In late June 2022, as the first national rail strikes began in what would become Britain’s “summer of solidarity,” a new stand-out national political figure emerged. Leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Union (RMT), Mick Lynch, made his breakthrough with a series of spectacular television interviews, demonstrating the industrial ignorance that pervades the media. He took down those professional interviewers like Piers Morgan, Kay Burley, and Richard Madeley whose role is usually to attempt to show up impudent and impertinent interviewees.
Consequently, many labelled Lynch a hero — even a working-class hero, leading to Lynch accquiring the label of “unoffical leader of the opposition” by both detractors and supporters – a label usually reserved for politically-minded celebrites like Gary Lineker and Marcus Rashford. He was forthright and frank in the way he spoke — and the message he conveyed was robust and radical. After the fall of Jeremy Corbyn, Mick Lynch more than any other figure renewed the promise of social democracy, long after Tony Blair dumped it by ditching Labour’s commitment to nationalisations and replacing it with a “new” middle-class aspirational message.
Late June 2022 was the glory days of Mick Lynch’s “soft” power. This was a power of patently winning the media war and setting the narrative in order to change opinions. Under Lynch’s leadership, unions were no longer only the defenders of their own members’ “vested interests” but also — to paraphrase Alan Flanders — wielders of the “sword of [social] justice” for others. Remarkably for a union leader under constant, unrelenting attack in the media, polling by the likes of Savanta and YouGov showed as many had favourable opinions about Lynch as others had unfavourable opinions.
But more than eighteen months on from those glory days, and despite many days of strikes amounting to over three weeks in total taken by both RMT members in Network Rail and the train operating companies, that “soft” power has palpably not been turned into “hard” union power — which is to say, the power of compulsion and coercion. Put another way, the “power to” disrupt has not turned into “power over” the bargaining opponent, whether that means the train operating companies or the Westminster government.
The agreement reached with Network Rail in April 2023 was pointedly described by Lynch himself in the BBC documentary, Strike: Inside the unions, as “not a great deal.” It only gave a “no strings” pay increase over two years of 9%, with a pledge of no redundancies for 18 months. This was a real value pay cut in all but name as average annual inflation had risen well into double digits during the course of the strikes.
And, despite the success of stopping the planned ticket office closures in October 2023 through mass critical submissions to the consultation exercise (which indicated that campaigning without the use of industrial action has unexplored potential), the agreement with the train operating companies was also not “a great deal.” A 5 percent pay increase for 2022 — albeit without strings — again represented a cut in the value of members’ real wage.
And that’s without taking into account it was 18 months late in getting into member’s bank accounts and several weeks’ wages were sacrificed in striking to obtain it. The job security agreement only lasts until December this year. Moreover, the negotiation over changes to working practices will now take place on a company-by-company basis so that the fight to maintain members’ terms and conditions will be fragmented. It’s likely this will see members’ existing, hard-won terms and conditions bartered away in order to gain a bigger wage increase than is offered by individual employers. This scenario is likely because the potential potency of having a national dispute using national industrial action will be lost when such action is needed to create political leverage over the government.
All this casts quite a searching light on the political strategy and industrial tactics of Lynch and the RMT in these two disputes. While Lynch continues to be the most effective and engaging media performer that the union movement has produced in many a year, the dearth of strategic planning has become ever more telling.
The “modernisation” of the railways has long been a quest for both Labour and Tory governments, as their respective McNulty and Williams reports on train services showed. The reports sought to square the circle of a privatised and fragmented former public service which still required state financial support. The long-held desire to “modernise” in order to reduce the level of public subsidy to the train operating companies was further strengthened by vast state spending during the pandemic to keep the railways running. One of the key goals of both reports was to increase worker productivity through the introduction of flexible work practices. Therefore, Lynch and the RMT knew well in advance this was a “train coming down the track” — and one which inevitably meant job cuts and attacks on members’ terms and conditions including pensions.
