Talking the talk

Review of Mick Lynch, The Making of a Working Class Hero, by Gregor Gall, Manchester University Press 2024.

Gregor Gall poses this question: is Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport workers’ union, a working class hero? His answer is complicated: yes and no. Gregor’s assessment is that “Lynch is a hero, more for what he said, than for what he did.”(page 52) What Lynch said was workers should not have to beg for a fair share of the wealth they create. But, his strategy for the RMT strike 2022-2023 was less militant than his rhetoric. Gregor Gall’s conclusion is that Lynch’s strategy was predicated on limited strike action from the outset. (p.131)

Mick Lynch’s status as a hero came from his media appearances. As Gall notes, “it was a joy to watch him demolish media operators.” (p.1) Kay Burley was openly mocked: what are you talking about? You are verging on the world of the surreal. Richard Madeley was dismissed with contempt: you do talk twaddle at times Richard. And a Tory government minister who did talk twaddle all the time was constantly interrupted and told, you are a liar and that’s a lie.

In the summer of 2022 there was an outbreak of strikes on a scale not seen for a decade or more. This wave of strikes was the context which underlined Lynch’s importance as a trade union tribune. The Mirror, the Evening Standard, and the New Statesman called Lynch a hero. The Independent went one better and described him as a super hero.(p.29) On the other hand, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Telegraph denied he was a working class hero. These denials only confirmed that he was a hero.

So, how does Mick Lynch’s status of a hero measure up to the trade union heroes of the past? Does he stand as tall as Arthur Scargill, the hero of the victorious miners’ strikes of the 1970s ? Also, Scargill remained defiant, in defence of jobs and communities, to the bitter end of the defeated miners’ strike in 1985. Gregor Gall gives us the example of the Shrewsbury Two, Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, who were imprisoned for organising pickets in the building workers’ strikes of the early 1970s. Also from the 1970’s there were the Pentonville Five, dockers who were put behind prison bars for organizing solidarity pickets. They were released by a strike of tens of thousands of industrial workers. Another example, was Jayaben Desai, leader of the striking Grunwick workers in 1976-1978.

Gregor Gall’s research shows how Mick Lynch falls short of the status of the heroes of the past. Lynch is a deal maker. His limited ambition was to cut a deal as quick as possible and then exit the strike. (p.130) This expectation was always unrealistic, given the Government subsidy to the train operating companies to compensate them for any losses due to the strike. Lynch could have argued for or organised a war-chest by utilising some of the considerable financial assets of the RMT to provide strike pay for a serious battle to win. Nor did he have a strategy for an RMT levy, for strike pay, to bring out key workers, such as signallers, on indefinite strike. Instead, a series of one-day strikes were paused for long periods of time before the next action. In Gregor’s opinion, “the strategy of short periods of action punctuated by long gaps between strikes failed.”(p74)

On 10 February 2023 there was a new offer from Network rail and the Tory government. This offer was rejected by the RMT leadership after extensive consultations with the RMT membership. Following this, all planned strike action was called off by the NEC on 7 March. The revised new offer was for a 5% pay rise, backdated to January 2022 and a further 4% from the beginning of January 2023. The leadership did not recommend a rejection of the offer and there was no consultation with RMT members. “Nowhere did the leadership mention in the RMT press releases, on the 8th and 10th March, that it was a two year deal.” (p124) Given the misleading presentation of the deal, it was accepted by RMT members on Network rail by a 76% yes vote on a 86% turnout. The Morning Star hailed it as an inflation busting deal as if it was for one year. The reality was rather different. It was a modest below inflation pay deal. 

However, the deal negotiated by Lynch was not tied to the so called modernisation policy, including the proposed closure of the ticket offices. Compulsory redundancies were temporarily suspended until 2025. The offer from the train operating companies and the government was again 9% over two years. But the 4% for the second year was based on productivity increases and the suspension of compulsory redundancies was only up to 2024. Initially the main text of the deal included a no strike clause of one year. Yet in a video address to RMT members on 21st April, Mick Lynch did not mention the clause. According to Gall, Lynch favoured the deal with the clause, but changed tack after pressure from the change-of-course campaign. 

Gregor Gall argues that workers have projected their aspirations onto Mick Lynch. Some socialists hoped that Lynch would place himself at the head of a new workers’ party. But, in reality Lynch’s political orientation was towards the Labour Party, In his speeches he called on workers to put pressure on Keir Starmer to represent working-class interests. This was in the context of Starmer proclaiming Labour as the party of business. Lynch even opposed a motion at an RMT AGM calling on Corbyn to stand as an independent against Labour at the next election. Yet he is not a member of the Labour Party and the RMT is not affiliated to Labour. 

Gregor Gall’s conclusion is that Lynch is not a transformative leader. In the public perception Mick Lynch is a hero. But in Gall’s view, Lynch’s popular image as a threat to the political and social elite is a distortion. Mick Lynch’s focus is more on the provision of a service without disruption, but he expects some fairness towards the rail workers from the bosses. In any case, Lynch’s strategy of limited pressure for a deal was a failure. The trade unions have not been revitalised as he claimed. The recent strike wave has been from a very low base of collective action and confidence. There is a long way to go to make the trade unions fighting democratic organisations. Mick Lynch admitted the strike settlement was nothing to celebrate. So we should remember, aspirations projected onto a hero can be a substitute for heroic collective action.

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