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A union leader for our times

A union leader for our times

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Mick Lynch’s union, the RMT, was one of the first to go on strike this year. Since then many more have taken industrial action to demand better pay and working conditions as the cost of living rises

“Passengers are being warned not to travel unless essential during the biggest rail strike for more than 30 years.”

ITV News

“The message from tens of thousands of striking nurses is the same. Across the nation, today’s strike is as vast as it is historic.”

Channel 4 News

2022, in Britain, has been the year of the strikes.

Postal workers and university lecturers, bin men and barristers, have all staged walkouts to fight for better pay and working conditions. 

In October alone, 417,000 working days were lost to strikes, the highest rate since 2011.

And this holiday season is seeing its largest wave of strikes in over 30 years, with hundreds of thousands of workers taking industrial action.

It seems funny in the face of such collective action to focus on an individual, but if one person has successfully captured the frustration of those who feel underpaid and underappreciated this year, it’s Mick Lynch.

“We’ve got people who are doing full-time jobs, who are having to take state benefits and use food banks. That is a national disgrace.”

Mick Lynch in PoliticsJOE compilation

The 60-year-old head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union, or RMT, is married to an NHS nurse, and he’s made mincemeat of interviewers and MPs so many times that people have made compilations of his greatest hits.

Interviewer: “What will they do if agency workers try to cross those picket lines?”
Mick Lynch: “Well, we will picket them. What do you think we’ll do? We run a picket line and we’ll ask them not to go to work.” 

PoliticsJOE compilation

“Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle.”

Mick Lynch in PoliticsJOE compilation

Baroness Chapman: “Don’t tell me who I am or whether I’m working class or any of those sorts of things.”
Mick Lynch: “I didn’t tell you you weren’t working class. I don’t even know your name.”

PoliticsJOE compilation

It seems Mick Lynch came out of nowhere, but he’s been active in trade unions for decades. 

And his anti-establishment bent should come as no surprise. Mick Lynch’s parents came to the UK from Ireland during the Blitz. He and his four siblings were born in small rented rooms, which the trade union leader has compared to slums. 

And although Mick Lynch wasn’t born in Ireland, his political hero is James Connolly, an Irish socialist who opposed British rule in Ireland and helped lead the Easter Rising insurrection in 1916.

So how does Mick Lynch help us to make sense of 2022?

The reason Mick Lynch has been a prominent voice this year isn’t just because he’s a sharp talker. It’s because workers are willing to stand behind him.

The story of Mick Lynch’s popularity is really a story about inflation, interest rates and living standards. 

Even though it’s recently slowed, UK inflation is still running at 10.7 per cent, its highest rate for nearly forty years… and it’s felt most acutely in food costs and a worrying energy crisis.

“Maxine’s husband’s lung disease is so severe, he’s waiting for a double transplant. Any change in temperature can quickly worsen his condition, so their home has to be 20 degrees 24 hours a day. The rise in energy prices then is having a dramatic impact.”

ITV News

What unionised workers want, in general, are for pay rises to keep up with the increased cost of living. Some have succeeded. Criminal barristers accepted a 15 per cent wage increase in October. Arriva bus drivers in London got 11 per cent. But many, including members of Mick Lynch’s union, are still fighting for a deal that’s acceptable to them.

The difficulties caused by rising prices have been compounded by increased interest rates, hiked by the Bank of England to temper inflation. They mean millions of homeowners will pay more on their mortgages next year, thanks in part to the UK’s short-lived prime minister Liz Truss.

“On Friday morning, as the chancellor stood up and delivered his mini budget, there were over 3900 residential mortgage deals on the market. Now, since then, more than 1600 have been taken off.”

Sky News

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than seven million households are currently going without essentials, and just under five million are behind on at least one household bill.

“I’ve not had anything to eat since breakfast. I’ve got no money to get any food or get any drink. I’ve got 20p to my name. That’s it.”

Sky News

And with the UK probably already in recession, things are likely to be tough for a while. Over the next two years, people who work in the public and private sectors are facing the sharpest fall in living standards since records began.

Even though it feels like Britain is in the midst of endless strikes, we’re not quite facing a winter of discontent. Remember those 417,000 days lost to strikes in October? In September 1979, it was 11.7 million days.

But there’s no denying that going into 2023, the UK economy is in a bad shape, workers are feeling the brunt of it and there are knock on effects on other people too.

Mick Lynch may himself earn a good wage as a trade union leader, but it’s what and who he represents that helps us make sense of 2022.

His union’s holiday train strikes have led to him being compared to the Grinch, the Dr Seuss character who stole Christmas.

But really it’s the cost of living crisis, and the poor working conditions Mick Lynch is fighting to improve, that will impact people this winter.

This episode was written by Xavier Greenwood and mixed by Matt Russell.