LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called him a “union baron”, but Mick Lynch, the union leader who has orchestrated Britain’s biggest rail strikes in three decades, has emerged from work stoppages that disrupted plans millions of people as an unexpected media sensation.
Mr Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, used a series of combative television interviews to bolster public support for the RMT, despite the fact that its strikers arrested most of the workers. British trains for three days. Last week.
When ‘Good Morning Britain’ host Richard Madeley asked him if he was a Marxist, Mr Lynch shot back: ‘Richard, you sometimes make up the most remarkable nonsense’, before quickly moving on to what he insisted. strike was aimed at: better working conditions, higher wages and avoiding layoffs.
His success surprised even some of his fellow union members, who were bracing for a much bigger public reaction to their fight for a “square deal” at a time of runaway inflation and stagnating wages.
That’s not to say that Mr Lynch, 60, who took over the union in May 2021, hasn’t been the subject of hostile headlines in the London tabloids. This does not mean either that public opinion will not turn against the railway workers, especially if the strikes last all summer. Polls on public attitudes towards the strikes vary widely, suggesting that many people have yet to make up their minds.
“We know it’s a tough gig, this negotiation,” Mr Lynch said in an interview last week in the exposed-brick conference room of Unity House, RMT’s London headquarters. “It’s not perfect from our perspective, or anyone else’s.”
But he added: “We need to have something that reflects the true cost of living.”
Mr Lynch accused train operators of trying to cut wages rather than reach a fair settlement. “Not just against inflation,” he added, “Not relatively against the cost of living – but actually lowering wages and extending the 35-hour workweek to 40. Everyone can see that this is a massive attack on the union.”
Social networks have helped his cause. Clips of Mr. Lynch training with interviewers have been widely circulated. “Until this week I didn’t know what the ‘trend’ was,” Mr Lynch told a crowd at a rally outside King’s Cross station on a recent Saturday, “I guess it’s is a good thing.” People were jostling to take pictures with him.
But does all this visibility risk a backlash?
“Mick Lynch being an effective speaker is a great benefit and a great support for the dispute,” said Gregor Gall, visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. “But by itself, that’s not going to win the conflict.”
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“There is a possibility that public opinion will turn against Mick Lynch if people feel their long-term travel plans are being disrupted,” Professor Gall added. “I think he’s on his honeymoon right now.”
Some critics argue that, relative to the national wage average, railway workers are paid quite well. Grant Shapps, Mr Johnson’s transport secretary, called the strikes a set-up. Others have accused Mr Lynch of using the strikes to protect ‘archaic labor practices’ such as restrictions on maintenance workers in one area helping in another.
Union leaders are used to such accusations. Like Bob Crow, his most prominent predecessor at RMT, Mr. Lynch plays the role of a firebrand. But compared to Mr Crow, who went on a beach holiday in Brazil on the eve of disruptive rail strikes in 2014, Mr Lynch is seen as a more unifying force, which could help him secure a deal for his members.
Born in 1962 to a working-class Irish family in Paddington, west London, Mr Lynch was one of five children, brought up in what he described as “rented rooms which would now be called slums”. After leaving school at 16, he first worked as an electrician, then in construction before being illegally blacklisted for joining a union.
Mr Lynch took a job in 1993 with Eurostar, the operator of high-speed trains that cross under the English Channel, and became a card-carrying member of the RMT.
“Mick is from a different generation,” said union president Alex Gordon. “He’s been there since the 1980s as a worker, as a trade unionist for 40 years, and you accumulate a lot of experience. He is an exceptionally intelligent and perceptive guy.
In some ways, the timing of strikes is good for the union. Mr Johnson’s approval ratings are at their lowest level since becoming Prime Minister, with revelations of illicit parties in Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns accentuating growing public contempt for the government.
“In the eyes of many people, he is the most effective critic of the government right now,” Professor Gall said of Mr Lynch.
The strike has also put the opposition Labor Party in a difficult position. The party has deep emotional and financial ties to Britain’s trade unions – some, but not the RMT, even have the right to vote in its internal elections – but also a deep-seated fear of appearing to be controlled by them.
Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, has discouraged his members from visiting picket lines, a move mocked by Diane Abbott, the Labor legislator for London’s Hackney district, who spoke at the RMT rally last Saturday.
“I don’t understand the argument that Labor MPs shouldn’t be there because we’re not supposed to choose sides,” Ms Abbott said. “I thought when you joined the Labor Party you chose a side.”
Without having to appeal to disparate voting blocs, Mr. Lynch can get a simple message across. Allies say that makes him a genuine champion of the working class at a time when politicians seem increasingly detached from reality.
Rhys Harmer, 28, a former RMT youth president and railway worker, said he and his colleagues watched videos of Mr Lynch ‘ripping apart people telling blatant lies about our union, our workplaces and what happens to us. This is refreshing for many of our members.
Even those with no connection to the union have been moved.
“He has no long-term ambition in terms of seduction in the media, and he can just speak truth to power,” said Fabienne Camm, 36, a charity worker who traveled an hour by bus to attend the King’s ceremony. Cross rally.
Since the strikes, the RMT said its membership had increased by more than a thousand.
For many, this is a change from previous strikes, in which frustrated passengers clashed with picketers and the British press vilified union leaders as disruptive. Although newspapers have covered people missing medical appointments because of the strike, this has so far done little to tarnish the image of the union.
“We will eventually make a deal with them,” Mr. Lynch said of his negotiations with the rail companies. “There’s more than one way to create value in a package – it doesn’t have to be all about salary. So we’ll see what we can do.