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Diary: Bob Crow

Boris Johnson thinks I'm demented

In the recent Euro elections, I stood as lead London candidate for NO2EU (No To EU – Yes To Democracy). We were still waiting for the London declaration in the early hours of Monday morning when we found out the British National Party had won two seats in traditionally Labour-voting northern heartlands.

Labour’s historically low vote share came as no surprise to me: the anger and disillusionment with the political Establishment has hit Labour hardest of all. The government’s humiliation collided with an unprecedented surge in media attention for the BNP. The party was presented as a sort of celebrity attraction, allowing its leader, Nick Griffin, to seize a level of publicity for the far right not seen since the days of Mosley and his blackshirts.

Meanwhile, NO2EU, which like the BNP had no MEPs before the election, experienced a total blackout across the mainstream media. Nobody, it seemed, was interested in Euro-critical voices from the left, although every nutter and fascist from the spectrum of the right was plastered across the news pages.

But we still got 153,000 votes, and ran a great campaign based solely on the energy and enthusiasm of our local activists. In many working-class areas we were the only direct challenge on the streets to the BNP. I am proud of what we achieved in a very short space of time and I pay tribute to the work of our colleagues at Searchlight/Hope Not Hate, who undoubtedly stopped the BNP from securing an even bigger breakthrough.

Tuesday evening was taken up with strike negotiations between my union, the RMT, and Transport for London’s management. We had submitted our pay claim – at the management’s request – back in November, only to be treated with contempt. They lobbed in a five-year deal when no one knows what the economy is going to do in five months’ time, let alone five years, then intimated that it was take it or leave it. We left it.

So, after two strike ballots, we had a massive mandate for action on pay, as well as on attempts to rip up an existing job security agreement and the abuse of procedures by local managers itching to have a pop at the union. After the strike was announced, it took days to get the management back to negotiations.

Just half an hour before the strike was due to start on 9 June, we brokered a workable deal through Acas. The RMT’s industrial relations staff, press officer and executive were all on alert at head office to action a possible breakthrough. What happened next was something I’d never encountered in more than 30 years as a union activist, and I thought I’d seen everything in my time. Acas officials left the room to type everything into a final document. In principle, we had already signed.

Then the head of operations for the Tube left the room to make a phone call. When he returned, he told us they could no longer sign up to the agreement. Now, the only people he has to answer to are Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, and the transport commissioner. So who spiked the deal? And why? In the Commons, the Labour MP Andrew Dismore said that Johnson’s fingers were all over the last-minute sabotage. The mayor, who had called me and the RMT negotiators “demented”, denied it. But the fact is that someone pulled the rug, and the strike went ahead as a consequence.

Later I saw him on TV, telling Londoners he wants to go for a beer with me. We’ll see. Fourteen months into his term it’s about time he had a proper meeting with us.

Where to begin on media distortions of the 48-hour Tube strike? At the RMT, we’re used to a negative response from the press, but this was something else. Whatever those adverts are about that the London Evening Standard has up all over the Tube saying “Sorry”, it’s not its relentless union-bashing.

It splashed the totally bogus story that the strike was over the reinstatement of two sacked drivers – a complete lie. And like many other media outlets, the Standard failed to check that the only outstanding issue in negotiations was the failure of management to stick to an existing deal struck with John Prescott and Ken Livingstone over job security for former Metronet staff. Ken was good enough to confirm this, but the union-bashers weren’t listening.

On the picket lines, morale was good. The barbecue at Arnos Grove was top-quality, as a number of journos can confirm. While the right-wing press talked of chaos, TfL increased the number of trains running.

On Friday, I woke up to find the Sun had parked a double-decker bus outside my house. As I left for work, its reporters tried to “interview” me. Their efforts to persuade commuters to have a dig failed.

The paper had also tried to whip up feeling among football fans at the England game at Wembley two nights earlier. I pointed out that the same paper had once accused supporters of picking the pockets of the dead and pissing on corpses at Hillsborough. Friends of the football fan? I think not.

Bob Crow is general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)

Bob Crow started as a London Underground track worker straight from school. He become a union rep and held a number of positions in the RMT before eventually being elected general secretary in 2002

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran