‘I’m a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute’ was just one of Mick Lynch’s memorable quotes in a flurry of television news appearances surrounding the first UK-wide national rail strike action for thirty years. On this occasion Lynch, the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), was responding to an interviewer’s barbs that he was ‘a Marxist’.
Lynch became an instant hit on Twitter as he despatched all takers: junior ministers spouting falsehoods, backbench MPs trying to win dogfights with boilerplate red-baiting rhetoric, and journalists either playing dumb or confirming genuine ignorance about industrial relations were all sent packing. It was a joy to watch Lynch taking no prisoners and refusing to suffer fools gladly.
Two important themes underpinned Lynch’s combative style. The first was that he knows his stuff. Lynch has been active in the RMT for three decades. He started working at Eurostar after he was blacklisted out of the construction industry. Lynch is a veteran trade unionist applying expertise gained through experience, including important industry-specific knowledge. His depth of understanding was demonstrated when he replied to a question from a Sky News reporter about his union’s wage demands making the railways financially unviable by explaining that British railways had been subsidised by government for over a century.
Secondly, and what caused so many viewers to relish Lynch’s appearances, was his willingness to call a lie a lie. During a Newsnight debate, he repeatedly accused Chris Philp, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology and the Digital Economy, of lying about the course of negotiations. On the Ridge Sunday morning programme, he said the same about the government’s comments on negotiations.
There’s no denying that Lynch’s knowledge and charisma were integral to these appearances, but they also demonstrated a strong indication of the institutional culture, and most importantly, organisational power, that underlies his performance. During an interview on that took place whilst Lynch stood outside a railway station, Sky correspondent Kay Burley made garbled references to ‘the 1980s’ and the 1984-85 miners’ strike, implying that there was potential for violent confrontations between pickets and agency workers employed as strikebreakers. Lynch took advantage of the camera shot to point towards the presence of union members – the constituency who collectively elected him as General Secretary – in order to underline their orderly behaviour, asking ‘do you not know how a picket line works?’
These robust media contributions depend on the willingness of RMT members to vote for strike action and to act collectively to ensure their action is effective. In turn, this relies on a high level of union density and a committed cadre of lay member activists. Whilst 21st June marked Britain’s first national rail strike since 1992, Lynch is playing a role he’s been trained for through years of hostility from the Evening Standard among other outlets who cover London Underground disputes and industrial relations on the railways.
RMT members are serious people with serious priorities. Along with Lynch, they understand the power they possess, and they are prepared to use it in the course of improving or defending their pay and conditions.
The railway dispute also marked a shift in UK media coverage of unions, dragging the focus away from understanding unions as odd large appendages of the Labour Party and once again focusing on their role in representing workers in workplaces.
Lynch underlined this reorientation when he told Labour’s Baroness Chapman that he’d never heard of her, whilst the peer attempted to explain the relevance of the strike to Keir Starmer’s strategy for becoming PM. By contrast with this strategy, the RMT’s industrial action suggests a far more immediate and optimistic route for workers to stave off further cuts to their living standards in the context of inflation driven by spiralling energy prices.
Large strikes have the potential to be significant educative experiences and Lynch didn’t waste time on that front. In one appearance, he simply explained that real wages were falling whilst labour markets were tight and that trade union action was needed to change that: ‘We’re not special. The whole country is suffering … What the rest of the country suffers from is a lack of power.’
The RMT strike seems likely to be the starting-pistol for a summer of industrial action. Railway workers have advantages in terms of their strategic role in a services economy that is highly dependent on the movement of workers and consumers by train. Nevertheless, they can also act as an example for others.
Lynch’s newfound fame stands him alongside other recent strike leaders such as the GMB’s Chris Mitchell, the convener of Glasgow City Council’s cleaning workers, who played a starring role in a series of videos around a pay dispute that coincided with COP26. Mitchell marching with Greta Thunberg anticipated the recent celebrity status enjoyed by Chris Smalls and Michelle Eisen in the United States.
No doubt Mick Lynch would be bemused to learn he’s a ‘dripped out trade unionist’, but what provides the fundamental link between him and those other personalities is a shared role in representing struggles much bigger than individuals. Lynch defied conventional PR approaches because of the union culture that produced him, and he has won considerable public support in the process.
The RMT and Lynch will no doubt now be met with an onslaught of demonisation. But even if this were successful, it wouldn’t necessarily be a decisive blow to them. Industrial struggle on the railways doesn’t rest on the ability of unions to convince ‘public opinion’ of their case but on the power they have over the movement of passengers. Lynch symbolises and reinforces the strength and confidence of the members – it is the tens of thousands of people behind him that make his appearances so appealing.
Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer at Glasgow University and a historian of energy, industry and working-class politics and protest.
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