average salary (including nurses, fire-fighters and policemen)?

    It does seem to me from what you're saying that you see your role in this as a confrontational one with the management. That it is a simple case that you are carrying out you members' instructions and there doesn't seem much chance of this being resolved in the near future.


    Bob Crow:

    All disputes come to end at the end at the end of the day one way or the other - either there's a compromise, management win or the trade unions win and there will be a resolving of this dispute, hopefully before we take strike action. But because some people are paid low rates of pay e.g. nurses and fire-fighters, doesn't mean that the rate of pay that we're getting is good. What we're saying is there are other people - take for instance there's people working in the Stock Market, who get vast sums - what's the most important job? Stockbroker or railway workers - my view is that a railway worker is far more important than a stockbroker.


    Newshost:

    Do you see this as part of a wider problem, particularly with the union relations with the Labour Government - the sense of disappointment with a Labour administration that union workers might think would be supporting their cause, has not borne fruit?


    Bob Crow:

    We've seen some benefits of the Labour Government since they got elected. I'd rather have a Labour government than I would a Conservative government. But what we haven't seen is proper relaxation of what we believe should be proper labour laws for workers. For instance, all the nine Acts of Parliament that the Tories brought in - anti-trade union legislation - the Labour MPs, every one of them, voted against the Tories bringing them in when they were in opposition. My view is that now they're in government, they should repeal that anti-trade union legislation and put a workers charter in place which supports working people.


    Newshost:

    Indeed. That again brings us on to the point that one or two people have e-mailed in about - your relationship with the Labour Government and particularly MPs who you sponsor - John Prescott and Robin Cook being the two most obvious ones. Do you think it was a wise act to in effect drive them out of your union and in that sense weaken the union's influence in government - very high levels in government?


    Bob Crow:

    We didn't drive them out. We give every MP the opportunity to join our group with four principles. We didn't get shot of them, they said they couldn't agree to our principles. It was them that couldn't agree to work with us, not the other way around.


    Newshost:

    They saw it quite clearly - and Mr Prescott was quite outspoken about this - of you again holding them to ransom - do what we demand or else, while they have, they would argue, a much wider constituency than simply union members.


    Bob Crow:

    No, I mean I view is that we support a Labour Government, that's our union's policy but we don't believe we should support those MPs that carry out policies directly against our members.

    Where's the logic in supporting an MP that wants the privatisation of the Tube, which affects our members? Where is the logic of an MP that refuses to repeal the anti-trade union legislation which affects our members? And where is the logic of our seafaring members that the Labour Government still refuses to repeal Section 9 of the Race Relations Act which allows ship-owners in Britain to be discriminatory against seafarers? My view is that you want MPs in Parliament that are going to roll their sleeves up and fight on behalf of working people - not carry out the same policies of the Tories.


    Newshost:

    It does sound from everything you're saying that there's a whole list of grievances that you and your union in particular have with the Labour Government.

    Can you see this sort of industrial action spreading? We've seen it in other public sector areas at the moment with the threat of part-privatisation. There's been talk of winters of discontent, which some claim is overblown. Do you think we are now reaching a situation though where there is quite a likelihood of wider industrial action aimed specifically at changing labour laws?


    Bob Crow:

    I don't know about industrial action to change labour laws. I think trade unions now - you'll see the resolutions at the next week's TUC - that they want these rules repealed because they breach international labour organisation standards. It's not my job to say what other unions are going to do. I don't interfere in other unions' affairs but when they ask for support.

    What I would say, is that I think it's an absolute disgrace in the year 2002, that our fire-brigades' members have got to take industrial action to get a living wage. They're on 21,000 per year as a starting fire grade and they're asking for 30,000. Our union, the RMC, have made it absolutely clear, we will give them 101% support to make sure that the fire-brigades' members get the justified claim that they deserve. So what other unions do is up to them. All we know is that if they do decide to take action, we'll give them our full support.


    Newshost:

    One of the things you can't do in offering them support because of the Tory trade union laws, is you can't secondary picket. Would you like to see a return of that? Would you like to be able to be in a position where you could give fire-fighters and other public sector workers that sort of support?


    Bob Crow:

    Absolutely yes. Solidarity action is how the trade union was built and I believe that, why should nurses go on strike and why should fire-brigade workers go on strike. I want the fire-brigades to be working to defend mine or someone else's home if it catches fire. I believe that other workers in the industry should be able to take action for other groups of workers - like the nurses and the fire-brigade and doctors.


    Newshost:

    A lot of people see that as the old style old Labour rhetoric - language that led to things like the winter of discontent and kept Labour out of power for 20 odd years. Do you not see that as a threat or worry?


