STAND by for a new people’s hero – Mick Lynch of the RMT.

He may not be Scottish – and he hasn’t said much about indyref2 – but his union made history in 2014 as the first major trade union to back Scottish independence after a ballot of Scottish members resulted in a narrow Yes majority.

Back then, Scottish RMT organiser Mick Hogg said: “I believe an independent Scotland will be a force for good internationally and a beacon of hope and aspiration to the working-class communities of the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond. Politics is about priorities. A Yes vote will see the needs of the millions put before the greed of the millionaires.”


Of course, Lynch wasn’t RMT General Secretary then, and his personal stance on independence isn’t clear. But the union opted for internal democracy instead of an imposed London view. And that’s all fair-minded Scots will be asking for this time around.

READ MORE: Who is Mick Lynch? Meet the trade unionist showing up the London media

But the Yes-leaning nature of the RMT isn’t the only reason Lynch’s union has more support amongst Scots than any other part of the UK.

The trade union man is tackling the establishment fearlessly in every TV interview – assertively but without aggression. Lynch is tough to handle, unwilling to play polite media games and therefore impossible to sideline, patronise or ignore.

In short, his “up and at it” style is an example for everyone representing the independence cause over the next year and a half: wide awake, on the ball, ready to call out lies, counter lazy arguments and deliver the union’s case in a few memorable words.

It was hard not to cheer when he ignored interviewer Kirsty Wark’s plea for restraint and heckled a British Government minister as he claimed the RMT had walked away from talks on Newsnight.

“That’s a lie, a direct lie, he’s lying, that’s a lie, that’s a lie, that is a lie, a direct lie, direct lie, that is a lie, he’s lying.”

The National: RMT general secretary Mick Lynch on a picket line outside Euston station in LondonRMT general secretary Mick Lynch on a picket line outside Euston station in London

And then when Chris Philp ground to a halt: “You’ve also lied that we left negotiations on Saturday and went to a rally. There were no negotiations scheduled for Saturday. You are a liar.”

Lynch also made mincemeat of Kay Burley, who quizzed him about likely picketing behaviour. The Sky News presenter asked five times how replacement agency staff might be treated at picket lines, conjuring up images of Miners’ Strike confrontations.

A calm Lynch simply turned to the entirely peaceful picket line behind him and said: “it’ll be more of this, probably”. He didn’t deny there would be exchanges – “obviously, that’s why we mount picket lines, to persuade other workers not to cross” – and left Burley looking ludicrous and mildly hysterical.

Lynch has done the same in every other interview, prompting actor Hugh Laurie to tweet “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”. That’s been liked 80,000 times.

Why does it matter?

Union success depends on confidence amongst striking workers and the hearts and minds of the British public. It’s clear senior Tories aim to go in hard, trying to villainise unions, and suggest that “hard-liners” are holding the country to ransom, hoping to re-kindle the polarising politics of the 1984 Miner’s Strike. But Boris ain’t no Maggie. And Lynch is no Arthur Scargill.

He’s assertive and persuasive – not confrontational – and dogged.

Born to parents from Ireland, Lynch grew up in Paddington, left school at 16 and qualified as an electrician. He later moved to construction and joined a trade union, but found himself illegally blacklisted as a result. In 1993, unable to find building work, he began working for Eurostar and joined the RMT. Twenty years later, he received a large settlement for the illegal blacklisting and was elected general secretary in May 2021.

He’s not easy to paint as a pantomime villain.

And that’s problematic for Keir Starmer, whose order not to support the rail workers has prompted Scottish leader Anas Sarwar and two dozen prominent Labour MPs to head straight for the picket lines. Not a good look. As Lynch becomes almost ubiquitous on TV, shooting from the hip in a way the Labour leader finds almost impossible, comparisons are being made between the two men – and they don’t favour Sir Keir.

But that’s not just down to the rise of one exceptional union leader.

The union movement has been changing.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative that trade union membership is tiny compared to the Summer of Discontent in 1978, there’s been a slow but steady growth in membership since 2018 that peaked during the pandemic.

According to Unison’s Peter Hunter, more than 10,000 workers joined in the first half of 2020 – a 149% increase on the previous year. Traffic on the TUC’s Join A Union website was also up sixfold, and female union membership saw the biggest rise – up by 3.69 million to a record high.

Analysts previously assumed that women on low pay and precarious, zero-hour contracts wouldn’t consider spending an annual £150 on union membership. But Peter Hunter says: “The folk joining trade unions are not returning miners or steel workers, they are workers who’ve never been in a union before.”

Indeed, Unison’s care staff cohort was up 202% in 2020 as workers looked for protection against redundancy and sharp practice.

Now it’s a different concern – protection against miserly 1% pay rises in the face of 9% inflation.

SO, levels of union membership are likely to rise and so will the stock and visibility of activist trade union leaders like Lynch.

New, bespoke, small unions have moved in where existing unions have become complacent, bureaucratic and weak. The Cleaner’s Union (CAIWU), for example, won the London living wage for outsourced cleaners at a Nike Town store, the Independent Workers’ Union won a 25% pay rise for bike couriers, and the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) won a pay-rise for McDonald workers before forcing a U-turn from Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin over furlough payments in 2020.

What does this mean for the future? Look around.

Sharon Graham became the first-ever female general secretary of the Unite union last year, beating two male allies of the outgoing boss Len McCluskey.

Her campaign was championed by thousands of new members active in the online “Strike School” – and she intends to replicate the victory by American trade unionists who won the right to union representation at Starbucks and Amazon last year.

Professor John Logan, an expert in “anti-union measures”, says younger workers are braver about speaking out, they use social media to out-manoeuvre consultants, Zoom to create worker-to-worker contacts and are able to disrupt company events since the low unemployment rate makes it easier to find another job if they get fired.

“They survived the pandemic, and they’re no longer so fearful,” says Logan. After Covid, “workers have recalibrated their sense of risk”.

So it seems, have union leaders like Graham.

READ MORE: Media experts explain how Mick Lynch exposes UK broadcasters' failings

Despite the fact most unions are still ferociously pro-union, Unite (like the RMT), backs indyref2 as an application of internal devolution and democracy. In short, times are changing and unions are too.

Activist, articulate, no-nonsense leaders like Lynch and Graham are in – tired, hesitant, pen-pushing bureaucrats are out.

There’s a wee lesson in that for the next Yes campaign. Let’s not have wary, weary, sedate, polite or autopilot chat from politicians advancing the cause of independence.

Let’s have wide awake, passionate and determined.

Because, thanks to the gloriously combative Mick Lynch, the bar in progressive, public debate has suddenly risen.