In late August, Bernie Sanders traveled to London. But he didn’t come to fraternize with bigwigs from Britain’s Labour Party or to do the media merry-go-round with its biggest broadcasters. He came to attend a trade union rally.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was leading the biggest national strike on Britain’s railways since 1989, and Sanders’s appearance at the “Save London Transport” event came at the back end of a summer of industrial action across Britain that has seen shipyard workers, postal workers, teachers, and even barristers on strike.
The wave of mobilization comes in response to a convergence of crises. According to the House of Commons Library, household energy bills in Britain increased by 54 percent in April and will rise again by 80 percent in October. Inflation has reached a forty-year high, and the soaring Consumer Price Index is predicted by Citibank to reach 18.6 percent. Food bank use has increased by 81 percent in five years.
Getting a dentist’s appointment has become all but impossible. Patients spend nights in hospital corridors waiting for a bed to become available. Even getting a new passport is a challenge. After twelve years of Conservative rule, Britain has been left threadbare and vulnerable to the type of short-term economic shocks that have pushed it to the precipice this summer.
The ruling Tories spent the summer locked in a leadership contest that left the country drifting deeper into crisis. With doubts already surging around the winner — Boris Johnson’s successor as prime minister, Liz Truss — there is a sense that Britain is falling to pieces. Yet the alternatives offered by the political opposition are hardly impressive; despite its name, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has banned shadow cabinet members from joining picket lines.
The thrust of strike action has been a call for better wages. Real wages in Britain have dropped by 3 percent according to the Office for National Statistics, the biggest fall since records began. Yet a report from Unite the Union shows that the profit margins for FTSE 350 companies were 73 percent higher in 2021 than pre-pandemic levels. For corporate directors, between 2020 and 2021, their average pay jumped by 29 percent from £2.01 million to £2.59 million.
“People who are phenomenally rich,” Sanders said that night in London, “are becoming richer, and you’re seeing millions and millions of people living in abject poverty.”
At the rally, he embraced the RMT’s general secretary, Mick Lynch. In recent months, Lynch has been launched from the obscurity of leading one of Britain’s smaller trade unions, little known beyond those with a niche interest in industrial relations, into a national figure and social media star.
The combination of crises engulfing Britain — some short-term external shocks, others deeper and more symptomatic of an underlying economic malaise — have made Lynch the figurehead of a stirring trade union movement. It is Mick Lynch, not a Labour politician, voicing the revival of class consciousness rippling across the country, and he has resonated so profoundly that he has even transcended the political divides ruptured by the Brexit referendum.
After RMT members voted for strike action in May, Lynch achieved the type of viral fame normally reserved for TikTokers and YouTubers. By summer’s end, he filled miles worth of column space in Britain’s broadsheet newspapers. He appeared on major television and radio outlets, day and night, week after week, admired for his no-nonsense, straight-talking articulation of class politics. “The working class,” he proclaimed at a rally earlier in August, “is back.”
But it wasn’t always like that. A week before sharing a platform with Sanders, Lynch eased himself into a chair in his office in Somerstown, central London. Rows of union pins and badges dot the walls. He pulls the tape recorder closer, and over his shoulder, a muggy, overcast London morning fills the window. “Thirty-seven years I was on the tools,” he says, “1978 to 2015.”
“I don’t have a method of dealing with it,” he says of the sudden change in his life. “I just go to the meetings, answer the questions, make the speeches, and carry on.”
The lingering economic hangover from the pandemic, combined with war-induced inflation, have, Lynch feels, brought long-standing discontent with Britain’s economic settlement bubbling to the surface. “I think people were already there, a couple of decades or more of outsourcing and casual, precarious work, and people are fed up. Ultimately, the people in this country are not getting paid enough compared to what it costs to live here. You can’t seem to get a decent return for a day’s work these days.”
But for Lynch, these latest strikes, although in the public eye, are no different from any other. “You’re never not the general secretary,” he says, shrugging. “We have a lot of disputes that aren’t getting coverage. Sometimes you get a lot of coverage, sometimes you get none.”
Lynch’s composure in the face of relentless media attacks has made a mockery of Britain’s political and media class. Common charges made against him are that he’s an extremist, a union baron seeking to drag Britain back to the dark old days of the 1970s. Yet nothing Lynch asks for is radical. If anything, he reflects the mainstream popular outlook. Polling during the RMT’s first strike action in June showed that 70 percent of the public supported rail workers striking for a pay raise that reflected the rising cost of living. A Survation poll revealed that 66 percent of Britons support the renationalization of energy companies. For the railways, that figure is 67 percent.
Lynch’s refusal to be drawn into media conflicts and, crucially, his disinterest in maintaining a place in chummy commentariat circles, has exposed politicians and journalists alike as the ones who are out of touch. Faced with Lynch, it is they who revert to mindlessly regurgitating the same old stale lines from decades past.
