- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
In the weeks since forty thousand National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) members voted for strike action — the largest rail strike since at least the 1980s — a lot has changed in the national conversation.
The cost of living crisis has pushed millions of workers to the brink of poverty. After a decade of pay squeeze, inflation is running at over 11 percent, and even the basics are increasingly unaffordable for many people across Britain.
This was the backdrop to this summer’s rail strike, which pits the RMT — and now also ASLEF and the TSSA — against both profiteering rail companies and the Tory government.
The ministers and bosses believed that the strikes would be massively unpopular, but polls in recent weeks have consistently shown public opinion moving in favor of the workers and their trade unions. Is this the start of a wider backlash of working people?
We sat down with Mick Lynch to discuss the strike, its broader ramifications for the labor movement, and whether the tide is finally turning in the world of work.
A lot has happened since the rail strike kicked off in June, but I think it’s worth reminding people about why it started. Can you give us some background to the dispute?
The background is COVID. As soon as COVID came around, the passenger numbers dropped because they asked people to stay at home. And they came to us, the government and the companies, saying the industry’s got to change. They wanted to use this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cut costs and get the working practice changes that they’ve been after for years. So that’s exactly what they’ve been pursuing.
It’s been delayed from summer 2020 because the train operating companies collapsed. Since that time, they’ve been working out emergency measures and passenger service contracts. The government has been stuffing their mouths full of gold, in effect, and saying: “We will take all the risk out of your business. You won’t have to put any capital at risk. Your returns will be lower but it’ll be guaranteed.”
They’ve got this model now that the companies get a royalty, essentially, of all the costs of the business. Until they did that, the companies themselves — FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, Abellio, and so on — wouldn’t move against workers because they knew it would cause industrial action. That’s the background: it’s a generalized cost cutting.
In London Underground, you’ve got the same problems. A £2 billion cut from Transport for London, and that also goes into London buses and highways and all sorts of other stuff. On the main line, as we call it, the Overground, the former British Rail, it’s another £2 billion. So that money has got to be found. Traditionally, British Rail would’ve said, “Let’s just do service cuts.” You cut the services by whatever the amount is and you cut the equivalent number of staff. They don’t want to do that because they want to get the system back up and running, up to above pre-COVID levels, which will bring profits back. They want the services intact — but they want to attack the working practices and lower the wage bill. It’s as simple as that.
This is an aggressive action by the companies and a defensive strike by us. Their tanks are on our lawn. We have tried to do something that’s very difficult: stop compulsory redundancies, defend terms and conditions, and get a pay rise, all at the same time. Since COVID, we haven’t had pay rises, we’ve had a pay freeze. There’s a little bit of variation because of the residual deals that were in place in different companies, but most people haven’t had a pay rise for two or three years. It’s a cost-cutting, job-cutting, pay-cutting dispute. And we’ve got to fend that off.
How much do you think the bosses of Network Rail, and maybe the government too, see a future for the rail in this country without a well-organized, fighting union like the RMT involved?
I think they would love to smash the union, or dilute our power as much as possible. They know what they’re putting on the table is unpalatable for the union. If we do a deal on it, that will ruin our reputation. If we take it on, it could be a grinding and attritional dispute. They certainly have the RMT in their crosshairs, and because we’ve put effective action on. They’re seeking to take our wings and legs off, if you like, like an insect, through this stuff about minimum service levels, fines for illegal action. I’m not sure how that will work. They’ll probably just declare it illegal at some stage. Then there’s the threat of agency or replacement labor.
So what this means is, whenever they’re losing the argument or losing the dispute, they’ll change the law. And if they change the law in the middle of a dispute, that will be a really oppressive situation. We’ll have to look at the other unions to come and defend us. But I think in the past few weeks, people have seen that the RMT is at the forefront and fighting on their behalf, to some extent. People across the country are feeling the pinch and I think that’s why we’re getting so much support.
We don’t want to extend that metaphor too far into martyrdom, because we want to get a deal for our people. We want to get in, take action, negotiate, get a deal, and get out with a clean break. We’d much rather do that than get involved in a long attritional war because you’re going to get less of a deal at the end of a long dispute, frankly. But I think the employers and government have got that broader picture in mind. They would love to turn us over. So we’ve got to be very nimble in our tactics. I’m not going to turn around and say, “We’re out for six months without a break.” I don’t think the members are ready for it. So we’ll be smart in what we do, and we hope the other rail unions come in behind us, even if it’s with their own agenda. If we can harmonize, that will put pressure on the employers and on the government.
