Mick Lynch keeps his cool
Picketing railway workers are used to being confronted by irate commuters. Outside London’s St Pancras Station six years ago, when Eurostar workers were striking for a ‘better work-life balance’, an agitated man told the RMT pickets they were ‘going about it the wrong way’. ‘You’re holding the country to ransom,’ he said. ‘You’re standing in the way of progress.’ Without a blink, the unrattled union official overseeing the dispute responded: ‘I’ve worked on the railways all my life, and I know what progress is.’
That official was Mick Lynch, who had recently been elected RMT’s assistant general secretary. Now in the union’s top job, Lynch has shot to cult hero status this week for his unblemished record of calmly facing down Conservative MPs and ill-informed news anchors. On Monday night, the eve of the UK’s first national railway strike since 1989, he called the junior minister Chris Philp a liar no less than 16 times. The next day, he told Kay Burley she had ‘gone off into the world of the surreal’ and said Richard Madeley was talking ‘twaddle’. When a Labour member of the House of Lords, defending Keir Starmer’s equivocation over the dispute, told Lynch not to ‘tell me who I am or whether I’m working class’ (he hadn’t), Lynch replied: ‘I didn’t tell you you weren’t working class, I don’t even know your name.’
It’s only right that Lynch is getting credit for his exemplary communication skills and interview manner, but that isn’t the whole story. His union, Britain’s most militant and – by most politicians and the popular press – most loathed, has developed a particular style of media engagement that long pre-dates its current general secretary. Bob Crow, who led RMT until his death in 2014, took every opportunity to speak to the public directly through broadcast interviews. He was as quick-witted as Lynch. Shortly before he died, Crow was accused by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight of being a ‘dinosaur’. Without a second thought, Crow retorted: ‘Well, at the end of the day, they was around for a long while.’ On Question Time last night, Lynch paid tribute to Crow by using the same line when an audience member said to him: ‘Look what happened to the dinosaurs.’
Lynch’s calmness and clarity is also a result of RMT’s consistent record of putting the principles of decent pay and job security ahead of public perception or establishment boundaries of acceptability. Accused by the Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis of resisting modernisation and reform, Lynch this week reeled off multiple examples of RMT agreeing the use of new technology with railway management. ‘I want a settlement to this dispute,’ he added. ‘I can’t do that with a backbench MP who’s just learned it off a script.’
RMT has the most democratic structure of any TUC-affiliated union, with all officials elected by the membership, and policies decided by delegates at its annual general meeting. Unlike politicians, Lynch doesn’t need to triangulate in interviews because he is speaking on behalf of his members – and is accountable only to them. Even as he was being hailed by much of liberal Britain as an alternative prime minister, Lynch was totally unapologetic when pressed by Robert Peston on RMT’s pro-Brexit stance. The Conservative Party has clearly tried to weaponise the dispute as a ‘wedge issue’ to turn around its dire polling and anger its base ahead of this week’s by-elections; its losses in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton last night suggest the tactic hasn’t worked.
Lynch took every opportunity to be interviewed in front of picket lines. When Burley suggested pickets might turn nasty if agency staff were brought in, Lynch turned round to gesture to the striking workers: he didn’t need to explain what picketing involved; Burley could see for herself.
The three pillars of the current rail dispute are the fundamentals of industrial relations: jobs, pay and conditions. Having subsidised the railways to the tune of £16.9 billion in 2020-21 – up from £6.5 billion in 2019-20 – while instructing the public to take the train only if their journeys were absolutely essential, the government is now looking to claw money back. At the end of 2020, the Treasury decided to cut Network Rail’s ‘enhancement’ budget – the money it spends on new infrastructure projects like electrification – from £10.4 billion to £9.4 billion over the five year period from 2019 to 2024, and subsequently to £8.9 billion.
Ministers have repeatedly claimed that rail passenger numbers are still at 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The reality is more complicated: leisure travel has largely recovered – on some routes even exceeding pre-pandemic levels – while peak ticket sales are still significantly down. Rail finances depend on commuter traffic, and revenue has been hit hard. The government has demanded that Network Rail and train operating companies reduce their operating costs: as well as curbing pay rises at levels well below inflation, this is likely to mean redundancies.
Employers will also be looking for ‘efficiency savings’. On Question Time last night, Lynch said one proposal was to force Network Rail staff to ‘work 39 weeks of nights, 39 weeks of weekends at night, for no increase in wages and in fact in some cases the railway is saying to us you must have less wages going forward – not just against inflation but against the existing salaries, and … five additional hours per week.’
Because it balloted and announced strike dates before the employers made formal proposals, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has accused RMT of ‘jumping the gun’. But the union realises it needs to exercise leverage not over the employers, but over the government. In negotiations over the past week, Lynch says, rail managers have left the room to ask for leeway from ministers, only to come back with a mandate for an even more hardline approach.
‘It’s a dispute that’s not of our making, it’s a dispute that’s been brought our way by a UK government and a management on the railway that are too weak to stand up to them,’ RMT’s Scotland organiser, Gordon Martin, told me on the convivial picket line outside Glasgow Central yesterday. ‘It’s time the government either unleash the bosses to negotiate freely under the collective bargaining arrangements, or if they’re not prepared to do that, Grant Shapps and co get into the room and meet with our negotiators.’