Mick Lynch Has Put Working-Class Politics Back on the Agenda

British railworkers’ leader Mick Lynch came to prominence as part of the 2022 strike wave. Lynch’s popularity shows the appetite for unapologetic class politics, although trade unions still face major obstacles to converting that mood into power.

Mick Lynch at the SSE Arena, Belfast, June 15, 2024. (Brian Lawless / PA Images via Getty Images)

“I’m a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay and conditions of service.” These were the words that Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), used to rebuke Good Morning Britain television show presenter Richard Madeley in June 2022.

It was one of several high-profile interviews that marked the beginning of Britain’s first national rail strike since 1989. Lynch’s calm and collected style when responding to Madeley’s accusation that he was a dangerous “Marxist,” along with his refusal to suffer fools gladly, made him an instant celebrity who seemed to accord with the sentiment of the moment.

He led a workforce that was at the apex of Britain’s growing strike wave. Lynch was the poster child for a year marked by the highest number of days lost to industrial action since the 1980s — a time when Margaret Thatcher was in power, many industries (including rail) were still nationalized, and levels of union membership and density were both significantly higher.

In contrast with the 1980s, this time around, Britain’s trade unions enjoyed a high level of popularity in public opinion polling. In the context of mounting inflation, they succeeded in popularizing the perspective that workers were not to blame for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or the spiraling energy prices that followed. Lynch’s sentiments appeared crucially moderate and reasonable in an era when old-school hysteria about trade union power seemed difficult to justify.

Another memorable moment from the early days of the national rail dispute took place during an interview with Sky News journalist Kay Burley. The veteran broadcaster insisted that she had memories of the bitter picket lines from the 1984–85 miners’ strike that had engulfed Britain’s coalfields in a defining, yearlong industrial conflict.

Burley meant to suggest that scenes of violent clashes between RMT members, strikebreaking workers, passengers attempting to enter stations, and the police might be about to unfold in towns and cities across the country. Lynch had only to point to the scene behind him to pour cold water on this sentiment: a small group of entirely peaceful picketers at a London station were out leafleting to passersby. He then exclaimed: “does it look like the miners’ strike?”

The National Rail Dispute

Lynch’s celebrity and the spectacle of the public rallying behind his members had both long faded by the time the RMT’s dual disputes with the network operator National Rail and the privatized train operating companies (TOCs) came to an end in the summer of 2023. There had been a long-running series of protracted days of strike action but only limited progress.

Lynch himself candidly told a BBC documentary that the agreement was “not a great deal” but insisted nevertheless that it was the best his members could hope for in the circumstances. Both rail disputes ended with below-inflation pay raises along with relatively limited no-redundancy clauses that only seemed to have postponed the worst effects of rail “modernization” for a few years.

The power of RMT members had been displayed during the strike, primarily through major disruptions to passenger services. However, the limits of that power — or more precisely, its limited ability to sway either the government or the privatized train operators — were also clearly displayed in the dispute’s outcome.

By mid-March 2023, around half of all train services in Britain were running during days of action against the TOCs. Unlike the RMT’s striking members, who were losing a day’s pay for each day of strike action, the TOCs were being compensated under the terms of their contracts to run the services.

As the strike wore on, Lynch and his union attempted to maintain public support and obtain a resolution by underlining the fact that Britain’s privatized rail system — or in practice England’s, due to public ownership of rail transport in Scotland and Wales — created a perverse incentive for employer hostility.

The government was subsidizing the TOCs for losses incurred during industrial action. It was keen to use RMT members as pawns in a political game of selectively awarding higher pay raises. Some workers, such as National Health Service staff, were rewarded with higher pay raises than others, like the supposedly undeserving and “greedy” militant rail workers.

Labor Movement Biographer

Gregor Gall’s new book, Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero, begins from the seemingly jarring gap between the bang of summer 2022 and the whimper with which the rail dispute ended. The biography attempts to account for these circumstances and Lynch’s central role in them. It demonstrates an attentiveness to the detail of trade union structures and the relationships between government, private business, and organized workers that determine industrial relations on Britain’s railways.

Gall is a visiting professor at the University of Glasgow and the University of Leeds. He was formerly professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford. Gall is a highly experienced commentator on British trade unionism and labor movement politics. He regularly writes newspaper and magazine columns and has published academic research on topics including factory occupations, financial services staff, and postal workers.