There are two things going on here, aren’t there? On the one hand, there is your dispute, which, as you say, is a defensive dispute. But on the other hand, there’s a rising demand for pay increases across the economy because of the inflation rate. You in the RMT and the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which will also be going out in Royal Mail and BT, are two of the best-organized and most active unions in the country, so your disputes are coming first in those terms. I can’t see them being the last, though. How much do you see that wider context?
It’s definitely become more urgent. In the first year of our pay freeze, certainly on Network Rail, the inflation rate was only 0.9 percent. If they’d missed that year and come back the next year with a decent pay rise, it probably would’ve just moved on.
I think there is a rising tide. Working people, who may not even call themselves working class, have got to find a way to organize. The unions have got to go back to basics and show workers how to do it, show them that it’s no good just being upset or pissed off. You’ve got to say, “I’m going to turn that into an organization with a set of demands and a way to fight for them and get to the table.” Because most people don’t know how to get a pay rise in this country. They’re not in a company where they can say, “We are at the table with you as equals.” Because there’s no union, there’s no table, and there’s no forum.
If you’re at Amazon, for example, or one of these big logistics companies, there’s no forum in which to articulate yourself and make demands for pay and conditions. Unions have got to show that we can overcome that situation. We’ve got to go for mass recognition drives. The movement has got to operate cross-union as well. I’m hoping we can do a big push on cleaners, but that will need people like us, the CWU, Unite, GMB, and others in these big municipal and public-sector organizations — any union covering workplaces with contracted cleaners. We’ve got to show that we can organize en masse and on themes. Whether it’s cleaners, like our campaign in Churchill, or the Mitie strikers who came to our rally, or caterers or similar jobs, that’s where it’s got to start from.
People are ready to be organized. Sometimes workers aren’t ready, but I think at the minute they are. The unions have got to up our game. And the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has got to find a way to ride that wave. Because if they’re not careful, the unions will do it themselves and form new alliances. That might happen in the next few months; some of the major unions will start to find ways to link up their campaigns, and maybe not even include the TUC. I think that is a danger for them in terms of staying relevant.
When you look at this rail strike, some unusual things are happening around public opinion. After a week of strike action, there was a 13 point swing in favor of the strike and the workers. I’ve never seen that before for something as disruptive as a rail strike. What’s your opinion of this rising popularity trade unions are experiencing?
Well, I think people are waiting for unions, and unions have got to go where the people are. We’ve got to go into working-class communities. Dave Ward of the CWU has been saying this with his New Deal for Workers. We’ve got to find a way of delivering it.
There have been some contradictory opinions in recent years. Brexit was an example. Take the recent Wakefield by-election. That was a Labour seat, voted Brexit, went Tory, and has now gone back to Labour.
If you ask the majority of people there what they think about public services, for instance, I bet they would say: “We want a public railway. We want the NHS to be properly funded. We don’t want privatization of health care.”
So I think, in Brexit, people wanted a bit of nationalism, but they also wanted a bit of public ownership and traditional Labour and trade union values. Somehow Boris Johnson has ridden that sentiment. He spent a bit of money. Recently, when it came to energy bills, he outgunned the Labour Party. There’s quite a lot of topsy-turvy stuff in politics at the moment.
Johnson himself doesn’t know what he believes in. Traditionally, when he spoke to Tory audiences, they found him very attractive. But now he’s spending too much for them and they want more tax cuts. For the last few years, he’s gone to working-class audiences and has resonated there, mainly because Labour wasn’t resonating. Whether we like it or not, in a lot of working-class areas, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t resonate. Starmer thought he was going to resonate, but he’s not really resonating either. Now we’ve got a situation where some trade unions are overtly saying, “We’re not that bothered about what the Labour Party is saying. It’s not going to change the landscape politically — but we can do it industrially.” Dave Ward, Sharon Graham, Gary Smith, and myself, to some degree, are saying that.
The labor movement, in its broadest sense — magazines like yours, along with the trade unions — we’ve just got to say, “We’ve got permanent values and they don’t change because of the political landscape.” That might be decent wages or a charter for workers and those out of work that can’t be changed. Minimum standards that are legislated for or enforced by collective bargaining. Council houses, public ownership . . . we’ve got to keep talking about these permanent values.
Then Starmer, or whoever succeeds him, will have to say, “I had better go to where those permanent values are, they seem to resonate in working-class communities.” Because they will. The Tories have permanent values: low tax, defense of the nation, family values. I think the unions will have to refound and restate what the permanent values of our movement are. Then the political side of the movement will have to relate to that standard. That’s the way to shift them, rather than worrying about policy or focus groups. As soon as it goes there, you’ll get some leader who wants to listen to what the Daily Mail says. The erosion of community has left a lot of people a bit lost, floating on a tide, and the only way to address it is with permanent values.
