Crawford, Leo (1903–73), trade union leader, was born 1 December 1903 at 2 Grattan Place, Dublin, son of John Crawford, plasterer, and Annie Crawford (née Molloy). Educated at Westland Row CBS, he followed his father's trade as an apprentice plasterer in 1918. Accustomed to hardship, he migrated temporarily to the English midlands during a ten-month strike in 1919–20 and again in 1925, when work in Ireland was scarce. After a lengthy lock-out strike in 1931 he embraced trade unionism, becoming familiar with its leading figures, notably with both James Larkin (qv), estranged founder of the ITGWU, and its then general secretary, William O'Brien (qv). As the mutual hostility of these leaders (Larkin was now general secretary of the rival WUI) precipitated a deeper split in Irish labour, Crawford was active in his own union, the Operative Plasterers' and Allied Trades' Society of Ireland. In this small though vital element of the building trade unions, militant, Dublin-based, independent, and without obligations to affiliated or amalgamated British-based unions, Leo Crawford, himself a noted militant, flourished on the executive.
By 1939 he was president both of his own union and of the Dublin trades council, as well as the joint council for the building industry (Dublin). During the 1940s he became increasingly trenchant, typically in his hostile response to the Trade Union Act, 1941. Since as early as 1936, there had been a government plan to impose legislative control on trade union proliferation with the abolition of fragmented union representation within individual trades. The 1941 act anticipated a one-trade, one-union solution by a wartime administration weary of drawn-out ITUC wrangling, but it was a solution Crawford refused to recognise. Like James Larkin, who at a large labour demonstration in Dublin (28 June 1941) actually burned a copy of the preparatory bill, he vehemently opposed state intervention, including a proposed three-man tribunal (ruled unconstitutional in 1946) to decide which large union would represent a trade, and a negotiating licence for each union so recognised. William O'Brien, president of Congress for 1940–41, agreed with the act as an inevitable step towards reforming the unions. However, with the added blow of a national wage freeze in time of war, Congress as a whole and Crawford in particular remained hostile, as O'Brien reluctantly concurred with majority feeling, furious at Larkin's radical influence.
In 1945, with hostility to the trade union act having diminished after a 1942 amendment had ostensibly reduced its stringency, Crawford and O'Brien were at one in their desire to separate Irish trade unionism from the overshadowing influence of the amalgamated, British-based unions (especially the ATGWU (Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union)) which continued to play Banquo's ghost in independent Ireland. The Larkin–O'Brien rivalry, exacerbated by O'Brien's withdrawal of the ITGWU from Labour Party affiliation in 1944 because of the party's electoral support for Larkin, polarised matters further, making the split of 25 April 1945 inevitable. Leo Crawford, a friend of both Larkin and O'Brien, but secessionist on the issue of residual British-based unions, opted for withdrawal of ten unions (principally the ITGWU but including the Plasterers) from Congress and formed the smaller, rival Congress of Irish Unions (CIU) with Cathal O'Shannon (qv) as first general secretary. Crawford was first vice-president in 1945 and succeeded O'Shannon in 1946 as general secretary, which he remained till 1959. He also retained presidency of the Plasterers' union till 1949.
When William O'Brien retired in 1946 and James Larkin died in 1947, the personal rivalry of the split made way for an uncomfortable coexistence within a weakened Irish labour movement, which Crawford knew was ultimately disadvantageous to both wings. The quietude of labour issues in the papal Holy Year of 1950 was symbolised in a sense by the official CIU delegation to Rome, including Leo Crawford, who paid to Pope Pius XII the homage of the Irish working class. In 1951 he unsuccessfully sought election to the senate and in 1953 was a CIU delegate to the International Labour Conference in Geneva. He was also a member of the standards committee governed by the research and standards act.
In 1956, after a relative absence of industrial unrest, tempered by modest wage agreements till the previous year, stability (or stagnation) gave way to renewed effort to mobilise labour for higher gains: James Larkin (qv) junior, striving since his father's death to reunite the movement, had some success with Crawford in 1956–7. Sharp economic depression forced both congresses in January 1956 to form a Provisional United Trade Union Organisation which successfully negotiated a national wage agreement in September 1957. As hopes of national revival were kindled in November 1958 by the programme for economic expansion (published as Economic development, the touchstone document by T. K. Whitaker, economist and secretary of the Department of Finance), Crawford worked hard to bring about the reunification of labour on 11 February 1959, when the ITUC, the CIU, and their provisional organisation were replaced by the ICTU. He and Ruaidhri Roberts (qv), former secretary of the ITUC, became joint secretaries of the new congress, a successful diplomatic arrangement between reaction and restraint, the respective bargaining counters of trade unionism. Following Crawford's retirement in 1966, Roberts became general secretary in 1967.
Leo Crawford had retained strong support, most importantly that of the ITGWU, on the grounds of his tough, uncompromising personality and his symbolic attempt to shake off British influence, deferring, whether consciously or not, to the memory of the socialist martyr James Connolly (qv). Nor can his role in reuniting the unions in 1959, golden jubilee year of the ITGWU, have been insignificant, alluded to with relieved satisfaction in the commemorative publication Fifty years of Liberty Hall. He died suddenly 21 May 1973 at Jervis St. hospital and was buried at Dublin's Balgriffin cemetery.
He married (7 September 1926) Lily, daughter of James Gaine, electrician; they had several children, and lived at 100 Phibsborough Road, Dublin.