Source > Lawrence Wishart Blog: Soundings
POSTED ON 06/12/2022
A Soundings 82 preview
A wide-ranging discussion on trade unions, class, Keir Starmer, climate change, Black Lives Matter – and how to win the next general election for Labour.
Gary I want to start by getting a sense of where you are coming from. You were born in 1962, one of five kids, in Paddington, to Irish parents who came over during the war. That puts you at seven when the Troubles start, about twelve when the miners take down the government, seventeen when Thatcher comes in, and just beyond being a teenager when Bobby Sands is elected, and when Brixton goes up in flames …
Mick … I didn’t do all those things!
Gary … That’s not what I read in the Daily Mail … But to move on – tell us about the formative moments in your career and life.
Mick Those things all seems like a long time ago. The leading story in 1978 – and some people find it hard to believe that 1978 actually happened – was punk rock and all the musical changes that were going on – the glad ending of progressive rock …
Gary Were you a punk rocker?
Mick No, I was what they called a New Waver. We used to wear Harrington jackets, Levis and Dunlop Green Flash – that was people on the edge of punk, who weren’t quite brave enough to face their mum about dyeing their hair or having their ears pierced. So we just drank a lot of lager instead and listened to dodgy bands.
My upbringing was in a close-knit community. I come from a council estate in Paddington – posh people call it Little Venice, that’s the other side of the canal, we were on the southern side. I think it was a really nice council estate. If you look at it now it’s got a lot of foliage, lots of trees. And it was a very coherent upbringing. Because what we had was full employment. Everyone had a job - and in fact you could get more than one job if you wanted it. And people seemed a bit more carefree. They were quite glad that they had been rehoused, which is completely understandable if you knew what Paddington, or west London, was like in those days - you can see it in the film The Blue Lamp – what the tenements were like, what the slums were like. I don’t want to get dewy-eyed or sentimental about it, but when I was growing up people were glad to be living in council-provided housing which they could afford, according to their wages. And they could choose a lifestyle which meant they could have a lot more leisure than previously. I think that was quite an important thing.
The first politicians I remember were Wilson and Healey and all those characters in the 1970s, and trade unions were just part and parcel of what we were. They were quite important and dynamic people in our society, and there seemed to be more balance in society, things seemed to be progressing, in spite of all the problems. And there were wars going on, including the Vietnam War, and the national liberation struggles in what we used to call the Third World. And I found that environment very stimulating, as a kid. From when I was very young I was a TV addict. My wife would probably tell you that I’m still a TV addict because whenever I sit down, I sit in front of it and fall asleep. There was an awful lot of conversation in our house about current issues, not just about celebrity culture or frivolous stuff, but about what was going on all around us. And there seemed to be a tremendous number of historic events in the 1960s and 1970s, both at home and abroad. The colonies were being disbanded, and, as I said, liberation struggles were going on – and not just in the British empire, the French empire was also being disbanded. And the US was asserting itself, and so were the Soviet Union and the Eastern block. All that was going on, and you couldn’t help but be stimulated by it, no matter what your views were. I think that was a very interesting upbringing. I am probably one of the only people here who can still remember the trade union leaders’ names from then – Vic Feather, Jack Jones … I thought these people were very important.
Gary Is there anything in there that pushed you towards being a trade unionist, as opposed to being another kind of politician, or a social worker, or something else?
Mick Well, when I left school at sixteen I did an apprenticeship as an electrician. I was in a factory and we used to make machinery – we used to make things and export them to other countries. Remember when that used to happen? We used to make things by hand here, and then sell them abroad to help the economy … Shortly after that, in the early 1980s, a lot of British manufacturing started to get shut down, but at that time, West London, where I lived, was full of engineering – Park Royal, the Great West Road, it was all engineering and manufacturing plants. So all of that community had the idea of shop stewards, or people who were convenors – people knew about all that instinctively. And the factories had social institutions attached to them, social clubs, sports clubs, welfare clubs, all sorts of activities. So I thought it was very natural when I saw that there was a virtual closed shop where I worked. There were five trade unions there, print unions, engineering unions and the electricians’ union, which I joined. The day I started they came up to me and said, ‘here’s your form, we want it signed by teatime’ – and I just signed it. And if I had waited to ask my mum or dad ‘should I sign it?’, they would have said, ‘You should have signed when you got it. Don’t bring it home here, make sure you’re in it’. That’s the attitude we had.
But then the electricians’ union wouldn’t let me in for a year. They said ‘You’ve got to finish your probation. When you come out of probation and you start your electrical training, then we’ll let you in the union.’ If only we could do that today – ‘we’re full up, we’re not letting you in until you have qualified to a certain level’. We try to shovel them in now. But that was the atmosphere we were brought up in. You had to be in the union. The electricians’ union at that time was the most right-wing union in the country, but even the most right-wing electrician, if you went to another site, would say ‘where’s your union card?’. Even a Tory-voting electrician wouldn’t accept that you could be an electrician without an electricians’ union card. And that was true of many of the trades, they wouldn’t accept you on site. That was the attitude.
Gary Would you like to go back there?
Mick Well I would certainly love it if was natural and instinctive for any worker to say ‘I must be in a union’. I want unions to be attractive to people and to be able to pull them in because of all the kinds of things they have done. I think we have concentrated for far too long on selling insurance and all these other kinds of benefits – the servicing model – whereas what we should be doing is trying to dominate the workplace. In the local workplace, whether it is a hospital ward, a sewage works or a shop, the union rep or shop steward should be trying to dominate that workplace – in a good way, so that we are balancing what the employer does. And that builds up in the company, and into the whole site, rebalancing what that corporation does. And then people will say ‘I am in this union because it is effective. If I’ve got an issue or a grievance, or if we have a pay claim, this union is going to take that issue forward.’ Whereas a lot of unions today will say ‘phone the help line’- and there is a possibility that someone may answer you, and then you might get somebody to give you generic advice. That’s not good enough. We have to dominate every workplace in Britain as an active force for working people. That’s what I want back.
Gary You talked about being addicted to telly, and that’s where a lot of people have now become accustomed recently to seeing you – sometimes able to put the case, and sometimes in what look like quite bizarre interactions with some of my former colleagues. That’s a really interesting style you have – you don’t panic – and it works. I am wondering – did you have any media training?
Mick No! Shouting at my brothers in various boozers around West London – that was the training. But the trade union movement does train you. I do meetings like this in the back of workingmen’s clubs, railway clubs and pubs up and down the country, and you have to face people who want answers about what’s going on. So the best training you can get is from answering fairly rigorous questioning from our members – from going out, standing up and making a ten-minute presentation and then having to take criticism, genuine questions, and sometimes some fairly hostile reactions to what you have done about people’s situation. So, no, I’ve had no training whatsoever. I would completely fail in that kind of training in the first couple of minutes. If people ask me a question I’ll answer it, and if it has got some merit I’ll give them a decent answer. But if it’s nonsense I’ll tell them – that’s what I’m used to.
Gary That’s put me on notice! So, we are in a very particular time. The government has plans to introduce draconian legislation to curb the unions – to raise the already high thresholds for ballots, and to introduce laws to guarantee minimum service levels during strikes – and if enacted this would affect many workers planning or engaged in industrial action.[i] How do you plan to respond?
Mick Well, we’re not going to run away. We’ve got live mandates for the action which is underway and there will be more ballots. And other unions are currently running ballots. Until the legislation changes we will be running our dispute on the basis of the existing legislation. When any legislation is put down in parliament we will have to see if it breaches human rights legislation or international labour law, and we will challenge it whenever we can.
But you know there are no rights for workers – if you take P&O, the workers in that scenario had no rights that they could enforce against the employer, even though P&O admitted at a Select Committee meeting, retrospectively, that they had broken the law. So you’ve got this bizarre situation where a cabinet full of old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates are telling people like me, from working-class communities, and ordinary rail workers, that we are holding the country to ransom. And the billionaires that they are propping up with tax breaks and subsidies in the middle of an energy crisis and cost-of-living crisis – they’re not holding us to ransom, we’re holding them to ransom. It is the most bizarre Stockholm syndrome scenario that I’ve ever heard of.
So we will respond in whichever way we can. But, what we’ve got to do out there – including in social-media land – is not only ask how we are going to respond as the working class, but, beyond that, how we are going to respond as a country, a population, that is interested in civil liberties and human rights. We will be calling on the TUC next week to get a campaign going. The actions that we are already seeing rising up in the communities has got to be built on. We’ve got to get people on the streets, we’ve got to get people taking community action, including collective action that we maybe haven’t even thought of yet, in all sorts of ways – traditional demonstrations, but also all sorts of other direct action if we can get it going, coupled to industrial action, on a rolling, synchronised, co-ordinated basis.
