Mick Lynch:
trade unionist
for our times

The calm but straight-talking union leader talks about rail workers’ struggles, being spied on and blacklisted – and his love of ironing

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Perhaps no trade union leader this century has made such a positive impression on the general public as Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

Lynch, an electrician who ended up on the railways in 1993 after he was victimised as a building worker, is leading more than 40,000 railway workers in a battle over pay, the threat of compulsory redundancies and the workings of new technology.

Three days of strikes have already brought parts of the UK to a standstill. With rail companies under pressure from the government – which heavily subsidises the industry – apparently determined not to make concessions then more days of direct action seem certain. This hardly seems the sort of thing that would endear Lynch to the public and he has faced some hostile questioning during media interviews.

Lynch has built a considerable following among the public, many of whom are facing a cost of living crisis

Politicians too have been heavily critical. Tory MPs contend that if concessions are made to Lynch, it will encourage strikes, which are on the rise generally. If successful, they say, that will push up wages, fuel inflation and lead to further economic stagnation. The government is planning to make it more difficult for workers to strike by strengthening anti-union laws that are already the most restrictive in Europe. Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has instructed his MPs to stay away from picket lines and the former barrister has refused to support action currently being taken by barristers over pay.

Lynch speaks with a working class voice that millions identify with. He has shown great wit and strong convictions when standing up for his members’ actions and he has provided clear, concise answers whilst also being unafraid to question the motives of his opponents.

He effortlessly lured Piers Morgan into a cringeworthy rant about the union leader’s apparent likeness to an evil Thunderbirds puppet instead of talking about the important issues at stake. He quietly pointed out to Kay Burley that the pickets behind him were hardly orcs, and repeatedly accused Tory minister Chris Philp of lying about the union’s willingness to negotiate – such that the reporter counting the instances had to admit that 16 times might be on the low side. Yet he has done all this in a non-inflammatory manner that is quite different to former RMT leader Bob Crow, who could often engage in fiery debate with the press.

These actions appear to have helped Lynch build a considerable following among the public, many of whom are facing a cost of living crisis that has reduced their disposable income. Vox pops at rail stations suggested the public were inconvenienced by the strikes – but were also sympathetic with the strikers.

At the recent Durham Miners’ Gala, attended by 200,000 people – the majority of whom had probably never heard of him before this year – Lynch was widely cheered wherever he went and he enjoyed a marvellous reception after he spoke to a massive audience, including Jeremy Corbyn. RMT members present reported how Lynch was widely admired in the communities where they live.

Lynch believes the Westminster bubble or village of MPs, lobbyists, newspaper leader writers and top civil servants has “misjudged the mood of the public when it comes to current trade union struggles”, but he suspects that Tory MPs are uninterested as they “only care about their careers and of seeking to make working class people poorer so that the already super-rich get richer”.

He feels that whoever replaces Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and becomes the fourth Tory prime minister in six years will not consider how to improve the lives of most people.

“Rishi Sunak is a multi-billionaire and others are filthy rich. They won’t identify with the needs of people in Durham or the inner cities. We have got millions of working people in poverty and who need to claim state benefits or use food banks to survive. Others are better off but they are struggling to pay their bills. For many people who can never work the situation could not be worse.”

Above: Lynch at the Durham Miners’ Gala. Previous page: at RMT HQ. Photos: Karl Black/Alamy
Above: Lynch at the Durham Miners’ Gala. Previous page: at RMT HQ. (Karl Black/Alamy)

The RMT was formed by a merger in 1990 between the National Union of Railwaymen, which helped form the Labour Party, and the National Union of Seamen. Lynch, who has been general-secretary since last year, contends that the Labour Party “must be more radical. It should ride what is going to be a massive strike wave and a set of campaigns that are going to change the country. Sir Keir Starmer needs to identify his party with working people who can then have their say at a general election and remove the current Conservatives for something much more progressive.”

Unlike most unions the RMT is not currently affiliated to the Labour Party although this may change after the union recently ended its affiliation to the much smaller Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which has stood in elections but failed to gain more than a handful of votes.

With a radical Labour government clearly not on the immediate agenda does this mean that Lynch would be unwilling to work with Tory minsters to find a solution to the current dispute?

“Far from it,” replies Lynch. “We work with ministers in Scotland and at Westminster. We have regularly negotiated with companies on new technology. At P&O we were set to meet the company on 18 March to discuss how to introduce a range of new technology across new vessels that would jointly benefit the company and workers. It was a matter of deception and criminality when P&O pre-empted this by sacking everyone in a St Patrick’s Day massacre.”

Lynch says that by witnessing developments at P&O his members are distrustful of any bland messages from their employers or the government. Ministers condemned P&O’s summary dismissal of employees, to be replaced by agency workers, but last week lifted a ban and allowed other companies to take the same action.

The RMT is seeking a pay rise of at least seven per cent for its members – whose average pay is below £30,000 annually, with thousands on much less – across a number of companies. These include Network Rail, the arms length public body at the Department of Transport responsible for managing the railway infrastructure, and train operating companies Transpennine Express, London North Eastern Railway, Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern Railways, and Avanti West Coast. Together these companies, many foreign owned, enjoy around £5 billion in annual taxpayer subsidies. The RMT contends that Britain would be better off if the railways were publicly owned but neither major party appears keen.

