Portraits of trade union leaders from a century ago, all stiff collars and waxed moustaches, gaze down from the boardroom wall of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s London headquarters. Staring back in a baggy black suit is the shaven-headed new general secretary, Mick Lynch, merrily denouncing the sellouts among them.
Lynch, 59, knows his history, good and bad, and is preparing for battle ahead, having already announced that the union is in dispute with Network Rail, the government-owned body that runs the railways, over cost-cutting plans. A national strike could come: “At the moment we are warming up our members … we fully expect to be involved in industrial disputes this year on the railway.”
Nonetheless, some in rail were quietly relieved when Lynch’s election victory was announced this week. While public commendation might not endear him to RMT members, some say he is well regarded: competent, practical and across the detail; no soft touch, but reasonable – some even suggest that he is, in RMT terms, a centrist?
The glint in Lynch’s eyes fades as he explains in no uncertain terms that he is not a centrist: “The unions have got to make a militant stand – and use the strike weapon wherever it’s appropriate.”
Lynch has also had to do battle internally, last September resigning from a stint as acting general secretary citing the “intolerable, toxic” atmosphere in the union’s national executive – after his predecessor Mick Cash had quit his term early through stress, also citing a campaign of harassment from factions within the RMT. The executive meetings, usually held around the boardroom table under stringent formal processes, had transferred to Zoom during Covid – likely making Handforth parish council seem quite the party by comparison. Have those people Lynch accused of harassment and bullying moved on? “Some of them … the others have changed their ways.”
Lynch certainly looks more in the mould of Bob Crow, the bogeyman of the rightwing tabloid press before his death in 2014, than Cash, a Clark Kent figure who never quite transformed into a union superhero. Some personas may sit better with RMT leaders: Lynch says he would like to identify with Thunderbirds’ hero Virgil Tracy, but confesses his actual lookalike is Tracy’s nemesis, arch-villain the Hood.
His Irish parents came to London during the Blitz as teenagers, when it was still easier to find work in the bombed-out English capital than Ireland, and five Lynch siblings were born in “rented rooms that would now be called slums, the old tin bath and shared toilet with other families”. He grew up in a Catholic-dominated Paddington council estate and left school at 16 to become an electrician, moving into construction as the engineering sector dwindled.
But after getting involved in a new union, Lynch found himself blacklisted – a fact only confirmed two decades later, when the conspiracy among major construction companies was finally exposed and brought to court. As an electrician looking for work, “you’d ring the labour manager, they’d phone this company, and he’d go on his Rolodex and pick your name out, and say don’t hire him, he was seen on that demonstration, he took part in that strike. Some people were out of work for years.
“When you tell your friends about a blacklist, they say it’s bollocks. I knew I was blacklisted but you can’t prove it, because it was all secret.” Blacklisting led him to move to the railways to find work, at Eurostar from 1993. Now he has got both the blacklist records and a compensation cheque to prove it, kept on the wall in the first office he has worked in, the RMT HQ at Euston in central London.
Little wonder if Lynch is cynical of cuts being made by companies such as British Airways, British Gas and potentially Network Rail “using Covid as a smokescreen to create permanent changes to people’s working conditions”. Proposals to automate some safety tasks on the rail are a flashpoint: “It needs to be maintained by people out there, boots on ballast, using the tools – they want to cut out much of that work and take a risk that the infrastructure won’t fail.”
But while RMT strikes caused mass disruption in 2016 on franchises such as Southern, the union’s leverage appears much weaker when so many people have deserted the daily commute. Lynch demurs; membership has grown by 2,000 to 83,000 this year, he says. “They’ve worked round the clock through the Covid crisis and kept the country moving. They’re not prepared to give everything up now because the government may thinks the working class are weak. People are still joining this union in full knowledge of industrial disputes coming forward – they want to defend what they’ve got.”
Parallel disputes are likely in London where, with the mayor, Sadiq Khan, having to ask central government for funding to recoup lost fare income, “it’s absolutely certain that the Tories will instruct him to make cuts in Tube staffing, investment, attack pensions and terms and conditions.”
But, Lynch believes, most passengers will return to the workplace. What they’re asking [people] to do is be a battery chicken in your own house, using your electricity and your facilities to do their work. And I think people will wake up to that as a con trick. Having a place to work gives you rights in law. People have got to be careful not to be duped.”
Lynch admits rail will need more subsidy but argues less would be needed if nationalised. “The government is subsidising profit. Rolling stock providers are completely unaffected by Covid – they get guaranteed their income.”
Meanwhile, he argues, “There’s a danger that this government will return to road, and will ignore the climate model. If you call running a publicly subsidised railway that takes cars off the road, that reduces congestion in our cities, a waste of money, you’ve got the wrong head on.”
The push for electric cars, championed by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who owns an electric car (as well as a private plane), troubles him. “They’re all luxury £40,000-50,000 cars.” For most people, “it’s beyond the dreams to own even a simple one. And they’re going to confine us to a debilitated public transport sector that is under-resourced.”
He says the same is true in housing, health and education: academy schools, the NHS “getting slowly consumed by the private sector”, he says. “People don’t actually like that, when you ask them. They want the trusted public sector body.”
He sighs: “All I want from life is a bit of socialism.”