Home: Opinion

It’s great to see Mick Lynch calling out the media’s anti-union bullshit

Billionaires control our politics and our press, yet we’re told unions are the real enemy of the British worker

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
21 June 2022, 5.56pm

RMT boss Mick Lynch pictured in March 2022


Picture Capital / Alamy Stock Photo

I sometimes claim that my superpower is knowing the best place to get food in or near every main-line train station in the UK. Much of my adult life has been spent trudging round the country on the railways, and because of that, I’m part of the 35% of the population which supports the RMT strikes.

As a regular passenger, I’m generally in favour of trains being safe. And I’m generally against the people I rely on when I ride them having their pay cut, in real terms. History has shown again and again that strike action is how workers win things like safety and wages. And so, when the railway workers I entrust my life to every time I step onto a train say they need to go on strike to protect these things, I trust them again.

While wages have been stagnant for most people in the country over the last 15 years or so, and are about to be eaten up by soaring inflation, the cumulative wealth of the top ten billionaires in the UK has grown from £48bn in 2009 to £182bn in 2022 – an increase of 281%. There are more billionaires than ever before, and their wealth surged during the pandemic. And it’s not just the oligarchs. Profit levels for the UK’s biggest companies were 73% higher in 2021 than they were in 2019, before Covid struck.

All that money for the rich has to come from somewhere: increased profits have driven 60% of the recent bout of inflation, according to research by the trade union Unite.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

We could talk for hours about the causes of this, but the simplest is that, in the negotiation over who gets the wealth we all produce with our work, bosses and owners are getting more and more, and workers are getting less and less. And the simple reason for that is that fewer and fewer of us are members of trade unions, and fewer and fewer of us are organised enough to go on strike.

Follow the British media – largely owned by those gleeful billionaires – and you’d think it was all the other way around. You’d think the problem lay not with greedy billionaires bullying wages out of their hard-working staff, but with the occasional group of workers who have managed to get their act together and strike back.

The Telegraph’s rolling blog on the strike is a rant against railway workers – which is odd, because I’m pretty sure there isn’t a train service on Brecqhou, the private island where its oligarch owner Frederick Barclay spends his time.

The Daily Mail home page is screaming about Arthur Scargill and “desperate commuters”, while the Sun shouts about how there is “fury” as NHS staff are supposedly “stranded” in hospitals.

The BBC, meanwhile, ran a feature urging readers to spare a thought for “the passengers set to miss life events”. Few in the press seemed so fussed about the fact railway workers could have their own lives disrupted by a vast real terms pay cut, nor that our trains could become more dangerous if key safety staff are potentially laid off.

And it’s not just the papers. Labour, the supposed party of the organised working class, has pledged to punish any MPs who support striking workers. The Lib Dems tweeted – and then hastily deleted – a message that the RMT and government are as bad as each other. Only the Greens seem to support the union.

The ‘British public’

The media should interpret reality back to the public. But, owned as most of it is by those oligarchs who are doing superbly from the current state of affairs, it prefers to construct its own universe at one degree removed from ours, where its audience, ‘the public’, all have one set of interests – whether they’re on minimum wage or billionaires – and are threatened by some some other, outside force, which we have to imagine for a moment isn’t part of us.

Belief in this semi-real space of studios and front pages and web pages relies on participants all agreeing to take part in the bullshit, to help construct the false debates and moral panics, the pretences that this is all an accurate depiction of reality and not an elaborate distortion of the true power relations that shape the world.

Related story

train companies
CEOs of the six biggest train companies also took home a combined salary of more than £5m in 2020

In this nonsensical context, it’s been lovely to see the RMT’s elected leader, Mick Lynch, having none of it.

The pundits and politicians facing him off have adopted the curious position that unions are the real enemy of the worker, framing the RMT as intransigent dinosaurs holding rail-reliant ‘ordinary people’ to ransom. But who, exactly, are ordinary people? Rail workers could well be joined by teachers and nurses later this year if public sector pay and conditions don’t improve. It’s unlikely that we’ll see media bosses and MPs going on strike because they can’t afford the cost of living. Yet the spectre of the ‘British public’ is used as a shield by mouthpieces of the wealthy to attack organised labour.

Sky’s Kay Burley insisted it was “for the benefit of the British public” that she was heckling Lynch about what workers on picket lines might do to stop scabs from crossing them, with the clear insinuation that railway workers are dangerous thugs who might assault people. After Lynch called out Burley’s scaremongering, the veteran news anchor tweeted indignantly that her father had been a trade union leader, as though this somehow cancelled out the fact she had just insinuated that workers might become violent if agency workers were brought in.

Then Labour front bencher Jenny Chapman, stung by Lynch’s suggestion that Labour no longer understood the working class, tried to draw him into a personal discussion about her own background, something he hadn’t brought up. (Instead of getting into a fight, he simply admitted he didn’t know who she was.)

The union GMB has been calling out the same phenomenon, with a masterful retort to a disparaging Mail story that poked fun at ‘woke’ builders who talk openly about their feelings. “We have the highest suicide rate among male occupations,” said construction worker and union rep Jamie in GMB’s video. “If you think it’s a laugh to take the mick out of us about yoga and meditation and other things like our feelings, speaking to each other about our mental health, you need to give your head a wobble and get in the real world,” he said. “Forget your divisive culture wars and your ‘woke’ narratives.”

But perhaps the most significant moment came in a separate interview that Lynch gave to Sky, in which he reasoned: “They’re using the temporary phenomenon of Covid as a smokescreen to get rid of decent conditions and decent pay rates.”

Look at soaring company profits and billionaire wealth, and you’ll see that that’s happening right across the economy. It isn’t the unions holding Britain to ransom – it’s the people who control our politics and our press.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData