When Mick Lynch left school to become an apprentice electrician in 1978, trade unions were central to working-class life. “They used to have social clubs, sports clubs, cultural activities, art clubs, outings, holidays – all sorts of stuff that big companies used to provide,” the general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union told me one recent morning in his office at the union’s yellow-brick headquarters a few hundred yards from three of London’s biggest railway stations.
Lynch grew up on a council estate in Paddington, west London. His mother was a cleaner and his father a labourer and postman. They had emigrated from Ireland during the Second World War. “And we were always in unions. When you left school, you joined the union,” he told me. “It was an everyday thing… And it was good… people just expected to have a more community lifestyle.”
Trade unions no longer play such a prominent role in society. After a brief rise between 2017 and 2020, union membership has resumed its 40-year decline (just 23.1 per cent of UK employees are members). Unlike in the 1970s, the unions do not have the power to shut down the economy. Harsh regulation and dwindling memberships have weakened them.
Lynch believes unions can reclaim their former influence. This summer, as inflation surges and a recession looms, Lynch is leading more than 40,000 railway workers in the largest railway strikes since 1989. The RMT is hoping to force greater pay rises, protect working conditions and prevent job cuts. The government has refused to participate in negotiations, insisting they are a matter for the RMT and the railway companies, even though ministers set the parameters of what the companies can offer.
Lynch believes the RMT’s campaign is part of a broader struggle for better worker pay and conditions. “There’s so many people fed up with the way they’ve been treated at work. There’s a lot of people on low pay,” Lynch said. “Something has got to be done – otherwise, we’re all going to be skint.” According to the union, the average salary of those on strike is £33,000.
Since the rail strikes began on 21 June, Lynch’s fame has surged. He’s become known for dispatching ill-prepared interviewers such as Piers Morgan with his blunt advocacy for workers. People now stop him in the street to offer support. Lynch’s popularity on social media, particularly among younger users, is reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s time as Labour leader.
Yet he seems unfazed by the attention. “I carry on,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I bulldoze my way through. I don’t know what I’m doing in some ways. I just keep going.”
Lynch has only been general secretary since May last year. “I didn’t have any ambition [to become general secretary]. I was on the tools for 37 years. I was never an officer of the union… And then Bob Crow died [in 2014], who’s up there, second from the end,” he said, gesturing to a row of photos of his predecessors on the wall. “Mick Cash won the election to become general secretary… and then he retired last year, and I was asked to stand for his position. But I never had any ambition.”
The Labour Party is peripheral in Lynch’s vision for the future of trade unionism. “The message has got to be separate to the Labour Party’s message; I believe it’s got to be a union-first message.” That’s unsurprising in some respects: unlike many unions, the RMT is not affiliated to Labour. Nonetheless, the relationship between it and Keir Starmer soured after the Labour leader refused to support the recent strikes. That approach has caused Starmer problems. Some of his front-bench team, such as the former shadow transport minister Sam Tarry, have visited picket lines despite instructions to stay away. (Tarry subsequently lost his shadow cabinet role.)
For Lynch, whether the shadow cabinet join a picket is beside the point. “I don’t care if Keir Starmer comes on a picket line… but what he’s not doing is saying he supports us,” Lynch said, his tone shifting from indifference to mild contempt. Instead, he wants policy solutions, such as extra funding for public services, that enable wages to rise without spending cuts elsewhere.
[See also: How Mick Lynch won the media war]
But he also believes the divide is deeper than policy; it’s cultural. “Working-class people cannot relate to [Labour’s front bench],” he said, in part because they have “never actually worked in any of these industries. They come out of PR and law, communications, finance or whatever. They’ve never worked in a factory or in a supply centre… They’re not saying anything about anything. In fact, they could be another version of the Conservative Party.”
Starmer and Lynch also differ on Brexit. Lynch and the RMT supported leaving. Why? “Because the European Union has privatisation embedded in its constitution,” he said. “I don’t like the idea that you give your sovereignty and democracy away to a load of bureaucrats and bankers.” Lynch said that Corbyn’s putative programme of nationalisation would not have been legal had Britain remained in the EU.
“The free movement of labour I don’t think helps anyone,” he continued, “because it means the countries that people are coming from have lost some of their most able people… and it didn’t help the labour market in Britain,” he said. “But people don’t argue that – they argue that they can’t get olives, or they’ve got a long queue to get to Tuscany.”
I asked him whether Brexit has weakened the EU in the face of Russian aggression and the rise of China.
“The EU also provoked a lot of the trouble in Ukraine. It was all about being pro-EU and all the rest of it,” he said, referring to the pro-EU Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014. “There were a lot of corrupt politicians in Ukraine. And while they were doing that, there were an awful lot of people [in Ukraine] playing with Nazi imagery, and going back to the [Second World] war, and all that. So, it’s not just that this stuff has sprung from one place.”
Lynch’s line about the role of Nazi or neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine resembles that of the Kremlin’s. But in March, Lynch and the RMT condemned the invasion and called for the Russian army to withdraw.
He is also sceptical of the prevailing narrative about China. “I don’t know if what I’m told by the Telegraph and by American policy writers [about China] is true,” he said. “We were told Saddam Hussein was the greatest threat to the Western world that there had ever been… what he actually had was a very oppressive regime against his own people, and a collection of pots and boilers that he’d strung together as so-called Scud missiles. We were told all that by the same analysts that are telling us now that China wants to commit all of this aggression against all of these people,” Lynch said. “We should stop being so belligerent towards countries”.
But does he think, for instance, that Uyghurs are subject to slave labour in China’s Xinjiang province? “Slave labour is happening in Leicester,” he retorted. “Why do we want to start on the Uyghurs if we don’t want to start on the Palestinians?”
Lynch’s views hark back to a time when Labour politicians such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot wanted to strengthen the unions and restrain Western power abroad. Labour, he said, should return to “what used to be called Old Labour: you believed in some fairly traditional values, communitarian values, but you also weren’t ashamed of being patriotic because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that”.
Instead, Mick Lynch thinks Starmer’s Labour has a “veneer of not caring”, and it falls to the unions to identify with working-class politics. If the unions do that, Lynch believes Labour’s leadership will follow.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World