In the past few weeks, you’ve taught us a lesson about the importance of being straight with our communication. Why do you think the way you dealt with journalists and Tory ministers became such a phenomenon?
I think the timing is right. People are getting more skint than they used to be, so they want to find a way to address that. It’s not coming from the government or Labour. We said, “What you need is more in your pay packet and we’re willing to fight for it.” Those in other industries saw that and said, “I need some of that too, because I’m getting the same thing.” So some of it is timing, but I also think we’ve got to stop apologizing as trade unionists for being what we are. You know that line in “Galway Bay”? “They blamed us for being what we are”? Well, I feel that if someone calls us dinosaurs. I just carry on.
It’s the same with the idea that you apologize for being on strike. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing to the people who are inconvenienced. But then you explain to them why you’re doing it, or how your situation chimes with what they’re going through in their own workplace. We’ve got to tell people that negotiation and industrial action is the means to balance off with your employer. That’s what I did. It worked this week and last week; it may not work next week. We’ll have to see, but I think it’s the message that’s cutting through rather than me.
I think people’s opinions of trade unions have been changing over recent years. There’s an uptick in support and a broader acceptance about their legitimacy because people now associate trade unions with a fairer economy, and they think that things have gotten too unequal. We haven’t seen it reflected in growth of union membership just yet. But something is happening. In 2017, just 33,000 workers took strike action. Over a couple of months this summer we could see more than 250,000. What can we do to take advantage of that new popularity and the new energy that these waves of strikes will bring?
It’s no good lobbying and asking for things to happen, which is the problem with the parliamentary road when it’s only a parliamentary road. There’s got to be direct campaigning. So, wherever there’s low pay and poor terms and conditions, you’ve got to turn that into a campaign. You’ve got to get the workers into a union, but then you’ve also got to make them campaigners. There’s got to be activity and a project to actually change the situation. What’s happened in the past in some organizations and companies is that we’d get workers into the union but they’d never go and ask the employers for a deal. You’ve obviously got to have a core of people that want to do it, but then you’ve got to set yourself the ambition of saying, “We’re going to put in a pay claim,” even if we’re unrecognized. We’ll get the recognition through the pay claim. There’s no good waiting forever to get the recognition.
Most people want the money first. The conditions will follow along. We need to mobilize people, not just recruit them and farm them. I think that went on a lot when we had these organizing academies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People went off, got trained. “This is how you get people to join the union.” But as far as I’m concerned, they didn’t say, “This is how you get people in the union and then transfer it into a campaign in the workplace that delivers a result.” That will build the union. It’s the activity that builds the union, not just the pamphlets and the merchandise and the adverts. It’s got to be a campaign of action at work.
Finally, Mick, returning to the dispute. We have seen the polling numbers in the last week, but so has the government. The actor Rob Delaney said at our solidarity event that the RMT was “the tip of the spear” of a strike wave. I think that’s probably true.
Depends who the spear is in . . .
Ha, it does. But if we accept that the government might look at things that way, how determined do you think it is to not give you an inch, and not to allow Network Rail and the rail companies to give you an inch?
I think there’s an element of that. It’s definitely a danger that they may put up such a block that we find it very difficult to get to a settlement. Equally, the demands they’re making of us and people more generally aren’t sustainable. The demands they’re making of us about working practices — it’s a version of fire and rehire, in reality — are so severe that we have no choice but to fight it and have the dispute. If we didn’t do what we are doing, we would be in disarray. We would have had to surrender without a pay rise and without a chance to defend our conditions. We couldn’t do that. So I think we are where we need to be, even if there is a danger of us being seen as a precedent.
That’s why we need the people behind us. We need support in every community around the country, on all the picket lines, and events like the one you organized in King’s Cross. Even ahead of any further discussions, I think more strikes are inevitable. They haven’t given us any other way. So we need to get everyone behind us to push this government around. They have shown that they will crumble fairly quickly in certain situations. They’ve gone into reverse gear on a lot of occasions, despite putting up a lot of strong verbiage at the start. We’ll have to see, but we’ve got no choice. We have to take this stance and we’ll see it through until the end.
If we don’t manage to win a few battles with inflation running at 11 percent . . .
If we don’t, people will say, “Well, the unions are a waste of time. There’s no point in having them.” Sometimes it’s the struggle itself that proves the worth of the unions, because you would undoubtedly be in a worse position without the struggle, without the campaign. We’ve got to fight now, otherwise we will fade into irrelevance.