    Bob Crow:

    I don't know about the old Labour - it's traditional Labour, I would call it. I don't know what this old and new means. I believe in traditional values and what that means is that at the end of the day, if a group of workers ask for support, you give them that support and you respect a picket line. As far as I am concerned, the trade union movement's eleventh commandment is, you don't cross picket lines.


    Newshost:

    Clearly something that Tony Blair is now about to do that though. Is there any way you can pursue that sort of demand of secondary picketing?


    Bob Crow:

    Well, this week we'll be asking for, at the TUC, the total repeal of all trade union legislation brought in by the Tory party.


    Newshost:

    That's not going to happen is it?


    Bob Crow:

    Well, the TUC next week will make a policy on it and if they do carry out that policy next week, they'll be calling a major public rally in Britain. Now, Italian and Spanish workers have gone onto the streets. They just haven't put up with resolutions and they've taken direct action on the streets.


    Newshost:

    Do you support that?


    Bob Crow:

    Yes I do support the Italian workers and the Spanish workers and any other group of workers taking action.


    Newshost:

    And you'd like to see it here?


    Bob Crow:

    Absolutely. I will be campaigning next week that we go on the streets - like the Italians did, like the Spanish did - and said basically you can stuff your anti-trade union laws.


    Newshost:

    Sounds like Tony Blair will get a good reception at the TUC next week if he addresses it on Tuesday.


    Bob Crow:

    That's all according to what he says. If he wants to repeal the anti-trade union laws, then he'll get a standing ovation.


    Newshost:

    Another issue now that's clearly gripping the unions and also we've had a number of e-mails, summed up to a great extent by Harry Lowe, who asks about pensions. Whilst the closure of final salary schemes may be detrimental to employees, it does not mean that money purchase alternatives are necessarily a bad thing. Money purchase, per se, is not bad, what really matters is the total level of contributions from employer and employee.


    Bob Crow:

    The money purchase schemes, I don't think will deliver. I'm not saying that all of them are bad but they're not as good as a final year salary scheme - that's the reason why the employers want to change them. The fact is that what has happened is that in Gordon Brown's first Budget, he stripped most of the fat out the pension funds through the new accountancy rules that he brought in.

    Secondly, what has happened is that the majority of pension funds have put vast sums of money onto the Stock Market and the Stock Market has crashed and as a result of that they're in real trouble because what's happened is there is a contradiction is taking place - people are living longer and as a result of that they are wanting a longer pension. The same token goes, if you improve the National Health Service and make people live longer, then the pensions funds are going to cost more.

    But the only way around it at the end of the day, is that pension funds should not be for management to take holidays and take money out those pension funds. Pension funds should be for one thing and one thing only - pensioners and the beneficiaries of the pension fund.


    Newshost:

    It is interesting you point to Gordon Brown. Kim Humberstone, United Kingdom also points out that the most significant adverse change to pension return values recently was the abolition of the reclaim of tax credits by Gordon Brown. A decision, he says, by MPs supported and funded by you and your union - well maybe not supported and funded for much longer.


    Bob Crow:

    Well they are, hence the reason why we changed them.


    Newshost:

    And clearly you're highly critical of that decision by Gordon Brown?


    Bob Crow:

    Oh, highly critical. As I said before, we wouldn't be in the situation that we are now, if Gordon Brown didn't bring that new way of accountancy in, in his Budget. There would have been more money in the pension funds and what we're seeing now is streams of companies closing down their final pension schemes.

    What's not being looked at is that a lot of the youngsters were told - join a company pension fund because your state pension fund won't be worth anything. Now we're seeing a situation that when people retire, in 25 years time, they'll be no state pension fund worth having and the company pension fund won't be there. What we're really basically doing is creating mass poverty for the generations to come. I think that the Government needs to jump on that straightaway.


    Newshost:

    Francis Oldfield, UK: I think that the RMT have every right to strike for better pension deals. I would like to see workers in the rail industry and myself when they reach the age of retirement, that they will not be pitched into poverty.

    Clearly there's a lot of feeling in the union movement about that. John Monks himself has said he's a militant on this issue and would be prepared to support action on that. Do you think this is an issue, unlike some of the other issues troubling the Government at the moment, around which the union as a whole can coalesce and force the Government into compulsion for employers?


    Bob Crow:

    I'm glad John's a militant on that issue - I hope he gets militant on a number of other issues as well. But it's quite clear what is taking place. We've got a situation where people now are being asked to work beyond 65 years of age and there's youngsters of 19 - 20 years of age who are on the dole. It's absolutely madness to me that people are being asked to work to 70 years old and at the same time there's going to be youngsters not getting a job.