In addition, Gall is also a serial biographer. His second-to-last book was a biography of Joe Strummer, the Clash’s frontman and an influential purveyor of left-wing cultural politics in Britain during the 1970s and ’80s. More directly anticipating his Lynch book, Gall has also published biographies of contemporary socialists and trade unionists.

The latter works include a study of Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party leader. Sheridan briefly led a party that obtained significant electoral success on the back of opposing the Iraq War before succumbing to internal divisions, with Sheridan’s own actions and personality playing a central role.

Gall also wrote a biography of Bob Crow, who served as the RMT’s general secretary from 2001 until his untimely death in 2014. This work serves as an important background and foil for Gall’s assessment of Lynch.

Crow was Britain’s best-known trade unionist in his time as leader of the RMT. He headed a union that defied the trend in terms of recruiting members and securing agreements that improved pay and conditions under the leadership of an unabashed socialist.

The Making of Mick Lynch

One of the valuable contributions the book makes is an explanation of where Mick Lynch comes from, in terms of his upbringing, sociological background, and political perspectives. Gall has had to work around the fact that Lynch himself and the RMT did not cooperate with his research. This has primarily left Gall reliant on published material as well as comments from some of Lynch’s comrades who were willing to speak to him.

Gall has nevertheless assembled a helpful picture of Lynch’s background, in no small part relying on the trade union leader’s own description of his family circumstances. Lynch was born to two Irish parents in 1962 and grew up in Paddington in West London.

His father was an engineering worker and a committed trade unionist who served as a shop steward. His mother worked as a domestic servant, a shopworker, and a cleaner. Lynch has described growing up in slum housing around coal fires, tin baths, and an outside toilet before the family moved to the much-improved conditions provided by council housing at the Warwick Estate.

As a second-generation Irish immigrant, Lynch was surrounded by other people from similar backgrounds, but there was also a distinctively cosmopolitan tone to his London Catholic environment that included others with Italian, Polish, and Caribbean heritage. Lynch’s father died shortly before he began work after completing his mandatory period of schooling and started an electrician apprenticeship.

Lynch’s parents made a lasting impression on him. They were strongly in support of trade unionism, the Labour Party, and what Lynch calls the “small ‘s’ socialism” that came from a world shaped by hard manual jobs, going to the pub on a Saturday, and attending Catholic mass on a Sunday.

Lynch joined the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) as a teenage apprentice in the late 1970s. By this time, the union was solidly under the control of a virulently anti-communist right-wing faction. He nevertheless had positive memories of union power, including systems of card inspection being organized by union activists and officials at building sites.

Around a decade later, Lynch was involved in leading a breakaway union, the Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union (EIPU), in 1988. The EIPU was formed after the EETPU was expelled from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for signing single-union deals at companies where it had few members.

After several years of stagnation and failure, the EIPU was eventually absorbed into the larger Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). Lynch concluded “it was probably a mistake” to try and form a breakaway union. This was an important lesson for Lynch, who has since prioritized pursuing politics through official labor-movement channels.

Trade Union Leader

After finding himself blacklisted by employers for his union activities, Lynch pursued a history degree that consolidated his commitment to reading and learning. One memorable moment during Lynch’s period of television celebrity involved him explaining the virtues of his hero, the Irish socialist and revolutionary James Connolly, to the British public.

Lynch profiled Connolly primarily as a trade union organizer who had succeeded in organizing often bitterly divided Protestant and Catholic workers in Belfast around their shared economic interests. This is another indicator of the variety of class politics that shapes his worldview.

The path to Lynch’s rise in the RMT goes via the Channel Tunnel that runs between the south coast of England and northern France. After Lynch began working for Eurostar, the company that runs Britain’s continental rail services, he once again became embroiled in union activism.

In 2004, Lynch organized a successful strike ballot that served as leverage in pay negotiations. He also helped to organize Eurostar’s international currency exchange staff and supported Chubb Security staff in their battle for recognition.

It was through his role as a Eurostar branch official that Lynch found himself elected as a delegate to national annual general meetings and then standing for election for the RMT’s National Executive Committee. Members of the committee serve three-year terms as paid officials of the union but are not allowed to run for consecutive terms. Lynch failed when he stood in 2005 but was successful in 2008.

