Delightful country that this is, anti-labour bias has long been built into the very language we use to talk about strikes. Even in news stories whose authors would be horrified to be told they were writing biased copy, employers generally “offer”, while trade unions only “demand”. More than that, unions are traditionally led by “barons”, as if officers democratically elected to represent their members are little more than troublesome feudal strongmen. The fact it was the barons who forced the incompetent and venal King John into agreeing Magna Carta, beloved by the right as the founding document of basically everything, gets mysteriously forgotten.
Our cultural memories of strikes often suggest that they’re inherently A Bad Thing, too. We tend to associate them with the economic chaos of the 1970s, and not the fact that pay throughout that turbulent decade actually managed to keep pace with inflation. In more recent times, the collapse of union membership means we associate strikes with bits of the state or its infrastructure falling over just when we need them, which is hardly conducive to public sympathy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most respected trade unions working in Britain today is the British Medical Association, which a) never goes on strike and b) has done all it can to make everyone outside the medical profession forget it’s a trade union at all.
All of which means that both the RMT’s Mick Lynch, and the public’s reaction to him, have been absolute delights to watch. Normally union bosses are described as either furious or hectoring, positioned somewhere on a spectrum between that school careers teacher you didn’t very much like and Ghengis Khan. This guy, though? Everyone loves him.
What is the appeal, exactly? Why is it that this mildly exasperated bloke, who sits at the exact midpoint between Stanley Tucci and Iain Dale, is so utterly compelling to watch?
Part of it, I think, is a simple matter of tone. Lynch has offered no grandstanding, no big political speeches, no talk – despite extensive and increasingly bizarre prodding on TV from the likes of Richard Madely – of Marxism or revolution. In interview after interview, he’s stated simply and cogently what his members want and why a rail strike was their best chance of getting it. The way he’s kept a lid on his obvious annoyance – repeatedly turning around to check what’s going on behind him, as if he genuinely can’t work out what’s got Kay Burley on Sky News so flustered – only makes these performances more endearing.
Then there’s the way he’s managed to accuse Labour of abandoning its traditional working-class base, without immediately banging on about Brexit or the electoral arguments for more racism. It’s nice to hear someone talk about economics without treating it as a simple gateway drug for yet more culture war.
Most fun is the fact he is absolutely refusing to play the media game. When people lie, he calls them liars. When they say mad things he calls them out. When Jonathan Gullis MP, an unpleasant politics subreddit granted bearded, fleshy life, demanded the RMT boss apologise to everyone he’d inconvenienced including veterans “who won’t be able to celebrate Armed Forces Day on Saturday”, Lynch replied: “Well I think Jonathan should apologise for talking nonsense.” If everyone else in British politics had dealt with the culture wars like this, we’d be in a much better state than we are.
But the big reason everyone’s so enthusiastic about Mick Lynch is surely simply that, come on, we all need this guy. It’s 15 years now since the financial crash, and profits have boomed and asset prices are through the roof, yet wages have barely budged: in many publicly-funded roles, in fact, they’ve got worse. In some ways, the weirdest thing about strikes in this country is that there’s been so few of them of late. Perhaps if there had been, we’d be in less of a mess. Perhaps, if bosses still expected to pay higher wages year on year, as until the crash they always did, they might even have invested in the equipment or training that might help solve the productivity puzzle.
Most of the big historic improvements in pay and conditions in this country, from paid holiday to the weekend, came about because workers banded together to demand them. “If you’re not bargaining, you have to beg,” Lynch said in one interview this week, ”and I don’t want any working class people in this country to have to beg their employers for a decent future.” If he can help bosses to start developing a healthy fear of their workers once again, then that’s in all of our interests. Surely that’s worth a few days of disruption?