To stay within the law the union was forced to conduct simultaneous strike ballots across all the companies so that it could bring its members out together.

Eighty-nine per cent of RMT members from a 71 per cent turnout voted for strike action. They were hoping for a 7.1 per cent pay deal after another rail union, the TSSA – whose members undertake supervisory and management roles – concluded such an increase with Merseyrail. But Network Rail’s chief negotiator, Tim Shovellor, said a similar deal for the RMT was “very unlikely”.

Last week the RMT rejected a slightly improved pay offer of 4 per cent in the first year and a possible 4 per cent in the second, with Lynch calling it “paltry”. And it still depended on his members accepting “drastic changes in their working lives” to achieve savings.

That figure had been put at£65 million annually and cutting railway maintenance with the loss of at least 2,500 jobs. Lynch concedes that last week’s offer represented “progress on compulsory redundancies”, bringing it down to around 1,850, but not enough. And in a separate development it has been reported that the industry is looking to save £500 million by closing every ticket office in England in the near future.

More 24-hour strikes will take place on 27 July, 18 August and 20 August.

“The train operating companies remain stubborn and are refusing to make any new offer which deals with job security and pay. Strike action is the only course open to us to make both the rail industry and government understand that this dispute will continue for as long as it takes, until we get a negotiated settlement.”

The three days of action last month were well supported, with picket line numbers high. At Huddersfield around half of those on strike came to the picket line. The public also turned up.

“In little villages some of our members enjoyed tea and cake from local residents. Picket lines, of course, form an important function as they stop people who are thinking of going into work doing so and maintain the unity of our action,” says Lynch, who on leaving school trained as an electrician to work in the building industry in London, his home city.

This work came to an end as a result of being blacklisted. Lynch was not alone. For over four decades, 44 companies paid the Consulting Association (CA) to vet potential new recruits in the construction industry. These workers were variously described as “extreme troublemaker”, “politically motivated” and “active in dispute”. Listed workers were “not recommended for employment”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office closed down CA in 2009 and its owner, Ian Kerr, was found guilty of breaching the Data Protection Act and fined £5,000. More than 1,2000 building workers, including Lynch, have successfully sued construction companies, with trade union support. More than £350 million has been paid out in compensation.

The CA received some of its information from police spies who infiltrated political groups and activists, including me*, and are now being investigated at the Undercover Policing Inquiry. Lynch is watching intently.

“It seems some of those spy cops, as they are called, were in some of the meetings that you and I attended without knowing and they were keeping records of us. I am not aware they went for me in particular as I was a lower profile person but going back to the Economic League [forerunner of the Consulting Association] they have always been spying against construction workers particularly.

“It is disgusting that public resources are being spent watching ordinary working class men and women who are campaigning for improvements in their communities and workplaces. The police should be there for the people and not the ruling class.”

Lynch also expressed his disgust that, as part of their cover, spy cops befriended women activists such as the McLibel campaigner Helen Steel*. He hopes to see action taken against top police officers and Home Office officials for the roles they played in ruining the women’s lives. “It is a form of rape by the state and the women have had their emotions as well as their bodies abused.”

The son of Irish parents, two of Lynch’s heroes are James Connolly and Countess Markovitz. Edinburgh-born Connolly was executed in Dublin by a British firing squad in 1916 for his role in the failed Easter Uprising against Britain’s occupation. Previously he had sought to unite Protestants and Catholics, doing so successfully amongst mill girls in 1911.

In 1913, Connolly played a major role in the great Dublin lock-out protesting at the tram company’s insistence that employees quit their union or lose their jobs. Despite the size of the protest the Trades Union Congress in Britain rejected calls for a sympathetic strike.

Markovitz, who was married to a Polish count and advised women to “buy a revolver”, was in 1918 the first woman to be elected to the Commons. But as a member of Sinn Fein, she boycotted Westminster to establish the Dail Eirean (Irish Parliament) in Dublin – a boycott the party maintains to this day.

The RMT leader also admires Julius Martov, a Russian revolutionary who, as the leader of the Mensheviks, was opposed to the Bolsheviks’ decision to overthrow the bourgeois government in the 1917 October Revolution.

Lynch, who enjoys ironing while watching black and white films, says his favourite book is The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by the Irish house painter and sign writer Robert Noonan. Living in poverty, Noonan feared being victimised and wrote the work, based on his own experiences, in his spare time under the pen name Robert Tressell.

The “philanthropists” are workers who acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their employers. Lynch is clearly determined that won’t happen on his watch as RMT general-secretary. In an era when only 23 per cent of UK workers belong to a trade union he further recognises “that the trade union movement must be in working class communities with our flags flying to help rebuild community spirit back to what it was so we can get radical change”.

Interact: Responses to Mick Lynch: trade unionist for our times

  • Sean
    31 Oct 2022 16:34
    Mick Lynch is like a breath of fresh air and just the sort of leader working people have been waiting for, he's articulate and knows his subject and the media and Tory MP's can't handle him in debates.!! Keep it up Mick and our movement will prevail.

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