Inside Out


Blair seems more at home leading the war on terrorism or planning the invasion of Iraq than he does leading the attack on the new Scargillism.

Bob Crow, who recently took over the Rail and Maritime Transport union (RMT), has a way with farewell presents. When an executive with whom he had regularly negotiated left London Underground last year, he went to Toys 'R' Us and bought her the biggest dinosaur he could find.

Just to make sure she got the message, he pinned two union badges on it.

Crow is one of a new breed of hard-left union leaders who don't mind being regarded as dinosaurs. Standing in a picket line outside the Tube, he borrows a chant from the supporters of Millwall, his favourite football team: 'Nobody likes us, we don't care.'

A growing number of militants are taking over Britain's unions: Andy Gilchrist of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has excelled itself with a ludicrous demand for a 40% pay rise; Dave Rix, who heads the other main rail union, Aslef; and Derek Simpson, who defeated the Blairite Sir Ken Jackson to take over Amicus, the UK's second-largest union.

The hard left is also in charge of the postal and telecoms union, a major civil servant union, the journalists' union and university lecturers.

Crow, Gilchrist and their like are a throwback to the pre-Thatcher era, when union dinosaurs roamed the land and strikes were 10 a penny. They have as much regard for Tony Blair and New Labour as they had for Margaret Thatcher's Tory governments - that is, none.

I had experience of pre-Thatcher unions when the Sunday Times and sister papers fought a 13-month battle against the print unions for the right to operate a new printing plant in Wapping. We'd invested more than pounds 60 million and negotiated with the unions for years - but they refused to go. At one stage a union leader threw a box of matches at me and said: 'You might as well burn Wapping down; we will never go there.'

Like these militants before them, today's new breed of union leaders prefer to strike first, negotiate later. Crow closed the Tube four times over the summer, till London mayor Ken Livingstone caved in. Last month the FBU began a national strike in pursuit of its 40%. Other left-wing leaders are preparing to flex their industrial muscle.

The conventional wisdom is that this does not represent a return to the infamous Winter of Discontent of 1978-79, which brought down the Callaghan government and consigned Labour to the wilderness for 18 years. Maybe so, in that we are unlikely to see mass picketing, power blackouts, uncollected rubbish in the streets, three-day work weeks and the dead lying unburied. …

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