But I can’t have all the answers and the RMT can’t have all the answers. We’re 82,000 people – a lot of people think we’re much bigger than that. The big general unions – the ones that are anonymous, that people don’t know about, like USDAW and Unison – which have got vast assets and vast material resources, have now got to come in to the fray. This is the struggle of our life time, our generation. And if we don’t succeed in freeing ourselves from these shackles, not just the anti-trade union laws that already exist but the ones they are proposing, we will go into terminal decline as a working-class movement. We’ll do everything we can to respond, but we need everyone else with us.
Gary Precisely on that question – we’ve been in this period for a while, we’ve had big demonstrations about racism, sexual harassment, women’s marches, Black Lives Matter. It seems that progressives can achieve big demonstrations, but incubating that into something sustainable as a movement seems to have eluded us. In the last few days in Norwich, in Manchester, in Liverpool, there have been huge crowds supporting Enough is Enough. I take your point that it can’t just be you that has all the answers, but I am just wondering what happens now with all of those people. I’ve put my name on your website. I’ve got my shovel. Now put me to work – what do you want me to do – not you personally, but what should I do?
Mick This is the conundrum. Let’s not forget we’ve also got the police bill coming in which is trying to make protest and responses to poverty or responses to racism – or responses to a whole range of oppressions that you can name – illegal. They’re trying to make solidarity illegal, or any dissent from what the ruling class tell us – all of it is going to be effectively illegal. Or else opposition will have to be so passive, so supine, that it won’t be worth doing. It will be letters to the Guardian – and, as we all know, that is one of the most effective ways of organising the middling classes, the latte drinkers of the world. This the conundrum we are facing.
People keep telling me we need to defend democracy and the RMT is fully committed to that. I can’t tell you how the situation is going to unfold, but there has got to be more than one player in the garden. And for people involved in Black Lives Matter, and all the identity issues – that whole range of issues of dissent and difference and people struggling to be able to express themselves – for them as well as the unions the whole issue of the suppression of civil rights is crucial. And living outside poverty is a civil right as far as I am concerned – we need to put across the message that we’ve got to go back to the fundamental of socialism, the abolition of poverty – that’s our cry. We need the freedoms that go with that, and when we start to liberate ourselves, that’s what we’ve got to link up. We’ve got to link up all these movements, from the most local save our nursery campaign to national issues like resisting these oppressive laws, and of course solving the cost-of-living crisis.
You can’t solve the cost-of-living crisis until you put the ruling class on the back foot. They are not going to give you things because they are benevolent; or if they do give you any amelioration it’s going to be temporary, they are going to want to take it back over the next five, ten, years. So we’ve got to join up all those struggles and we’ve got to make our demands concrete. But the first thing we have got to do is get people engaged in activity. And I am fairly tired of campaigns, or small political entities, that say ‘let’s form this pure group, let’s identify our favourite lefty, or our favourite issue, and pursue that until the nth degree’. It has got to be a broad brush – like the five demands of Enough is Enough, and the People’s Assembly demands, which are roughly the same – and we’ve got allow everyone to identify behind them. Whether you are a new migrant to the country or a veteran campaigner, the cost-of-living crisis is the same. If you are oppressed as a black person it is likely that you are also oppressed in terms of lower wages, because that is how things work in this society. We’ve got to find a few banners that we can all get behind, and make concrete demands.
And the key demand, to put it plainly, is that we’ve got to move this Labour Party into a position where they identify openly, overtly, consistently, loudly – whichever way you want to put it – with the struggles that all of us, and our friends, work colleagues, neighbours and family, are experiencing. And that might sound very old fashioned – we’ve got to make the Labour Party move. But we’ve got to kick them to our position.
All these campaigns have got to coalesce around the idea that we need an opposition, and that opposition is the same stuff that it used to be – the trade unions have got to be oppositional, and so have the Labour Party politicians, and politicians from other parties if they want to get on board. Let’s not forget here the politicians in the Scottish nation, and the Welsh nation, where potential allies are sometimes in government. And then there are the important mayors we’ve got now round the country, and the councils who hold local purse strings – they’ve all got to be forced into a position where they are on the side of the working class. But then we also need people like yourself, people in the cultural side and the academic side and the artistic side, coming in to support free expression about really changing the way society works. So, a lot of flowers, a lot of blooms.