Detailed discussions about Lynch’s orientations within the union sustain Gall’s analysis of his industrial politics. Gall profiles Lynch as a pragmatist who prioritizes improving the pay and conditions of RMT members. Lynch was aligned with Mick Cash, his immediate predecessor as general secretary, and opposed the “far-left” activists associated with the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Union.

Lynch stood for the position of general secretary in 2021 and won overwhelmingly on the slogan of “experience you can trust.” He has also consistently opposed the political strategy of backing small far-left electoral vehicles that Bob Crow favored.

Lynch backed a proposal for the RMT to reaffiliate to the Labour Party in 2018, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but lost the internal vote. He has since personally advocated a vote for Labour under Keir Starmer, but also expressed discontent over Labour’s failure to support strike action by his members or offer a more radical program for economic change.

A Laborist Working-Class Hero?

The subtitle of Gall’s book, “The Making of a Working-Class Hero,” is no mere afterthought. Gall deploys the conceptualization of the working-class hero to assess Lynch, especially in relation to his performance as a union leader in 2022 and 2023.

This is a problematic approach to a biography that at times seems to take on an unhelpfully esoteric quality. For instance, when citing Lynch’s hobbies and interests, Gall makes the following remark:

While Lynch is a devout football fan, which is still a mass working-class pastime and pursuit, he is also well read and an avid film buff, marking him out as different from the average working-class person.

I’m not convinced that enjoying cinema is so unusual for a man of Lynch’s class and age. Moreover, trade union leaders have often been men from working-class backgrounds who have sought and obtained the benefits of education, even in circumstances when that has gone against the grain of most of the people around them.

A perhaps greater and less incidental problem, however, is the fact that Lynch himself has never sought to be assessed on whether or not he was a working-class hero. Gall cites press and social-media usage of the term to support his own assessment, which certainly does have some value in understanding why Lynch was so popular in the summer of 2022 amid the rising public support for trade unionism.

However, there is a central contradiction that Gall is trying to explore. Why has this broadly favorable shift in public opinion toward unions coexisted with declining union density and power, with the overall number of union members in Britain falling by two hundred thousand in the year of strikes over 2022 and 2023?

There is a subtext in Gall’s book suggesting that Lynch might have pursued different strategic options, resulting in different and more successful outcomes, if he had possessed a different political and industrial outlook.

Gall notes, for instance, that Lynch distanced himself from a “general strike” policy that the RMT had endorsed in 2022, sidestepping the question as a matter for the TUC. Despite Lynch’s prominent support for the Enough Is Enough campaign, which for a time organized large rallies across British cities in the second half of 2022, the political energy generated by industrial action petered out even before the disputes themselves.

Yet it’s hard to find much reason for surprise in Lynch’s orientation. Lynch pursued industrial disputes as actions mounted by and for railworkers. The fact that he succeeded in popularizing a political case behind workers’ interests in explicit class terms — announcing that “the working class is back” — is far more remarkable than the fact these strikes didn’t lead to a larger political resurgence.

A Broader Base

Lynch’s appeal demonstrates that there remains an audience for an economically defined form of working-class politics with roots in workplace organization. But the experience of the last few years also shows that any such politics will have to build from a larger base than one particular union that is overwhelmingly tied to a strategically placed but still relatively small section of Britain’s workforce.

To paraphrase Karl Marx, Mick Lynch has made history, but he hasn’t done so in circumstances of his own choosing. The evidence presented by Gall demonstrates that the traditions of laborism — particularly when it comes to the separation between “industrial” and “political” realms — remain alive and well in Britain’s union movement.

Trade union leaders broadly operate within the industrial sphere and orientate toward bargaining with employers to achieve the best conditions that they can. The political sphere is usually a second-order concern for them. This is especially true for unions like the RMT that are so tied to a particular sector or occupational grouping.

Gall claims that a major distinction between Crow and Lynch concerns the fact the latter has shown “no room for revolution” whereas the former did. But this seems to be a relatively trivial distinction, since both leaders have been primarily defined by their role as industrially minded union leaders who have sought to improve the pay and conditions of their members through stronger union organization and collective bargaining.