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We’ll hold Labour’s feet to the fire

RMT leader MICK LYNCH talks to Elizabeth Short about why Starmer needs to fulfil promises to scrap anti-strike laws and renationalise rail, and laments the lack of a transformative green new deal to create jobs and tackle the climate crisis

IN the countdown to the general election, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s message is resolute: “The main task ahead of us for anyone that’s in any way progressive — is to get the Tories out.”

The Star caught up with him amid a barrage of pre-election interviews and just ahead of the union’s AGM.

RMT has not shied away from criticising Labour — as a socialist union, it’s hard not to. Yet Lynch remains practical — the only way to end the Tories’ 14-year reign is by getting Labour in.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re giving a blank cheque,” he says.

RMT has not always engaged with Labour in the same way as other trade unions and has not been affiliated with the party since 2004.

Its links were severed after several branches backed the Scottish Socialist Party, in exasperation with the direction of Blair’s New Labour.

“We’ve got a bigger Labour group of MPs that we co-ordinate in Parliament than we ever had when we were affiliated,” Lynch says.

“We will have Cabinet ministers probably in our RMT group. So we could exert influence and take part, but with a sort of uniqueness of identity.”

He vowed to hold the party’s feet to the fire on repealing the draconian Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, which requires a percentage of staff to cross their own pickets during industrial action.

The pledge is part of Labour’s New Deal for Workers, and Lynch says that RMT, along with other unions, will apply the pressure to make sure it stays “undiluted.”

Among Labour’s other pledges are plans to bring passenger rail under public ownership, something which Lynch describes as a “major step.”

Although, he points out, the plans do not extend to freight and rolling stock — the carriages and locomotives leased by private companies.

Bringing rolling stock into public ownership is complicated, Lynch admits: “One of the difficulties is that they’ve been set up confidentially with commercial firms, and they are 25 to 30-year contracts.

“So with all the priorities that Labour’s got, it wouldn’t be easy with the best will in the world to unravel those contracts.”

One striking omission from Labour’s manifesto is the absence of a green new deal, a programme to decarbonise Britain, which was initially backed by the party in 2019. And in this, transport would have had a pivotal role.

“I think it would have been transformational,” Lynch says. “Transport, carbon emissions and the new energy revolution are all one thing, they’re all knitted together.”

While green policies could have prompted a switch from car use to public transport, a transition to more high-speed rail could have resulted in a “modal shift” from aviation, Lynch says, as seen in plans in China and South Korea.

Fundamentally, though, backing away from green policies is a great loss for working-class communities.

“Council housing stock would have been updated, insulated, improved,” Lynch says.

“People’s bills would have come down, which would have been a great help, but we could also have generated thousands and thousands of jobs in our community where we re-skilled working-class people.”

Such a transition could have a profound impact on employment, creating opportunities in areas such as heating engineering, construction and insulation.

“You’ve got to have a political party that’s got the ambition and the depth of vision that says I’m going to do all of these things and we’ve got to co-ordinate them all together.

“At the moment we’re just getting a very tight fiscal settlement that’s not very ambitious.”

In a world of rampant job insecurity and the Uberisation of work, the union remains steadfast in championing campaigns that support some of the most exploited workers.

One of the RMT’s priorities has been to get better deals for subcontracted workers such as cleaners and caterers, and ultimately, to put an end to outsourcing — change which could ripple through to other industries.

“I think what’s unique about it is we still have the ability to fight on those issues because we haven’t lost so much ground as many other sectors have,” Lynch says.

“So if you take hospitality, bar work and catering work, that’s completely non-unionised — more or less — people are working casually and being super-exploited.

“But if you do that work on the railway as a catering worker — you’ve still got terms and conditions, you’ve still got a pension, you’ve still got union recognition.

“So that’s why we keep going really, because we want to bring those benefits back to everybody else if we can.”

Among their achievements, the union secured a 21.21 per cent pay increase for contracted-out caterers working on TransPennine Express services last year.

In 2022, over 40,000 RMT rail workers voted to strike in the biggest industrial action since privatisation nearly 30 years prior.

The powerful scale of industrial strength prompted hysterics from Grant Schapps, the transport secretary at the time, who branded the rail unions Luddites, in the face of legitimate concerns for safety and workers’ rights.

“Technology is good if it’s in the hands of the right people,” Lynch says.

“If it’s in the hands of super-exploitative capitalists like Bezos and Elon, then they’re just going to cast people out of jobs.”

Technological advancements may lead to shorter working weeks — or fragmented shifts.

“But we can’t have people just driven into impoverishment because technology has moved forward,” Lynch says.

“People talk about productivity, but there’s no point in pushing up the retirement age if there’s not enough work for people who are already under the retirement age.”

“It’s a big conversation, and we can’t just allow the companies and the employers to be in charge of that.

Lynch says it is more of a societal question about the nature of work and how to distribute wealth to look after everyone going forward — which may mean conversations around universal basic income.

“If we can’t provide enough work for people, we can’t just cast them out into some kind of nether region of unemployment with no prospects going forward.”

He concludes: “But we need to find people that want to work with us, rather than knock us on the head — which is where we’ve been for the last 40 years under an extended period of Thatcherism.”

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