Gary Let’s take just one of those blooms – Labour … this is something we have to think about. Why do you think they have held you at such arm’s length, if not distanced themselves from you, and what would it take to change that, beyond metaphorically kicking them?
Mick Well I don’t expect people like Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves to come down to the picket line. But what they shouldn’t do is stop people who want to come to the picket lines from coming. Tan Dhesi, who’s the MP out my way in Slough, just beyond where I live, and the Labour front bench spokesperson for rail – he’s been on the picket line. Lisa Nandy, who’s not an ultra-lefty in any terms, was on the picket line with Unite – though she hasn’t been on an RMT one. People are subtly loosening themselves on this issue, and Keir Starmer seems to be becoming isolated within his own party – people are starting to tell him he’s looking pretty useless. That’s what his problem is. He doesn’t have to have my politics or my views or my detailed agenda, but he’s got to identify with this wave, this groundswell, that’s developing across the country, and show that he understands where working people are. But, for example, last week’s Labour proposal about resolving the fuel crisis in people’s homes, and in the local businesses which we all use, has already proved to be useless, because the Tories are going to outdo him on it. But Starmer’s being held to ransom by Mandelson and all those conservatives that were at the heart of the Blair project, and this means he’s finding that he’s out of date – he’s as out of date as any other politician from another generation. What he should have been saying is that he would take the price of oil and gas down by sequestrating the product of the North Sea – because 50 per cent of our oil and gas comes from within the UK. During the war, Churchill, Attlee and Bevin would not have put up with the kind of profiteering that is going on. They would have taken things into public ownership, even if it was a temporary measure. Bold measures like that would galvanise people. And the oligarchs, and the people who control BP or Centrica – all the people who own or have shares in those companies – would not have an answer to that. It would be seen as patriotic, modern, and suited to the needs of the people. And it would be supported. Starmer’s got to get bold, and find something within himself that says, ‘I’ve got the values of working people around this country at the heart of my politics’. The policies are going to follow once the values are identified.
Gary It seems like he doesn’t have any policies right now. I am wondering if there is a strategy out there for drawing Labour into your orbit.
Mick The strategy has already started – because industrial action itself is an expression of working people. Not all of my members are natural Labour voters. Someone who’s been on the picket line at Kings Cross station for the last eight days, the RMT rep at King Cross station, is a Conservative councillor up in Cambridgeshire, and he’s saying ‘I’m not here for opposition to the government. I’m taking action because I don’t get paid enough and nor do my colleagues.’ Plenty of our members voted Tory. Let’s not forget that. But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to resolve this cost-of-living crisis. It doesn’t mean they can’t be won back to a Labour vote at the next election.
My view is based on a class analysis. It may be marxist, it may be something else, it may even be off a building site … but if we don’t win the next election for working people – even if it’s with a Starmer-led Labour Party – it will be to the detriment of working-class people. If we do win it and get rid of the Tories, it will be progress for working-class people. Because the worst Starmer government is going to be better than the best Tory government. That is a straightforward analysis. And the more we can do to make Starmer’s position change, the better it will be for us when he gets into four or five years of power. So, it has already started. The unions – Unite, GMB, RMT, CWU – are not going to wait for policy papers, TUC positions, nice articles in progressive journals, arguing about what we ought to be doing eighteen or twenty-four months into a Labour government. What we are saying is we need effective industrial action. We need to win big pay deals for our people in the here and now. We need a massive council house building programme – not social housing, council housing, with low rents. We need to solve the housing crisis and the energy crisis, and we need to tax the rich properly, to redistribute wealth. That’s all we need to do. We need to put forward these values and make them bring policies forward in the Labour manifesto that suit those demands. And if they don’t do it, we will stand up in town hall meetings like this across the country and tell them they need to change what they’re doing or else they’re not going to get elected, or even if they do we might as well have the Tories.
I think they are already changing. When Starmer makes his speech at the TUC next week, he’s going to be standing in front of a potentially really hostile audience of trade unionists. And trade unionists are not in the mood to hear a wishy-washy speech at that conference. If they do, there’s going to be more problems for Starmer in his own party – and don’t forget that the Tories have shown him that the parliamentary party can cause problems for a leader that can unseat them. I think he is danger of seeing that happen if he doesn’t get his act together. But if he could show that he identifies with where the movement is going he’s got a chance of having a successful government.
