Who is the man leading the ongoing rail strikes in Britain? | Business and economy
He is the most talked about man in the UK, a social media phenomenon whose ability to speak simple truths about equality and social justice has captured the imagination of millions of people struggling with the crisis the cost of living in the country, which could force many 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 country, takes his influence on social media lightly.
Until recently, he had never even heard of TikTok, where his deft bashing of TV interviewers determined to vilify him as a radical Marxist relic drew nearly 20 million views.
“I could sell more records than Beyonce with this,” said the shaved-headed 60-year-old, who took over as head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union last year.
Right now, he seems to be winning the battle of hearts and minds. But as his fight with railway bosses and the government intensifies – more strikes are scheduled for August 18, 19, 20 – he is far from complacent.
“I have to make a deal”
“People have been programmed by the media to hate us, but I’m happy to say they don’t hate us. They came to the strikes and gave cakes and coffee, made donations. It’s going well,” he told Al Jazeera. “But I am aware that I have to make a deal.”
Lynch is trying to negotiate better pay and conditions for tens of thousands of RMT members: flaggers, cleaners, ticket collectors and cleaners.
Many of these employees, who often work non-standard hours in a high-pressure environment, have seen no pay raises in three years. Add inflation to the equation and you could say they took a pay cut.
The specter of galloping inflation, which should exceed 13% next year, hangs over the negotiations. Critics say the wage increases will create an inflationary spiral.
It’s a claim Lynch was quick to deny in media interviews, citing the millions collectively earned by a handful of railroad bosses, who are all too willing to skimp on employee salaries.
Lynch negotiates with what some call puppet rail operators, subsidized and framed by the government in a complex franchise system.
“Minimum wage, minimum standards”
The RMT argues the gravy boat companies made £500m ($604m) in profits last year when passengers were at their lowest. The rail companies disputed this figure, saying the profits were only a third of RMT’s claim.
But beyond the essentials of the rail dispute, Lynch’s message has universal resonance. His eloquent call for big cats and rampant corporate profits hit home in a country tired of wage freezes and soaring energy prices, which are expected to rise 77% in October.
“A lot of workers have nothing to hold on to except minimum wages and minimum standards,” he said.
As the hype reached fever pitch, Lynch kept her composure, winning plaudits for her measured and often puzzled manner.
It takes a lot to shake up this Londoner, born to working-class Irish parents and brought up with four siblings, in what he described as slum conditions on a Paddington housing estate.
Many of his values stem from his tight-knit upbringing, with his mother and father working in low-paying jobs to raise their family.
“I am proud of my journey, proud of what my mother and father have accomplished. They came when they were kids and got by, raised five kids the right way,” Lynch said.
He came of age in the late 70s, a time fertile with new ideas steeped in the punk spirit, a fan of bands such as The Clash, Buzzcocks and Eddie and the Hot Rods.
Labour’s Jim Callaghan was prime minister, overwhelmed by nationwide strikes known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
Lynch got an apprenticeship as an electrician, then went into construction where he was blacklisted for union activity.
In 1993 he found work at Eurostar – a high-speed rail service linking London to France, Belgium and the Netherlands – and joined the RMT, where he sharpened his outspokenness by building one of the largest union branches.
“Summer of Discontent”
Now that Britain is entering ‘the summer of discontent’, Lynch is in the eye of the storm.
The railway strikes, which also include London’s underground and overhead network, are part of a wave of industrial action set to intensify, with teachers, health workers and even lawyers planning their own strikes.
Public anger has been stoked by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, one of the favorites to become Britain’s next prime minister, replacing beleaguered incumbent Boris Johnson.
As part of her campaign, she pledged to restrict the ability of public sector workers to strike. Under Truss, the country should swing to the hard right, Lynch said.
He thinks it’s a wake-up call for the nation.
“Trade unions are an organic response to what is happening in labor and capitalism. You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that,” he said. “When you repress [trade unions], you take away people’s freedom. People have to wake up to this. Their rights are being corroded.
Do not support
The Labor Party, which receives funding from several unions (except the RMT), has been criticized for not supporting the strikers.
Last month Labor leader Keir Starmer sacked one of his top MPs for joining an RMT picket line – although he later tried to avoid the ensuing outrage by claiming the dismissal was due to unauthorized interviews with the media.
With characteristic candor, Lynch called on Starmer to get back to basics.
“He has to find his identity as a politician and a socialist and articulate his values,” he said. “Values must be permanent. Housing, Utilities and Energy Policy Council, A Fair Work Deal. I think people really wouldn’t care whether he was on a picket line or not.
But he is a pragmatist at heart.
“I just want a strong and assertive Labor party to win the next election,” he said. “The next Conservative government is going to be extremely dangerous. It’s better for us if Starmer wins.
For now, Lynch is riding high. But with the negotiations dragging on, he is aware that public opinion could change.
“Your stock could be up one week, but if the tide turns, it could go the other way,” he said.
Certainly, there is no shortage of enemies who would welcome this prospect.
“I have photographers following me, scouring my social media, checking up on what my wife and kids are up to. They’ve always done this to union leaders,” Lynch said.
“We are winning the social media battle because our arguments are solid. If we hadn’t acted, everything would have been lost,” he said. “Now we know they take it very seriously.”