Head of Britain’s RMT rail union Mick Lynch has in recent years become a household name. His stout defense of his members has won him wide acclaim — yet his newfound fame also reflects just how rare such voices are in British public life.

Mick Lynch of the RMT addresses a protest on August 31, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Guy Smallman / Getty Images)

In late June 2022, with the first national rail strikes of Britain’s “summer of solidarity,” a new standout national political figure emerged. This man was neither a left-wing Labour MP like Jeremy Corbyn nor a radical-left leader like George Galloway, but a trade unionist. Within just a few weeks, he went from being virtually unknown among the wider public to being instantly recognizable, all thanks to a handful of TV interviews. His demolition of established media operators — those supposed to have the professionally honed skills to take down their impertinent interviewees — was a joy for countless thousands to watch many times over. In what became known as the “hot strike summer” of 2022, this union leader became the man of the moment for all those angry and aggrieved at the Tories and the unequal economic and social status quo in “broken” Britain. For this first time in many decades, a strike wave brought widespread industrial action back to Britain — and Mick Lynch rode that wave.

Lynch is general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT): a union with under one hundred thousand members, and in this sense a minnow compared to the Unison and Unite unions, which are each over one million strong. But in defending RMT members’ right to strike in summer 2022, Lynch stunned pundits, simply by stating the basic principles of worker organizing. As he put it in one interview: “What else are we to do? Are we to plead? Are we to beg? We want to bargain for our futures. We want to negotiate. . . . I don’t want any working-class people in this country to have to beg their employers for a decent living.”

Though there were detractors in the right-wing press, many even in mainstream media showed no shyness in calling Lynch a “working-class hero.” On social media, Twitter/X and Facebook were awash with references to Lynch under this title. Within weeks of his first media appearances, “Mick Lynch working-class hero” mugs, tote bags, and T-shirts could be bought. Even the Financial Times, organ of the captains of capitalism in Britain, called Lynch “A new folk hero for Britain’s working class” and “a left-wing hero.” London’s Times chimed in, with Lynch termed no less than “a folk hero — a Robin Hood for the social media age.”

Lynch was articulate and assertive, forthright and frank. He became a voice for the voiceless; a tribune for those whose interests were not represented, much less served, by the political process. Lynch was able to effectively espouse not only his members’ grievances but those of a much wider number of workers. He was able to fashion the specific and sectional demands of railworkers into a more popular phenomenon, in which the strikes became signifiers of “swords of justice,” wielded by one group of workers on behalf of many others. Remarkably for a union leader facing unrelenting media attack, polling by the likes of YouGov showed as many people had favorable opinions about Lynch as unfavorable ones.

This owed much more to what Lynch said than what he did. Yet, in the absence of effective opposition from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, either inside or outside of Parliament, this mattered not. There was popular demand for credible and clear-cut opposition to the Conservatives. And, very quickly it became apparent that the establishment in Britain could not ignore Lynch. Like his predecessor as RMT leader, Bob Crow, he appeared on mainstays of BBC politics coverage Question Time and Newsnight — as well as comedy panel show Have I Got News for You — adding to his reputation and popular profile.

Glorious Summer

Lynch achieved this feat because of his quick-witted, straight-talking, no-nonsense, and often sardonic — if not sometimes also sarcastic — responses to those journalists who thought they could bludgeon him back to where he came from with their often reactionary, right-wing narratives.

Indeed, British media often speak of strikes in terms of seasons “of discontent” — falling back on a common negative narrative of the “winter of discontent” of 1978–79, cast as a period of over-mighty unions, eventually brought to heel by Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in government. This stereotyped narrative is derived from William Shakespeare’s Richard III, where the title character expressed his dissatisfaction about a world against him by saying: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Seldom is much made of the next line in his speech about the “glorious summer” that followed after. But that was exactly what Lynch personified and led in summer 2022. And the discontent did not end as summer turned into autumn, autumn into winter, winter into spring — and spring into summer.

My book Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero tells the tale of how and why all this happened as well as what portent it has for radical, progressive politics in Britain. It tells the story of what Lynch did and how others — people, politicians and the press — reacted and responded, in the process making him a “working-class hero” for many and a bogeyman for others. It explains how Lynch’s persona and politics made up one-half of the equation that led to this phenomenon. But it also explains how the other half of the equation was made up of a particular political period, along with the potential power of the railway workers. In doing so a number of counterfactual questions are asked and answered. Prime among them are: Why Mick Lynch and the RMT rather than another general secretary and another union; why a union leader and not a politician; and why now and not before?

Accordingly, my study is both a celebration and a critique of Lynch. A celebration because politics, economics, and society in Britain have for too long lacked authentic and influential working-class representatives as the hold of neoliberalism has tightened and reinforced the power, material interests, and ideology of the ruling class. Thatcher began this project to push back the postwar advances of the working class, in order to solve the crisis that was then facing capitalism. It was continued by subsequent governments involving Tories, Labour, and Liberals. In this context, “working-class heroes” — and “heroines” — can be seen to be badly needed in order to be able to effectively espouse and campaign for equality, fairness, and decency, whether couched in terms of social democracy or socialism. Unfortunately, they have been few and far between. It can be ventured that they are especially needed as not only unions still remain unfortunately enfeebled but the organized radical left has also not been able to break out of its marginalization.

Something to Be?

But this is not a starry-eyed, rose-tinted study. Consequently, it does not romanticize the process by which Lynch became a “working-class hero,” which, according to John Lennon, “is something to be.” If we are to understand how popular left-wing leaders emerge and flourish and, critically, how they can play a part in advancing a wider collective struggle, we must be hardheaded enough to examine all the angles — and not duck any difficult issues by glossing over them. This is the sense in which this study is also a critique.

In particular, we also need to understand how workers can turn their “power to” cause disruption into “power over” bargaining opponents, and how leaders at all levels — from the shop floor to the national union headquarters — develop socially and politically. After all, even the agreement that the RMT reached with Network Rail in April 2023, following the aforementioned strikes, was pointedly described by Lynch himself in the BBC documentary, Strike: Inside the Unions, as “not a great deal,” attaining a below-inflation pay increase.

In the world of trade union leadership, some skills and traits can be taught but others cannot, emerging organically. Classroom lessons and mentoring cannot substitute for being hardened in the heat of battle. It is worth appreciating that one of a leader’s major tasks is imparting confidence and certainty into followers — the confidence to fight collectively and the certainty that the battles can be won — in order that an understanding of how this happens can be ascertained. But this must be done in a way that is realistic and does not become full of bombast, bluster, and bravado.

Accordingly, this study is one of leadership but also of followership. If positing that “we are all leaders” is to be more than an empty platitude, it must be recognized that leadership can take different forms at different levels and at different times. But this does not get away from the manifest reality that being a national leader of a union with mass appeal outside of one’s own union requires certain skills and attributes — as well as windows of opportunity.

With the passing of time and the resolution of the two national rail disputes that brought Lynch to wider public attention, it is also now the appropriate time to ask whether the appellation of “working-class hero” still holds firm and true. The settlement of those two disputes was less than the RMT wanted. This suggests the strategy and tactics need revising for future battles — especially in terms of turning workers’ “power to” disrupt into real “power over” the bargaining opponent.

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