Wilson was a progressive prime minister. He wasn’t from the ultra left, but he brought in legislation about sex discrimination, race discrimination, and health and safety at work, that is still on the statute book today. Attlee’s greatest achievements – on education, the welfare state and all the rest of it – are still there and have never been removed – though they’ve been attacked and chipped away at. Neither of these men was left-wing, but the party was left-wing, the activists were left-wing, the unions were militant and the people were demanding change.
Starmer has got to work out that conundrum for himself. He hasn’t got to turn into Arthur Scargill tomorrow, he’s got to be Keir Starmer, with some values and with a personality. That’s what I want. Then we can vote for him.
Gary I got a sense when you were talking about campaigning that you were saying that you are small, and you’re doing what you can, but there needs to be larger numbers of people – you talked about the need for lots of flowers. And my worry is that the Tories need an enemy and they will pick on you as their Galtieri – or their Arthur Scargill – they need a fight to win and they’ll pick this one. Is that a worry for you?
Mick It’s definitely a concern. Someone said to me that the RMT is the tip of the spear, and I said ‘I don’t want the spear in me, I want it to be brandished the other way’. But we can win this dispute and get a result out of it – supported by the rest of the labour movement. That’s why we need to change the whole political discourse across the spectrum, the whole scenario – for industrial relations but also the wider political discourse. We need everyone forming up, taking on the employers, putting them under manners, winning deals. We need a change of direction. We cannot run our dispute any other way than we are doing. People forget that this is a defensive dispute. They came to us nearly two years ago and said ‘you won’t fight us because Covid has cowed the working class. They’ll just be grateful for a job. So when we come to you for eight to ten thousand redundancies on the railways, plus London Underground, when we rip up your final-salary pensions and put you under new contracts of employment, you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of resisting it. You’ll just have to come to a deal and get the best you can’. They had a definite strategy. Back in May, when we declared the ballot results, they said the strike would be over in two weeks. ‘You’ll be standing outside your local station and everyone is going to hate you. The press are going to get you. All the commentators are against you. You will get no public support.’ Well, look what’s happened. Who’s filling the auditoriums and the cathedrals around this country? It is not the Tories. They had to bus people in for their leadership hustings. And I don’t know how many Starmer would get without a controlled show. But we just advertised a meeting on Facebook at short-notice, and about 5000 people turned out in Liverpool – largely to support what the RMT is doing but also to say I want some of it as well.
The public, the commuter, the business man with the brolly and bowler hat, are all saying, good on you, somebody should be doing this, we are all getting ripped off. So things are shifting. The dial has shifted away from their perspective. They were looking at things from one way but we were looking at them from another. The dial has shifted in favour of working people. If we have done anything in this dispute it is to open up some kind of spirit of resistance, and a spirit of change. But I am very aware that my primary duty as general secretary of the RMT is to get a deal for RMT members. It’s no use waking up the rest of you but we are all left behind, still on the picket line. That is my job and I’ve got no embarrassment about it. If they offer us a deal and a set of terms and conditions that we can live with, we will put that to our members with an appropriate recommendation.
And then we will go on to our next campaign, which is about outsourced cleaners in the transport industry, which brings all the issues about racism and structural discrimination into the world of work. And if we can get a cleaners and outsourced work campaign going right across the general unions – GMB, Unite and Unison – we could have a campaign that affects millions of people and will bring in a deal on issues of concern to Black Lives Matter and others. We will make it into an industrial, rather than a theoretical or philosophical, issue. These things have got to be put into the tangible experience of working people. That’s when they become effective.
But to go back to your original question – we will get a deal and it will have a positive outcome.
Gary You are now on strike, the barristers are on strike, there’s been a strike in Felixstowe, postal workers are striking – why not call a general strike?
Mick Good question. We haven’t got the ability to call a general strike but our union is itself fairly general – we have got 53,000 people in dispute, on strike, including the London Underground as well as rail workers, but we haven’t got any more big battalions. The rest are in bus companies and other transport companies – they sacked our P&O members so we can’t call them out on strike … (though, going forward, we may have a big strike in Scotland on some of the devolution issues). The TUC is the organisation that traditionally has had the power to call a general strike, but it would probably be illegal under current industrial legislation.
