Review of “Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero”, Gregor Gall, Manchester University Press, 2024.
By Connor Rosoman
Gregor Gall’s new book examines life of Mick Lynch, the “straight, white, 60-year old man” who led the RMT into the historic strike wave of 2022. Lynch became, almost overnight, a sort of labour movement celebrity for his witty, skilful takedowns of establishment media pundits and his position in standing up for working-class people in the context of a historic inflationary crisis.
Starting from his upbringing in London’s Irish community, discussing politics around the dinner table, to his time ‘on the tools’, through to his rise as head of the RMT union and his character as a trade union leader, and the challenges he faced during the strike wave, it explores what it means to be a ‘working class hero’ and whether Mick Lynch himself fits the bill. Despite the title, it is far from an exercise in hero-worship, looking also into the contradictions and failings of the strikes, and Lynch’s own role as part of this.
2022: The working class strikes back
In 2022, the working class launched into the biggest strike wave in over 30 years in response to a historic cost of living crisis. The RMT were first on the battlefield, with Mick Lynch at their head, quickly becoming the face of the strike wave as a whole. Speaking at rallies, he declared that “the working class is back, and we refuse to be poor any more”.
Gall highlights that Lynch is a contradictory figure. Despite his working class upbringing, and time ’on the tools’ as a railworker, it would be hard to describe Lynch, as a trade union leader on a salary of upward of £100,000 as of the working class, even if he is seen as for the working class.
At the same time, Lynch’s reputation as a left-wing firebrand in the media is contrasted by his position on the right of the RMT. Indeed, his ascension to the General Secretary role came on the back of a decisive defeat of the left within the union. Lynch has expressed his hostility to the revolutionary left on a number of occasions. Instead he describes himself as a “pragmatic reformist”, looking to class struggle as a way for workers to get their “fair share” of the wealth in society rather than for workers to democratically control society themselves as Marxists do. It is on this basis that he operates on a generally top-down model of trade unionism, opposing rank-and-file union democracy in favour of a model largely run by union officials.
Gall highlights that following Lynch’s ascension to working-class herodom at the start of 2022, 18 months later the rail strikes have won relatively little, “barely catching the coat tails of inflation” as The Guardian put it.
Gall’s book raises a number of useful explanations for this, particularly pointing toward various strategic weaknesses in the strike wave. He points out that the RMT should have prepared a war chest to fund strike pay for its members taking strike prolonged action, as well as the missed potential for strategic action by key sectors of the workforce.
He also points to the political aspect of the strikes. The rail network in Britain operates on a complicated semi-publicly owned basis. Thus the strikes against the publicly-owned National Rail as well as private (albeit heavily subsidised) Train Operating Companies were mediated by the government.
Meanwhile, the Tory government was making a concerted effort to crush the rail strikes and prevent them setting an example. In this sense, Gall describes the strikes as being political as much as purely economic. The opportunity to fully use this to the advantage of the strikes, through initiatives like Enough is Enough (EiE) is one of the reasons highlighted for the failure of the RMT strike to turn “power to” disrupt the economy into “power over” the government and employers.
Trade union bureaucracy
In raising these criticisms of Lynch’s role, the book tries to steer clear of crudely assigning the stalemate of the rail strikes to a notion of ‘bureaucracy’. By “bureaucracy”, socialists normally refer to the layer of full-time officials who manage the operations of the trade unions. This is, in part, a necessary role in organisations of thousands, if not millions of workers.
Over the last 100 years, this bureaucracy has tended to crystallise as a layer of highly-paid officials, balancing the interests of the workers they represent with those of the capitalist class they negotiate with.
Gall aims to explain that the failure of the rail strikes to win an inflation-busting pay rise was not just down to the role of highly paid union officials holding back struggle to maintain their cosy positions and relationship with the bosses. Indeed, it is true that in the heat of a mass upsurge of workers that the trade union bureaucracy was forced to act (or at least appear to do so!) to the extent that it did.
However, Socialist Alternative has pointed out how the huge potential posed by initiatives like EiE, which saw 700,000+ people sign up to it in a matter of weeks, was wasted. This was in large part due to the refusal of leaders like Lynch to move past the bureaucratic leadership of the TUC and its allies in the Labour Party, by posing the question of a general strike or a political opposition to Starmer.
The top-down strategy of the strikes, with the trade union leaderships allowed to get on with these negotiations behind closed doors, while the strikes themselves operated in an on and off fashion, wore down the union’s own resources, as well as the energy of striking workers. It is on this basis that after a historic struggle, many union members agreed to accept the below-inflation pay deals put to them by union leaders.
Even in Unite, whose tactics Gall contrasts to the RMT’s approach, similar limits were seen in leader Sharon Graham’s strategy. Unite has won some impressive victories in the private sector in the recent period. But Graham also refused to take up the task of truly politicising the strikes and generalising the action. The union avoided taking part in wider initiatives as part of the strike wave, and failed to even coordinate strikes among its own members. The strike wave as a whole suffered from this.
By ignoring the issue of the wider trade union bureaucracy in Britain and the limiting effect it had on the strike wave, the analysis presented by Gall has its limits. While Gall may be right that Mick Lynch’s own privileged position was not what held the RMT strikes back, his position as part of the wider the trade union bureaucracy in fact was.
A working class hero?
Gall’s book highlights some of the key factors that allowed Lynch to be seen, for a brief period, as a working class hero. Those are partly to be found in the context of the wider situation of crisis, partly in Lynch’s personal characteristics, and also in the determination of the wider membership to fight back.
Although those workers were often only partially mobilised, and pay rises often failed to fully counter the rising cost of living, the idea that ‘the working class is back’ marks a decisive shift in the consciousness of thousands of workers in Britain. Many now see themselves as ‘workers’ in a political sense, feeding into recent initiatives like Workers For a Free Palestine, which aims to take the Palestine solidarity movement into the workplace.
The strike wave itself was a first step in the working class reasserting itself in the face of capitalist crisis. Lessons of what methods work to create power over the bosses, what sort of leadership is effective in using those methods and others will need to be drawn out of the experience of this struggle, as part of the rearming of the working class as a whole. For trade unionists and socialists, this book is a useful contribution to that process.