“I think people are fed up with politicians and commentators. They don’t have any knowledge of industrial relations or the way working-class people live,” he adds. “I think someone from the outside who has got some ability to articulate a problem destabilizes that equilibrium between lobby journalists and commentators and politicians.”
Born in 1962 in Paddington, West London, Lynch grew up the youngest of five siblings on the Warwick Estate. It was a place, he says, where “people had come out of housing that had been condemned. I thought it was okay, but a lot of people now would be shocked. It was freezing, there was no heating. You had a coal fire in the sitting room, but the rest of that flat was freezing.”
Lynch’s parents migrated from Ireland to London in 1941 at the height of Nazi Germany’s bombing campaign against the capital. His mother, from South Armagh, and his father, from Cork, arrived as teenagers and “came to the Blitz because there was nothing at home.”
“My mother was a domestic servant when she came. People don’t believe that. Then she got work in shops. But mainly when we were kids, she was a cleaner. My dad was a laborer and a postman, stuff like that.”
Asked if his was a particularly political upbringing, Lynch mulls his response for a moment. “Our family was a left-wing family, but we weren’t in active groups. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, because we were a devoutly Catholic family as well. We didn’t have posters of Chairman Mao or Che Guevara, even though his name’s Lynch.”
“The most important thing was going to Mass. Holy days of obligation, going to confession on Saturday night, and the pub. Our family was always a bit left-wing, but Catholic at the same time.”
Were there any political heroes in the Lynch household? “We didn’t have heroes. But the heroes of [the Easter Rising in] 1916 were heroes to my dad, and heroes of the Black and Tan War and all that. I think Harold Wilson was a bit of a hero, looking back.”
Lynch’s introduction to unions came at a young age, as his father was a shop steward in the engineering union. “Unions were part of working-class life. You wouldn’t find many people that weren’t in the union. It was just part of your life,” he says, “like paying tax or going to Mass. It was just what you did. So, when I left school, I joined the union because that was what people did. A decent job was seen as a union job.”
Leaving school at sixteen, Lynch trained as an apprentice electrician. But whereas today unions are portrayed as radicals at home on the fringes of the political debate, during his childhood, they were perceived as pillars of the community. “Unions would be part of the works committee [of an employer],” he explains. “They’d have children’s parties, they’d have outings to the seaside, some of them would have social clubs, sports clubs. There was even housing. The railways used to provide housing for railway workers, a bit like council housing. Sometimes better.”
But after moving into the construction industry, Lynch’s unionism ruffled feathers, and he was blacklisted. On the wall behind his desk is a framed display of letters and logbooks. He gets up from his chair. “Have a look at it,” he says, walking over. “That’s an extract from the blacklist.”
Unable to find work, Lynch began to suspect it was due to his trade unionism. “The reason I came on the railway was because they [the construction employers] said, ‘We’re letting you go because your references are no good,’ which was untrue. It meant I was on this blacklist. You knew that if you were a union activist, you’d be targeted.”
Years later, Lynch’s suspicions were confirmed. “They sent me a letter [in 2009]. They held the blacklist on a database, and they sent me this thing about the companies that had blacklisted me.” He prods the display with his finger. “We took them to court in the end, and I got this check.”
Lynch moved onto the railways in 1993 and became involved in the RMT, but there was no immediate rise to the upper ranks of union power. “All our officers have to be from the rank and file. You have to have done your time on the tools. You can’t go off and do a degree in politics and be an officer in the RMT. You have to get a job on the railway, work your way through, and get elected by your peers.”
After serving on the RMT’s national executive committee alongside his shifts, he became a full-time officer at fifty-four. He served as assistant general secretary, and then, in May 2021, a little over a year before he became the most famous trade unionist in Britain, he was elected general secretary. “I’ve only been doing this since 2015 as a full-timer,” he says. “It was never a job.”
Lynch’s rise was as sudden as it was unexpected, and the world has changed since the trade unionism of his youth — not only their influence or size, but the structure of the economy within which they exist. “We’re not going to get a mass reassertion of coal mining and steel works. We’re not going to go back to that, because the world has changed.” But trade unionism, he feels, could “start a green revolution with manufacturing coming back to Britain, which is totally geared up to transport.”
Yet decades of declining union influence combined with internalized anti-union rhetoric had, until this summer, warped the British public’s perception of organized labor.
The British press claims that RMT-led rail strikes are an attack on the working class because it prevents people from getting to work. “Nobody cares about what happens when you get to work,” Lynch says, “it’s just the ability to get to work.”
“The perception of the role of companies has changed as well,” he adds. “That role of the employer in the community and with the union in the community has been completely dissipated. Long-term, over thirty or forty years since the Thatcher project, they’ve destabilized a lot of working-class communities.”