What we have to do is generalise the discontent, generalise the industrial and political response. So I will be speaking to ASLEF, and to CWU, and to Unite whenever we can, about either going out on the same day, or doing a rolling programme, so that the publicity is there, so that there is greater effectiveness, a greater profile, things like that. I don’t care how exactly we do it. Some people have great ideas about how to generalise it – people give me ideas about what I should do everywhere I go – but I know we need to generalise the response, so that it is clear that working-class people are being mobilised, and we then support the actual industrial action with collective action on the streets.
I know people sometimes denigrated the NHS clapping, but there was something there in it – people wanted to do something. There’s no reason why we can’t do that to express support in other ways, with ideas like having a switch-off half hour, switching off the national grid for half an hour. That’s one of the ideas people have sent us. We can have all sorts of collective action, showing all sorts of solidarity, to all sorts of people, if we can connect up all the campaigns together. So, I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I know that the RMT and the trade unions have got to be at the heart of it, so there are genuine working-class voices, working-class actions, a working-class agenda, in the middle of it all – not letting the thinkers, the commentators, the politicians, the professionals, run this agenda as if it is theirs. It’s got to be us – our own self liberation, our own actualisation, our own self-created change. And that’s got to come from meetings like this, people going into their communities, and doing People’s Assembly meetings in every town and village in the country. We don’t want competition, we want collaboration, right across our movement. And we want new people such as the Greens, and campaigners on all sort of issues which we may not instinctively identify with, all joining under our banner. That’s the way it’s got to go to make a new working-class movement.
Questions from the audience
You mentioned the barristers’ strike. Generally speaking, barristers aren’t usually seen as working-class. What’s your view on the barristers’ strike and how it connects with what you are doing and what is happening?
Mick People may not think of barristers as working-class, although they are now considering what some of them are earning. This is really a question about what the working class is – a subject the Guardian is full of and discusses nearly every day – questions of strata and which one people belong to. My view is traditional. If you don’t own the means of production and are dependent on an income that you work for, you are working-class. You may be fairly affluent, you may be on £100,000 a year with a million-pound mortgage. But if you lose your £100,000 job you’re in exactly the same position as somebody with a £200,000 mortgage and a £20,000 salary. You become working-class very quickly.
And what it feels like to be involved in class struggle is that you haven’t got any money – because they’ve cut your rates, which is what happened to the barristers, or you haven’t got any conditions, which is what they want to do on the railways, to cut our benefits and conditions. They control the way you work. And they want you to have no representation in your workplace. Barristers have become working-class. If you take the UCU lecturers’ dispute – it’s easy to make disparaging comments, but lots of working-class people become barristers or lecturers or teachers – and more power to their elbow, that’s exactly what we need. But they are still working-class and they have the right to be represented in our movement, and we should give them every support we can. The barristers’ dispute is important in more than one way. Yes, they want a decent wage – as everybody has the right to. But also, they need to be able to supply representation to working-class people on both sides of the law. Because at the moment the people who are victims of crime – these are criminal barristers – are not getting their representation because the whole system is knackered; and people that are subject to the criminal justice system, the accused, are not getting justice either – one way or the other. Everybody is losing out because they’ve got this mad market-led approach, which you cannot have in these jobs – and which I maintain you cannot have in most parts of the service sector, which the justice system is – it’s a service to the public. So I regard them as working-class and I give them my solidarity.
I wondered if you could elaborate on how environmental issues, and the climate emergency, are connected to the working-class movement.
Mick It’s not just desirable to take on these issues, it’s essential. The environment and the climate crisis are a class issue. It’s a class issue here in Britain and, even more importantly it is a class issue globally. If we are going to show our solidarity with people in the less wealthy countries of the world, people who have been ripped off by western economies, we have to show class solidarity. And that means our carbon emissions have to be driven down.
I’ve also got a vested interest in this because the RMT also has an offshore energy section in the maritime part – the M in the RMT. These workers are being ripped off, and if we are not careful the alternative energy sector will be just as exploitative, just as sweatshop based, as the energy industry was a long time ago. At the moment all the crews that are working offshore on arrays in the North Sea and West coast are being shipped in from Lithuania and Latvia and are being exploited in exactly the same way as the P&O replacement crews are. All these big arrays are owned by Shell, GP, Texaco, and the oligarchs will get control of these companies. So it’s a class issue on the industrial relations and economic side.
