Who is the man driving UK’s ongoing rail strikes?

RMT trade union leader Mick Lynch captures the imagination of millions struggling in the UK’s cost-of-living crisis.

Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers looks on at a trades union organised protest march
As Britain enters the 'summer of discontent', Lynch is in the eye of the storm [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

He is the most talked about man in the United Kingdom, a social media phenomenon whose ability to tell simple truths about equality and social justice has captured the imagination of millions struggling in the country’s cost-of-living crisis, which could see many forced to choose between heating or eating this winter.

Yet Mick Lynch, the union leader behind Britain’s ongoing rail strikes, part of a wave of industrial action sweeping the nation, wears his social media clout lightly.

Until recently, he had never even heard of TikTok, where his deft put-downs of TV interviewers intent on vilifying him as a hardline Marxist relic have attracted nearly 20 million views.

“I could be selling more records than Beyonce off of that,” said the shaven-headed 60-year-old, who took charge of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) last year.

Right now, he appears to be winning the battle for hearts and minds. But as his fight with rail bosses and the government intensifies – more strikes are planned on August 18, 19, 20 – he is far from complacent.

‘I’ve got to get a deal’

“People have been programmed by media to hate us, but I’m glad to say they don’t hate us. They’ve been coming to strikes and giving cakes and coffee, making donations. It’s going well,” he told Al Jazeera. “But I’m conscious I’ve got to get a deal.”

Lynch is trying to negotiate better pay and conditions for tens of thousands of RMT members: signallers, maintenance workers, ticket collectors and cleaners.

Many of these employees, often working unsocial hours in a high-pressure environment, have seen no pay rise in three years. Add inflation to the equation and it could be argued that they have received a pay cut.

The spectre of soaring inflation, predicted to surpass 13 percent next year, looms over negotiations. Critics say wage increases will create an inflationary spiral.

It is a claim that Lynch has been quick to rubbish in media interviews, citing the millions made collectively by a handful of rail bosses, who are all too ready to skimp on employees’ wages.

Lynch is negotiating with what some call puppet rail operators, subsidised and straitjacketed by the government in a complex franchise system.

‘Minimum wages, minimum standards’

The RMT maintains that companies on the gravy train made £500m ($604m) in profits last year when passengers were at an all-time low. Rail companies have disputed this figure, saying profits only amounted to a third of RMT’s claim.

But beyond the nitty-gritty of the rail dispute, Lynch’s message has a universal resonance. His eloquent calling-out of fat cats and rampant corporate profits have hit home in a country tired of wage freezes and spiralling energy prices, set to rise 77 percent in October.

“Many workers have nothing to hang onto except minimum wages and minimum standards,” he said.

With the media hype reaching fever pitch, Lynch has maintained his composure, winning plaudits for his measured and often bemused manner.

It takes a lot to rattle this Londoner, born to working-class Irish parents and brought up with four siblings, in what he has described as slum-like conditions on a council estate in Paddington.

Many of his values stem from his tight-knit upbringing, his mum and dad working in low-paid jobs to raise their family.

Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers speaks at a trades union organised protest march
Lynch is negotiating with what some call puppet rail operators, subsidised and straitjacketed by the government in a complex franchise system [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

“I’m proud of my background, proud of what my mum and dad achieved. They came over as kids and got on with it, brought up five kids on the straight and narrow,” Lynch said.

He came of age in the late 70s, a fertile era of new ideas infused with the spirit of punk, a fan of bands such as The Clash, Buzzcocks and Eddie and the Hot Rods.

Labour’s Jim Callaghan was prime minister, submerged by nationwide strikes that came to be known as the “winter of discontent”.

Lynch got an apprenticeship as an electrician, later moving into construction where he was blacklisted for union activity.

In 1993, he found work with Eurostar – a high-speed railway service connecting London with France, Belgium and The Netherlands – and joined the RMT, where he would hone his straight-talking style by building one of the biggest branches in the union.

‘Summer of discontent’

Now as Britain enters the “summer of discontent”, Lynch is in the eye of the storm.

The rail strikes, which also include London’s underground and overground network, are part of a wave of industrial action that is set to get bigger, with teachers, health workers and even barristers planning their own strikes.

Public ire has been stoked by Liz Truss, the foreign minister, an odds-on favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister, replacing beleaguered incumbent Boris Johnson.

As part of her campaign, she has pledged to restrict the ability of public sector workers to strike. Under Truss, the country is set to swing to the hard right, said Lynch.

He believes it is a wake-up call to the nation.

“Trade unions are an organic response to what goes on in work and capitalism. You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that,” he said. “When you suppress [trade unions], you suppress people’s freedom. People have got to wake up to that. Their rights are being corroded.”

Failing to support

The Labour Party, which receives funding from several trade unions (not including the RMT), has come under fire for failing to support striking workers.

Last month, Labour leader Keir Starmer fired one of his front-bench MPs for joining an RMT picket line – although he later attempted to sidestep the ensuing outrage by claiming the sacking was for giving unauthorised media interviews.

With characteristic bluntness, Lynch has called on Starmer to get back to basics.

“He needs to find his identity as a politician and a socialist and articulate his values,” he said. “The values should be permanent. Council housing, utilities and energy policy, a fair deal at work. I think people would really riff off that, whether he stands on a picket line or not.”

But he is a pragmatist at heart.

“I just want a forceful and assertive Labour Party to win the next election,” he said. “The next Tory government is going to be extremely dangerous. It’s better for us if Starmer wins.”

For now, Lynch is riding high. But with negotiations set to drag on, he is aware that public opinion could shift.

“Your stock could be up one week, but if the tide turns, it could go the other way,” he said.

Certainly, he has no shortage of enemies who would welcome that prospect.

“I’ve got photographers following me, going through my social media, checking what my wife and kids are doing. They’ve always done that to trade union leaders,” Lynch said.

“We are winning the social media battle because our arguments are strong. If we hadn’t taken action, all would have been lost,” he said. “Now, we know they’re taking it very seriously.”

Source: Al Jazeera