And yet Lynch and the RMT did not establish a national strike fund, despite the union having stocks and shares worth over £25m and knowing RMT members were already reluctant to take more than sporadic one or two-day strikes over a long period of time, because of the loss of wages involved. Many long running company-by-company disputes during the tenures of both Lynch’s predecessors, Bob Crow and Mick Cash, made this very evident. These liquid assets pay out a dividend of some £500,000 a year. That alone would not have sufficed, so there was a need to sell the “family silver” in order to bankroll members through strikes which Lynch frequently and without too much exaggeration posed as “the fight of our lives.” There would have been no inherent danger in selling off this liquid “family silver” as the union’s membership numbers are stable and the union has other fixed assets that could be realised.
The RMT has a National Dispute Fund — but this is not of the same size or scale as what was needed in the form of a national strike fund. Even with £25m put into a national strike fund, the fund would have been drained very quickly with 40,000 members in Network Rail and the train operating companies striking. That’s why sustained selective striking would have been needed where there was also a levy collected from other RMT members.
For example, Network Rail signallers on the main inter-city lines — rather than the rural routes — could have been kept out on strike. Meanwhile, train operating company members in the south east of England — covering commuters going into London — could have been paid to do likewise as each TOC workplace had its own industrial action mandate. Those non-striking RMT members in the two disputes could have paid a levy to fund those striking in order to keep the national strike fund from depleting too quickly, in a strategy akin to that employed by PCS in their national dispute. As the two disputes were two individual national disputes and where the Rail Delivery Group was the bargaining representative of the train operating companies, there would have been no barrier in legal terms to organising such selective solidarity action. Indeed, such imagination was to have been deployed in the London Underground dispute in January 2024 where a rolling and rotating programme of action meant that RMT members on the tube would have had a greater impact than by simply striking all together on the same one or two days. This threatened action moved the employer into making further concessions.
By contrast, the Unite union set up a multi-million pound standing national strike fund in 2012. Under Sharon Graham’s leadership since August 2021, Unite has used this more extensively than ever before. This has contributed to a high level of strike successes, though there was notably less success with the national NHS strikes, indicating the difficulty of conducting a dispute with an ideological government not driven by the profit motive. Thus, by early September 2023, Unite had engaged in nine hundred disputes using strike action, involving 200,000 members, of which over eighty percent were won, putting £400m extra into members’ wage packets. This has been funded by paying strike pay to the tune of £32m, ten times the amount spent by Unite on strike pay between 2018 and 2020, from the strike fund established in the early 2010s and whose value has varied from between £25m-£45m.
Mick Lynch and the RMT also knew well in advance of its strikes beginning that the train operating companies were indemnified against any loss of revenue from striking. This is because as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the companies were put on management contracts where they were paid a fee to run the franchise regardless of revenues raised. In return for the guaranteed fee, the companies agreed to the government having a veto over any agreements negotiated with the RMT.
This meant the RMT strikes here could not be conventional economic strikes where the aim was to hurt the employer in the pocket. Instead, the strikes had to be de facto political strikes, aimed at destabilising an already imploding government so that it would concede by instructing the train operating companies to settle on terms acceptable to the RMT.
This required not only the aforementioned sustained, selective precision strikes but also that a broad, mobilised coalition of interests to be formed in advance of the strikes beginning. Enough is Enough! and the campaign against the ticket office closures indicated what was both possible and needed. Enough is Enough! was successfully launched in the late summer of 2022 but it never went beyond a handful of well attended rallies. In retrospect, it became clear that it was too closely tied to the unfolding of the CWU, UCU, and RMT disputes and did not broaden out beyond this. By early 2023, it was defunct. By contrast, the ticket office closure campaign went beyond big meetings and demonstrations to get hundreds of thousands to take action by submitting their views to the consultation on the closures. This was a relatively easy ‘ask’. Nonetheless, it shows that those participating in the campaign were prepared to do more than attend meetings and demonstrate.
My biography celebrates the media skills, radical politics and political steadfastness Mick Lynch has shown in the face of hostility from the press and politicians. But as any critique rightly requires, it does not shy away from making a searching assessment of his industrial leadership of the RMT and why it can be seen to have come up somewhat short in deploying strategies and tactics that would have provided effective bargaining leverage. This does not mean, however, that lessons cannot be learnt for the next time such an upsurge of industrial action arises.
Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. He is author of Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero. [Until 31 January, the book is available at 30 percent off using the code GG30 at the checkout at https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526173096/]