But it’s also a class issue because if the environment tanks, as we’re all experiencing now, the poor will be the ones who suffer the most. The borders will be overwhelmed, and questions about immigration and the distribution of wealth, in this society and in the global economy, will be absolutely overwhelming – we will go back, literally, to another age, where it’s every person for themselves. So if you believe in society, or in redistribution, or a fair go for all humans on the planet, we have to prioritise climate change and the environment. I know that people like me from the traditional labour movement need to adapt to these changes. We need to give voice and room on our platforms to people involved in these areas, who are often from a different generation to us, or a different background. We need to give them a place with us, so that we can make that connection. Because unless working-class people buy in to this change it’s not going to happen properly: it will happen to them rather than for them.
What do you think the impact of Black Lives Matter has been on the trade union movement?
Mick We learned a number of lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement, and one of them was about the nature of protest, the immediacy they were able to bring to it. It was a movement where people came out of their houses and on to the streets. And we have got to learn something from that. Trade unions are very rule-bound and constitution bound, waiting for permission to be given to people like me from the national executive or the regional subcommittee. Obviously there has to be some democratic control but we should also make room for more spontaneous and informal activity.
But the more important point is that it made me think more empathetically about the issues. I have always thought of myself as anti-racist, someone who is empathetic with the experiences of black people. I am white working-class and I’ve grown up around black people. But I haven’t had Gary’s experience, even though our backgrounds are in some ways very similar. I haven’t lived his life. And I haven’t lived the life of people who are now coming into our union from places like Somalia, Eritrea. And we need to recognise that some of these members might have a different perspective from what we used to have in the 1970s and 1980s. We’ve got to keep learning and keep the space open and not hog it. And what I say in my union is that one of the best ways to deliver change is for people who look like me and sound like me to get out of the way, to allow other people to be elected into these positions. We’ve got to deliver change through the unions themselves changing. And there are ways to do that.
But where we can really affect things is on the ground floor, for example in this cleaners’ dispute, and in hospital ancillary workers’ disputes. In the past, the transport system – BR and London Transport – and the health service, no matter how bad they were, were a place where black people and migrants had the opportunity to come through the ranks, to go up the command chain and get into better jobs, even though they started from a position of disadvantage. That was one of the benefits. The health service has seen a lot of that. Subcontracting has now halted all of that, and that is a structurally racist thing. You’re stuck with these firms – ISS, Mitie – and you’ll never get beyond being a cleaner. It’s not the same kind of campaign as Black Lives Matter but it is about how you can deliver tangible change for people from different communities and different experiences. And we’ve got to also tune in to what is happening to people coming in from Eastern Europe and the Balkan areas. We’ve got to keep our movement alive to everybody. And we’ve got to give them space. And the more connected we are to every experience, and the less judgmental and the more facilitative and enabling we are, the more it will allow people to have their expression inside a union, but also to share our existing platforms.
We’ve got to be empathetic to all kinds of struggle, even when we don’t understand them. As someone of my age, I don’t understand half the things that are going on around me – not because I am dopey or switched off, but because they’ve developed since I stopped developing! As I said recently on the radio, I don’t even understand tattoos. I don’t understand why people get tattoos left, right and centre. I don’t get it. But I am not going to go round condemning them. That’s a safe example. (I also don’t understand piercing.) But I am trying not to judge people’s lives any more. I used to do it. I used to be very judgmental. In fact I’ve got people in my family who tell me I’m still judgmental. But I’ve got to keep learning, and let people come out, and to be on the platform, and get exposure to their causes. And all those causes can exist under the big cause, which is the cause of the working class. I firmly believe that.
25 per cent of people in this country have a disability or mental health issue of some kind. Could you say something about this 25 per cent of people, who have no voice.
Mick We have tried to do something on those issues during the dispute, on issues like accessibility, and campaigning against shutting down all the ticket offices, because people have need of them, often because of disability or other vulnerabilities. I also know that I have upset people in the past, in things that I’ve said about mental health, as many of us have done – and when I look back on the things we used to say I think it was disgusting. I know I’ve got to learn and move on from those positions. But people now have been able to bring those issues out. So far from setting myself up as an advocate for people with disabilities, I need to try to learn from them.
What would be your advice to workers in the health service, where people find it very difficult to strike because of the nature of their work?
