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Union leader Mick Lynch wins the admiration of millions by channelling James Connolly

London Letter: Son of Irish immigrants takes on media assault with determined defence of train strikes

The tourists were lining up outside St Paul’s Cathedral as they do every day but the streets nearby around were unusually quiet, the offices, bars and coffee shops mostly empty. Thursday has become the busiest working day in the City of London since the pandemic but the second day of national rail strikes kept almost everyone at home.

Before the strikes began on Tuesday, the government and its loyal chorus in the press were in their places and ready to go with lines that have been rehearsed during every industrial dispute for the past 40 years. The public was being held to ransom by union barons who cared nothing about the inconvenience they caused to hardworking people as they made unreasonable pay demands and resisted modernisation.

But as members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union started picketing railway stations across the country, a Savanta ComRes poll found that 58 per cent of the public thought the strikes were justified with just 34 per cent saying they were unjustified. If the union was winning the argument, it was partly because of a series of broadcast interviews with its general secretary Mick Lynch.

Shaven-headed with thick, dark eyebrows, the usually unsmiling Lynch is at first sight ideal material for the Conservatives and their friends to fashion into a traditional villain. But his straight talk, unflappable demeanour and refusal to play along with lazy, trivial questioning have won him the admiration of millions.

Apparently indifferent to whether his interlocutors like him or not, Lynch is candid about his determination to protect the interests of RMT members and to ensure that they do not follow millions of other British workers into low-wage, insecure employment. He has consistently blamed Boris Johnson’s government for the strikes, accusing ministers of leaning on the rail companies to resist the compromises that could end them.

Lynch’s technique in broadcast studios is to remain impassive while his antagonists are speaking before taking them down with scorn when they are finished. When Sky News presenter Kay Burley asked what his members would do if temporary agency workers crossed a picket line to take up their jobs, he waved behind him at a small group of picketers standing peacefully in an empty station.

“Do you not know how a picket line works?” he said.

“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?”

He called junior minister Chris Philp a liar 16 times during one exchange, told ITV host Richard Madeley he was talking twaddle and rebuked Piers Morgan for his trivial line of questioning.

“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,” actor Hugh Laurie said.

Born in 1962 to Irish parents who came to Britain during the Blitz to find work, Lynch grew up on a council estate in Paddington as one of five children. He left school at 16 to become an electrician, moving into construction until his career was blocked when he was illegally blacklisted because of his union activism.

Lynch later sued his former employer, who was part of a co-ordinated action among construction companies to blacklist workers who were union activists and won a substantial settlement.

“When you tell your friends about a blacklist, they say it’s bollocks. I knew I was blacklisted but you can’t prove it, because it was all secret,” he told the Guardian last year.

Lynch is one of a group of second-generation Irish in Britain at the top of the trade union movement, including Trade Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady and Unite’s Sharon Graham. Like O’Grady, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were founder members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, Lynch is steeped in the tradition of the Irish labour movement.

Asked by an ITV News interviewer on Wednesday to name his hero, Lynch chose James Connolly.

“Do you know who James Connolly was?” he said.

“He was an Irish republican socialist and he educated himself and he started non-sectarian trade unionism in Ireland and he was a hero of the Irish revolution. He was a hero.”