How RMT boss Mick Lynch became the unexpected star of the rail strikes

Accusing Sky’s Kay Burley and Tory MP Jonathan Gullis of speaking “nonsense”. Slamming GMB host Richard Madeley for talking “twaddle”. Taking down TV’s takedown-giver-in-chief Piers Morgan for asking irrelevant personal questions during the biggest rail strike in a generation.

While the country swears, sweats and struggles through another day of commuter chaos, one man at the center of the continuing strike action seems to be managing to remain remarkably cool: Mick Lynch, 60, secretary-general of National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, who just became its unexpected star. Though you probably knew that already, if you’ve even glanced at a TV or phone screen in the last 24 hours.

The RMT has been in the job for more than a year, but only in recent days has his name rocketed to near-household status thanks to his gracing of almost every TV and radio channel in the country. ITV News, Channel 4 and BBC Newsnight are among the broadcasters to invite him on to explain why 40,000 railway workers are striking for three days, though perhaps some of their journalists are regretting it now.

As actor Hugh Laurie put it plainly to his 1.5m Twitter followers last night: “I don’t know enough about the rail dispute. I only observe that RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck today.”

“TV gold”, “Be more Mick Lynch” and “Happy Mick Lynch day. I almost joined the RMT, and I’m a farmer” are among the tens of thousands of social media comments about the indomitable union baron so far.

So who is the veteran unionist singlehandedly taking on the right-wing press (and winning) and what is it about his interview technique that’s getting journalists and politicians so hot under the collar?

From his working-class roots to his militant approach to leadership, here’s everything we know about the man at the center of this week’s strike wars.

From electrician to veteran trade unionist

Lynch might now earn a salary of £124,000, but his upbringing is proof that you don’t have to go to public school to take on the country’s leaders.

The father-of-three and his wife, an NHS nurse, currently live in a four-bedroom Victorian terrace approaching £1million in Ealing, but growing up, he and his four siblings were brought up by Irish parents on a Catholic-dominated council estate in Paddington, in “rented rooms that would now be called slums, [with] the old tin bath and shared toilet with other families,” as he once described it.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch on a picket line outside King’s Cross (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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He left school at 16, working as an electrician and later in construction, where he joined a trade union and found himself (illegally) blacklisted. Unable to find a job in construction, he began working for Eurostar and became an active member of the RMT.

The blacklisting was finally found to be illegal 20 years later, and he received a large settlement. The hard-left unionist served two terms as the RMT’s assistant secretary general, during which time he was criticized for traveling to work from his home in Watford on a driver-only train, one of the very vehicles his union claimed were too dangerous for the audience.

At the time, he and other RMT bosses claimed the strike was about safety, arguing that driver-only operated trains, where the driver rather than a guard opens and closes doors for passengers, were a “lethal gamble” with lives. Lynch insisted that riding the train did not make him a hypocrite, and that he had “no choice”.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT at the union’s headquarters in London (Yui Mok/PA)

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He took over as secretary general in May last year, beating three other candidates to replace Mick Cash, who said he was retiring after blaming a “campaign of harassment” against him by factional groups within the union.

“I am greatly honored to have been elected by the RMT’s members as general secretary,” Lynch said on his election.

“I will maximize the unity of our great organization, bringing together every sector and grade to build our union’s membership, influence and power. We will grow our union in every workplace as a strong and dynamic force.

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“Our message to the employers and the politicians is that RMT stands ready to campaign and fight against pay freezes, cuts to safety and conditions.

“We call on the rest of the Labor movement to stand strong and mobilize against any new age of austerity which makes working people pay for the Covid crisis.”

The most hated man in London—or a hero for the working class?

It may seem surprising to anyone watching his interviews this week, but when Lynch was elected, he was considered a centrist (“in RMT terms”). Rail industry insiders say they were “quietly relieved”, regarding him as “competent, practical and across the detail”.

Mick Lynch is RMT general secretary (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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Competent he may remain, but a centrist he is not. He admits he is a fan of royal Netflix series The Crown (“working-class people generally respect the Queen”), but he remains a staunch republican and a militant supporter of redistributing wealth in the economy. “The unions have got to make a militant stand – and use the strike weapon wherever it’s appropriate,” he said when he got the job last year, calling his politics “straightforward old Labour”.

Since then, he’s proven himself to be just as militant as the late “firebrand” RMT boss Bob Crow, who died in 2014 after being branded “the most hated man in London” during Tube strikes – if not more so. Lynch has long been known for his desire for the railways to be nationalised, saying they’d reduce the need for subsidies, and the RMT has balloted for strike action on more than 200 occasions since he took the job in May 2021 (even Crow never once managed a national rail strike).

Announcing this week’s rail strikes in front of the RMT’s headquarters beside Euston station, he pointed to the “fingerprints of Grant Shapps and the DNA of Rishi Sunak” for the problems on the railway, and that ministers were “going backwards many years” by seeking to emulate the Thatcher years.

“What the rest of the country suffers from is the lack of power, the lack of the ability to organize and the lack of the wherewithal to take on these employers that are continually driving down wages and making the working class in this country poorer year on year on year,” he said of his 40,000 striking workers, who earn an average salary of £33,000.

But despite his right-wing critics nicknaming him “comrade chaos” in this week’s rail battle, Lynch insists he’s not a communist or looking for a fight. “I also believe in peace, I don’t want wars,” he has said, choosing to take a calm and polite approach during media interviews.

A match for any journalist (even Piers Morgan)

“Did Mick Lynch just drop a solid gold clip on every news channel he went on this morning?” one Twitter user knowingly asked this week. The answer is simple, whichever side of the strike debate you fall on: yes, yes he did.

While his arguments have divided the country, both left and right-wing voters agree that Lynch has given the media performance of a lifetime, rinsing journalists and “stuffy” Oxbridge-educated politicians to cut through the verbal fog and tell it how it is.

“Do you not know how a picket line works?” he asked Sky news anchor Kay Burley yesterday when asked what the union would do if agency workers hired by the Government attempted to cross a picket line to take up posts left by striking workers.

“I can’t believe this line of questioning… Your questions are verging into the nonsense. We run a picket as effectively as we can,” he added, explaining that “picketing is standing outside the workplace to try and encourage people who want to go to work, not to go to work. What else do you think it involves?”

Burley wasn’t the only key figure he’s publicly accused of talking “nonsense” this week. On GMB, he boldly told host Richard Madeley that he comes up with the “most remarkable twaddle sometimes” when asked if he was a Marxist, and on BBC Politics Live he clashed with Stoke-on-Trent MP Jonathan Gullis after Gullis accused the rail network of being afraid of adopting modern technology.

“Well I think Jonathan should apologise for talking nonsense, none of that is true,” he said. “We have got automated technology on trains. That is all rubbish.”

Madeley and Gullis were just two of a whole line-up of journalists Lynch ripped into on the media rounds yesterday, but by far the most surprising was his clash with Piers Morgan, a man who normally prides himself on serving out the takedowns rather than receiving them.

“Why don’t you just confirm or deny if this is your Facebook page. It’s a picture of The Hood from Thunderbirds,” Morgan asked Lynch, showing him a screenshot of Lynch’s alleged Facebook page.

Lynch confirmed the page was his, to which Morgan asked: “Well I’m just wondering where the comparison goes because he was obviously an evil, criminal terrorist mastermind, described as the world’s most dangerous man who wrecked utter carnage and havoc on the public .”

“Is that the level journalism’s at these days?” was Lynch’s simple but cutting response.

“Refreshing”, straight-talking and “scarily unflustered”

Naturally, Lynch’s comments have quickly granted him hero status. “I assume I am not the only one tonight wishing Mick Lynch was the leader of the Labor Party?” Twitter users sang as Lynch’s name promptly trended online and fans called for him to be made Prime Minister.

“He’s done more to challenge Tory lies in a single day than the Labor front bench has done in two years!” said others, calling him a “refreshing sight compared to the political game-playing and spin we are constantly subjected to”, “scarily unflustered” and “the sort of person you want on your side”.

“Happy Mick Lynch day. I almost joined the RMT, and I’m a farmer,” one teased. “Get him in Casa Amor,” wrote another, joking that Lynch should enter Love Island when the strikes are over.

Jokes about Lynch and his Lynch-mob have come in thick-and-fast, but so too have more serious comments about his debating technique, which many say is far better “than all the glib Etonians who were prepared for television appearances throughout their childhoods ”.

“Really struggling to remember the last time, if ever, someone dominated the entire media airwaves as Mick Lynch did yesterday… The establishment threw everything at him and he just calmly batted it all away with common sense, decent, honesty and integrity. A lesson to us all,” one fan wrote on Twitter, while another added: “He doesn’t need to be charismatic. Because truth is charismatic.”

“I’ve never seen anyone like him,” agreed another. “Mick Lynch is not slick, he’s charmless and he’s not photogenic. But he’s quick witted, well briefed, authentic and My God he’s compelling.”

Even former politicians joined in to praise his debating style. “What I like about the way Mick Lynch debates these low IQ/low EQ Tory talkingpointspouting MPs is that he lets them drone on without much facial reaction and then takes them down with facts mixed with gentle scorn,” former Labor spin doctor Alastair Campbell tweeted .

His fellow podcaster, former Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart, joined in, calling Lynch a “pretty remarkable media performer with an uncanny knack of flustering his questioners”.

Whether this week’s strikes risk him becoming the most hated man in London like his predecessor Crow or not depends on your politics, but one thing’s for sure: he’s certainly the most talked-about.

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