At 7 o’clock on Saturday morning, union boss Mick Lynch was once again on the picket line at Euston station in London, galvanising colleagues, talking tactics on the pay negotiations and conducting broadcast interviews.
Until the biggest industrial action on the rail network for more than 30 years, few people would have even heard of Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). This weekend, he is a national figure.
While millions of rail passengers were hit by the dispute, Lynch has won plaudits for clearly articulating the grievances of his members and the reasons for action. He has also disarmed some of television’s most experienced interrogators, including Sky News broadcaster Kay Burley and Talk TV presenter Piers Morgan.
A Network Rail spokesperson said yesterday that Lynch had spent “more time on telly than at the [negotiating] table this week”. Rail bosses accuse the union of adopting “strike first, negotiate later” tactics.
Despite the brickbats, it was Lynch who was widely judged to have won last week’s public relations battle.
John Leach, RMT assistant general secretary, said: “We’ve had some larger-than-life general secretaries in the past going back to the days of Jimmy Knapp and Bob Crow and all of a sudden there’s this guy no one has heard of articulating what millions are thinking.”
There is concern among ministers that the RMT has been first out of the blocks in what could be a long and difficult few months for pay talks. Lynch has voiced the frustrations and worries of a workforce whose pay packets have effectively been eroded by inflation.
NHS workers and teachers are among the employees who have seen their pay fall in real terms over the past decade.
Passing lorries and cars were beeping their horns in support of yesterday’s picket in London despite more than 40,000 RMT workers virtually bringing the country to a halt over three days of strikes.
Lynch said: “I certainly don’t want to be some kind of icon. Our job is to deliver the most effective action and articulate our case. Millions of people in this country face lower living standards and the stripping out of occupational pensions. We’re not going to accept that.
“We’ve got the most peculiar economic situation in this country with full employment and falling wages. Covid has been a smokescreen for the rich and powerful in this country to drive down wages as far as they can.”
Lynch says it has been easier to negotiate pay deals with rail firms which are not under government control. He accuses ministers of undermining the prospects of successful negotiations, but failing to come to the table. The RMT wants a pay deal which keeps pace with inflation and no compulsory redundancies. It has so far rejected a pay offer of 3% from the industry.
Network Rail boss Andrew Haines last week criticised Lynch’s union members for blocking modernisation practices, including claims workers would not turn on a forward-facing camera in a vehicle, had delayed the introduction of an app for communicating with staff, and blocked the use of safety planning tools. Newspaper headlines reported a claim it took “nine workers to change a plug socket”.
The RMT says it continues to implement technological changes. One official said: “We wanted [Mick Lynch] to do broadcast interviews to respond to the industry’s claims, but it just went stratospheric.”
An Ipsos poll conducted last Monday to Wednesday found 62% of respondents sympathised with rail workers over the strikes. Opinion was split on support for the strikes, with one in three supporting them and the same proportion opposing them.
Another poll conducted by Opinium for the RMT before the strikes found that three out of five people polled said the government should intervene to ensure rail companies meet workers’ concerns. The survey also found fewer than one in five supports cuts to staff on trains and stations.
“They have a right to strike and it’s for a good reason,” said Zoe Charlwood, 35, a teacher from Glasgow who was catching one of the few trains operating to Milton Keynes on Wednesday. “I don’t think this is a return to the 1970s.”
Lynch was elected general secretary in May last year. Born to Irish parents, he grew up on a council estate in Paddington, west London, and left school at 16 to become an electrician.
He was blacklisted by construction companies over his union involvement, but the scandal was only exposed two decades later after a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office on the organisation which compiled the secret database. He moved to the railways to find work, helping to maintain the Eurostar fleet.
He founded and built the RMT Eurostar branch to become one of the biggest in the union. He earns £84,000 with pensions and benefits taking his annual package to £124,000.
Lynch said last week while the unions had calls from around the world supporting members, there had not been the progress he had hoped for in negotiations. He now faces the prospect of protracted talks and a decision on whether to lead out his members for another national strike.
Lynch said last week that more rail strikes were “extremely likely” unless there was more progress in the talks. Rail bosses, the union and passengers are braced for what could be a long summer.