Mick The NHS is a very precious thing that has greatly benefitted so many of us, but it’s being eaten up every day, bit by bit, it’s as if some boa constrictor is swallowing it up. So we’ve got to fight that. But there have been some important developments. Last week the BMA executive council donated £1000 they had collected for the RMT strike fund. That’s never happened before. And the BMA and the Royal College of Nurses, two non-TUC unions – they aren’t registered as unions, they’re professional associations – are both taking indicative ballots on strike action now. It’s going to be incredible if they both vote yes. It will change the dynamic of working people in this country, people’s mind-set, if the doctors and nurses in the biggest non-TUC unions vote for industrial action. There are verging on one million people in trade unions outside the TUC. We must do everything we can to encourage them to vote for action. Of course, as with the junior doctors dispute a few years ago, what you then do with that mandate is something you’ve got to consider. Obviously a permanent walkout is not something you would do.
The first strike I was ever involved in was in 1982, it was a TUC walk-out and day of action in support of the NHS – a million people took to the streets around Hyde Park in support of an NHS pay rise and NHS funding. That’s the kind of activity we need to do on the back of a health workers’ mandate. I would urge anyone in the health service unions, including the ones not in the TUC, to vote yes when the time comes and then get involved in the campaign.
Gary It is precisely because people in the health service are so important that you should strike. We need this service to work. We don’t want them to run it down, to offshore it, to turn it into something that people can’t use or don’t want to use. It is the very importance of the service that means you have to do something, and that’s why we have to do something too, we have to give support that is more than wearing badges – for example coming down to the picket lines to show our support. And the public does support the idea of health workers going on strike, because the public understands.
What do you think about the Red Wall and Keir Starmer’s focus on ‘culture-war’ issues?
Mick The only way to win the next election on behalf of working people is to win back those seats – and other seats that Labour have dropped. Starmer’s got a problem in Scotland, it is very difficult for him to win back all the seats that used to vote Labour in Scotland and its getting more difficult in other areas of the country. But the main issue is that what Labour have done for a long time is take working-class people for granted. Though we haven’t got time to talk in detail about Brexit, I think there was a fundamental failure in taking an ambivalent position about the second referendum. Whether you supported Brexit or not, it was the wrong strategy. They should have chosen a strategy that said ‘this is the Brexit that we want, this is what we are looking for. The Tories are in government so we’ll support the closest thing we can get to that’. Flip-flopping night and day and worrying about what you are going to do and whose support you might win or lose means you don’t believe in anything. What people in red wall or blue wall or any other seats think, in my experience, is that this bloke doesn’t believe in anything at all.
So Starmer has got to stick to a limited number of ideas – if he likes he can put them on a tablet of stone like Ed Miliband – he’s got to get some values and stick to them. And if he is going to create a national care service for older people, stick to it, don’t worry about how much it costs – because the Tories have proved that it doesn’t matter how much anything costs as long as you stick to it. Consistency is important because people then realise you are consistent, you say what you believe, and you put forward a programme that consistently supports these ideas. Policies do change from time to time to suit the needs of the time, or the needs of the period. But if you believe in council housing, for instance, you don’t stop believing in council housing because you’ve got problems with it in the next quarter or the next year. You might delay a policy, or curtail it, but you go back to it as soon as you can.
Because I can guarantee you one thing – if the Tories can’t get anti-trade union laws through because of congestion in parliament or whatever, they don’t say well, we’ll drop all that. They say we’ll come back to it when we’ve cut the legs off these people, or have had this war we’re going to have, or whatever it is – the only thing that delays them is the business of the day. They are consistent in pursuing the needs of their class. They are famous for it and they do it every time they get into power. We need a set of politicians that are consistent in supporting the needs of working people, on a five, ten or twenty year basis. – and you don’t need to be a radical to do this. That’s how you win an election in my opinion.
Gary Thank you Mick. Let’s all keep learning, keep organising and keep fighting.
This conversation took place at an event organised by the People’s Assembly, London, September 2022. The People’s Assembly is a broad campaign against austerity, cuts and privatisation. For more information: https://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/what-is-the-peoples-assembly/.
Mick Lynch is general secretary of the RMT.
Gary Younge is a journalist and author, and professor of sociology at the University of Manchester,
[i] This was the situation with the Truss government at the time of the interview. There is no reason to think that Rishi Sunak will shy away from such legislation.
Steve Eason, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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