RMT leader Mick Lynch on a picket line in 2023 (Picture: Guy Smallman)

A new book—Mick Lynch, the Making of a Working Class Hero—is fortunately not the uncritical celebration of the RMT rail union leader that its title may suggest.

Author Gregor Gall puts Lynch in the context of the strike wave that began in the summer of 2022. He analyses how “a straight, white, bald 60-year-old man” became a symbol of working class resistance.

Lynch was the figurehead of the sense that “the working class is back” and that people “refuse to be poor any more”. He savaged the superficial and pro-boss media, and triumphed over interviewers who thought they could easily demolish someone who championed strikes.

But Gall also says that 18 months since the dispute began, and after almost five weeks of strikes in total, the action “has not led to any significant concessions”.

Introducing the themes of his book, he wrote in the Guardian newspaper, “While Lynch continues to be the most effective media performer within the union movement, there have been clear shortcomings in his political strategy and industrial tactics.”

Gall highlights several major issues that weakened the strikes. One was the lack of strike pay. This means that whenever workers thought about escalating strikes, they faced the very real issue of losing money and having no cash to fall back on.

And the book shows this wasn’t inevitable. As the strike started, the RMT had around £25 million in shares, which paid £633,000 a year in dividends. Galls says this cash could have funded strikers.

Gall says Lynch understood—and repeatedly denounced—the Tories’ unstinting support for the rail bosses. This made it a political dispute. But, like other union leaders, Lynch didn’t have a strategy for dealing with this.

The Enough is Enough campaign, says Gall, “launched itself with many very well-attended rallies”. Lynch was at the centre of this and it was supposed to be a major social movement.

But then it “became inactive nationally with the exception of its social media accounts”.

By the beginning of 2023, Enough is Enough was all but defunct. That wasn’t surprising. The union leaders feared any grassroots initiative and preferred to close Enough is Enough rather than letting activists direct it.

Nor did the RMT union leaders push for united action between different groups of strikers.

Lynch always stressed that it was up to the TUC to call a general strike but he ignored that the RMT could have played a big role in creating the possibility for such a strike. And the RMT failed the very concrete test of the 1 February and 15 March united strike days.

It had only “minimal involvement” in them, says Gall. And the book underlines that Lynch is not very radical—despite the denunciations from the Tory press.

Gall explains well Lynch didn’t come from the union’s left. When he was elected as RMT general secretary his slogan was the far from militant “Experience you can trust”.

And Lynch’s salary of well in excess of £100,000 a year meant he was “personally protected from the ravages of the market and the deleterious diktats of government policy, unlike members of the working class.”

Lynch is contemptuous of the far left, He disparaged “boring left wing activists with a plastic bag stuffed full of papers”. Even those of us who are sparkling wits and carry our papers in a rucksack faced Lynch’s wrath.

And he also didn’t like anyone organising at a grassroots level. As a former member of the RMT’s national executive tells Gall, “To officers, reps and activists, he lets it be known he’s the conqueror of any and all left wing groups in the union, and also any rank-and-file groups in the RMT, which he hasn’t got control of, or who may challenge him and the cronies in his orbit.”

The book emphasises that Lynch is a mainstream social democrat. He wants “the more equitable regulation of the relationship between capital and labour by the state under capitalism”. He therefore “extolled the post-war social democratic settlement and the figures of Nye Bevan, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson”.

Gall’s analysis of the trade union leaders is different from Socialist Worker’s. It’s why he can contrast the RMT’s strategy with the one pursued by Sharon Graham as leader of Unite. But although Unite’s strategy is superficially different, its leaders have also restricted, fragmented and closed off strikes.

The book is written too much in academic jargon but nonetheless has insights for those of us who see rank and file organisation at the base of the unions as the key to success.

Mick Lynch, the Making of a Working Class Hero by Gregor Gall is available from bookmarksbookshop.co.uk £19.99

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