In an era of insecure work and outsourced, zero-hour contracts, the impulse of class consciousness Lynch has captured across the country eclipses any individual dispute. It is indicative of a more profound confrontation with the hyperindividualism that underpins Thatcherism; it is a challenge to a neoliberal orthodoxy in which the only value is in profit.
But are we witnessing the death throes of the Thatcherite project, or merely a short-term swell in the ebb and flow of industrial relations? “Well, I don’t know if it’ll come to an end, because you have to put something else in place,” Lynch says. “The only way it’ll end is if you put a system, or a series of reforms, in place, which is why I think Starmer has got an opportunity.”
Asked if he thinks the Labour Party is reflecting the energy in the country, Lynch sits up. “No, definitely not. I think they’re too careful. I think they’ve been brought up in a way that makes them afraid of radicalism.”
But Lynch is pragmatic about how change happens: “I don’t think you’re going to win an election by having your favorite lefty,” he says. “That’s not the way the labor movement works. You’ve got to try and make the labor movement more in the direction that you’d like. There seems to be a movement now that people would like a bit more of a class-oriented program. And if we can get that, loads of us can support people we wouldn’t necessarily choose.”
Yet it is not only the economy or perceptions of unions that have changed since the days of Lynch’s political hinterland. The demographics of British society, and shifts by parts of the Left away from material, class-based analysis toward a more identity-based interpretation of society, are also different. Lynch views this change as necessary, to some extent. “There were a lot of problems in the workplace [back then]. There was a lot of racism, there was a lot of sexism. That’s one of the upsides of so-called wokeism.”
Identity politics has often proved a more effective electoral tool for not the Left but the Right. Despite over a decade of austerity economics crippling the country, years of Brexit-induced government deadlock, countless scandals, and the steady sinking of standards in public life to new lows, the Tories have held on in power and even increased their majority in 2019.
Too easily have right-wing forces pitted minority groups against what is in Britain euphemistically called the “traditional” working class, the inference being that white people have a monopoly on its politics. The absence of a solid industrial base — of union organizing, of class consciousness — has fractured the Left’s broader coalition and ensures elections are fought on cultural fronts. It is no coincidence that, as the neoliberal orthodoxy disintegrates against the weight of economic reality, Tory campaigning resorts to culture war rhetoric.
But what is the interplay between class and identity politics, and what role should unions be playing in modern British society? Trade unions have “definitely got to move forward,” Lynch feels. “We’ve got to embrace diversity — and we’re trying to change this union. It’s got to embrace the women’s movement, it’s got to embrace all sorts of diversity.”
Ultimately, class is the basis that underpins all other struggles. “Unions can only be based on industrial power,” Lynch insists. “Political power comes from industrial strength. You’ve got to work out what you’re for, as well as what you’re against.”
“So, what is sometimes called ‘identity politics’ and all of that is fine,” he says. “Some of those arguments have been won. People are racist,” he adds, “but you’re not allowed to be a racist or a sexist or a bigot, and that’s great. But we can’t lose touch that the only argument we’ve got to make about inequality is by having an industrial base.”
For Lynch, that industrial base is the bedrock of the fight against all inequalities, all forms of injustice and discrimination. These are struggles inherent to the workforce itself. This summer saw strike action by RMT members working on the London Underground — of which around a third of all employees are ethnic minorities. According to government statistics, the proportion of employees who are trade union members is highest among “black and black British” workers (26.9 percent), followed by workers classified as “mixed” (24.1 percent) and “white” (24 percent).
If Britain’s economic settlement is to be truly reshaped, it is this broader umbrella of class politics, inclusive of workers of all kinds, that best denies the Right the opportunity to pit working-class people against one another. Common material interests — and mobilizing around them — can unite people across other divides. “The industrial, class politics side of it has to come back. If you don’t do it, you’re just a lobby group,” Lynch says. “And being a lobby group is just asking people to do things because you think they’re right or moral. Whereas what you do in a strike is actually rebalance the economic power at work and in the wider economy.”
The Right tries to portray Mick Lynch as a throwback clinging to industries and ways of life long gone, but he understands that unions must mold themselves to modern demands. This means not only representing a more diverse working class but also adopting trade unionism to the modern economy and employment market.
Lynch, then, is spearheading not a resurrection of traditional trade unionism, defined on the terms under which it was crushed by the weight of neoliberal orthodoxy and anti-union legislation, but a reincarnation of working-class energy; something new, different, and reshaped for the modern world. “Class conflict is every day,” he says. “You don’t have to be a Marxist to know you’re experiencing it. If they’re cutting your pay, taking your job, cutting your pension, your holidays, taking your sick pay in order to make more profit, you are in a class situation, whether you like it or not.”
There’s a knock on the door. Lynch looks over. “Are we doing that subcommittee?” he says, jumping up. “I’ve got to go.” He offers a warm handshake, makes for the door, and off goes Mick Lynch: going to the meetings, answering the questions, making the speeches, and carrying on.