    Wouldn't it be better that we bring the retirement age down and give those jobs to youngsters who are kicking their heels on the dole to put them into work? What my belief is and our union's belief is, is it shouldn't be 65 years as the age of retirement, we believe that people should voluntary retire at 55 years of age.


    Newshost:

    Indeed, in fact, there's a threat to your own pension scheme, I believe. Is that something you would be prepared to see strike action over?


    Bob Crow:

    My union's pension fund is pretty healthy. We have a final year pension scheme for all of our members and our pension scheme is probably one of the best pension schemes in Britain. Certainly there's no change from my union to alter that scheme.


    Newshost:

    An interesting e-mail here from an address you might recognise. It has Scargill's knight as the address. But it's from an Ian Croft who wants to know, quite simply. Why did you leave the Socialist Labour Party?

    From what you've said today, it sounds like a good question. It sounds like you're very much in tune with the aims of the Socialist Labour Party.


    Bob Crow:

    It's not really that I left the Socialist Labour Party - I never put my membership in again for this year. It's not against Arthur Scargill - I think Arthur Scargill is one of the most principled trade unionists in history, never mind in modern times. He's a personal friend of mine.

    But personally, I didn't agree with the tactics at the last general election, which I wouldn't have said the time, of standing candidates against people which I would say are true people on the Left - for instance Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbin and Dennis Skinner. There were attempts to put candidates up from the Socialist Labour Party against them - to me that was a very sectarian move. Whatever the reason was, that was up to them. But I couldn't support standing candidates against people who are, I would say, our natural friends.


    Newshost:

    But you're quite happy to stand candidates against members of the Labour Party, sitting MPs, who you consider were right-wing?


    Bob Crow:

    I see no reason what the difference is between someone wearing a red rosette carrying out Tory policies and privatising something and someone wearing a blue rosette carrying out the same policies.


    Newshost:

    It's quite plain to see which side of the Labour Party you come from. Clearly, there's also been a rise in union leaders from the same wing of the party - people point at Derek Simpson, for example. Do you think there's a genuine return, if that's the right word, to militancy now in the union movement?


    Bob Crow:

    What people mean by militancy, it's militant tendency -and I don't think I'd be supporting that. If it's about militancy on the basis that we fight for better pay, better conditions and are prepared to take industrial action to achieve those aims, then I think militancy is on the rise. It's not just with Derek Simpson but we've got Mick Ricks my good friend from Aslef, Jeremy Dear from the National Union of Journalists, Julian McKnight from the Probation Officers union and so on. So, there's a trend taking place now and the trend is all on the same thing - traditional trade unions fighting on behalf of their members and prepared to put their head above their parapet.


    Newshost:

    Why is it always that when there's a Labour Government that union militancy seems to increase?


    Bob Crow:

    Well, number one, that I think we're all united on is that we don't want the Tories in. They were an absolute disaster for this country and they've got no credibility at all whatsoever. But I think the reason why militancy does come on the increase is that they appreciate the Tory Party's against them and when Labour is elected, they want a better society. We want a better society. We don't want to continue the same society as the Tories, that's why Labour has got a big majority. My personal view that if the Labour Government, purely on its own, said it would renationalise the railway network, it would win the next election just on that item.


    Newshost:

    But they've ruled that out - there's no chance of that.


    Bob Crow:

    They've ruled out but I see last night that British Energy is in trouble in the nuclear industry. But when a private industry wants money, like Railtrack did, the Government can give it. And if Network Rail, the former Railtrack goes into problems, they'll renationalise them. Don't forget Margaret Thatcher nationalised Rolls-Royce, she didn't nationalise it as a socialist principle, she nationalised it as a nationalised principle. My view is, don't just nationalise lame ducks - nationalise the white swans.


    Newshost:

    Colin Bannister, Scotland: Do the leaders of this country's unions not remember the last time they embarked on a whole series of strikes? It brought the Labour government down and we were subjected to nearly 20 years of Tory government.


    Bob Crow:

    It's a democratic decision whether we take action. I've never seen any of our ballot papers that this vote is about bringing down the Government - it's about issues with the employer. What we would say is - we want a strong Labour Government in there, a traditional Labour Government that's going to represent working people. The fact is that in Parliament at the moment, there's an under-representation of working people. The Tories represent big business and Labour is totally confused at the moment and what it should really do is show it's colours and say, we represent working people and by doing that it will be in for decades.


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