UK Union Chief Behind Rail Strikes Draws Fans With Fighting Talk

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(Bloomberg) -- Amid all the finger-pointing between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer over the UK’s worst rail strikes in three decades, one man’s leadership has stood out: Mick Lynch, the head of the union coordinating the stoppages.

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The secretary-general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has won plaudits on social media with a series of combative television and radio appearances during which he’s attacked Johnson’s ruling Conservatives, Starmer’s opposition, and his interviewers.

On Monday, Lynch repeatedly interrupted government minister Chris Philp on BBC’s “Newsnight” program, calling him a “liar.” In 90 seconds, he used the words “lie,” “liar,” “lied” and “lying” 16 times. On a separate BBC appearance, he accused Tory backbencher Jonathan Gullis of “talking nonsense.”

Some 40,000 rail workers took industrial action on Tuesday, bringing much of the UK rail network to a standstill. Further strikes are planned for Thursday as Lynch’s RMT pushes 13 train operators and Network Rail -- which operates the tracks -- for pay rises to match soaring inflation, as well as a guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies as part of the settlement.

Meanwhile Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps have tried to take a back seat -- while seeking to pin the blame on Starmer’s Labour -- arguing that the dispute is between workers and their employers.

Tory ‘DNA’

But Lynch has repeatedly countered that the government is “dictating the mandate of the train companies and Network Rail.” It’s a message that resonates among Johnson’s opponents, who point out that it’s the Conservatives who have been in power for more than a decade.

“The dead hand of this Tory government is all over this dispute,” Lynch said in a televised statement on Monday. “The fingerprints of Grant Shapps and the DNA of Rishi Sunak are all over the problems on the railway.”

Yet Lynch has also turned his fire on Labour -- the party historically linked to UK trade unions -- while pointing out the RMT is not affiliated with the party. Starmer is trying to tread a careful line on the strikes, saying he didn’t want them to go ahead and blaming the government for not preventing them. But he has also raised party ire by telling his team not to join the picket lines.

“It doesn’t really bother me whether Keir Starmer supports us,” Lynch told LBC Radio. “If Keir Starmer wants to connect with the working class communities that have fallen out of connection with Labour, he’s got to find some values and some policies and some answers to questions about vulnerable work.”

Labour ‘Triangulating’

On one BBC appearance this week, he told junior Labour shadow minister Jenny Chapman: “I don’t even know who you are.” He went on to say the opposition party should be about backing working people, “not triangulating from opinion makers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and The Times.”

And it’s not just politicians Lynch has taken aim at. Asked by veteran ITV breakfast show host Richard Madeley if he was a Marxist, Lynch laughed. and replied: “Richard, you do come out with the most remarkable twaddle,” using a British slang word for “nonsense.”

“You don’t have to be a Marxist or social scientist to know there’s a problem at the heart of our society,” he continued. “People in full-time jobs are taking state benefits, and they’re having to go to food banks to feed themselves.”

Sky News’s veteran presenter Kay Burley fared no better when she asked Lynch what picketing workers would do if agency staff -- who the government wants to use to keep services running -- try to cross the lines to work.

“Well we will picket them, what do you think we will do?” Lynch replied. “We run a picket line and we’ll ask them not to go to work. Do you not know how a picket line works?”

Burley then referenced the 1980s miners’ strikes, which turned violent, and asked again what picketing would involve. Lynch cast an eye over his shoulder at the small group of strikers behind him and retorted: “Does it look like the miners’ strikes? What are you talking about? You seem to have gone off into the world of the surreal.”

Burley then tweeted the interview and said Lynch “got a little flustered” answering her questions. Few of the comments appeared to agree.

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