RMT rail workers’ union leader Mick Lynch went from relative obscurity to become a national media star in the space of little more than a fortnight.

According to various commentators, he has become a national hero, an icon, a cult figure and a national treasure because he gave us masterclasses in media management and public performances. He was calm and calculated and, critically, at the same time, firm and forthright, batting back smears and attacks on himself, his members and striking workers in general.

As we approach what could be an escalation of industrial disputes and industrial action on the cost of living crisis over the summer and into the autumn, what can leaders of other unions learn from Lynch?

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The first lesson is about his urbane demeanour and public persona. Unlike former RMT general secretary Bob Crow (2002-14), Lynch does not let himself get riled or start being shouty. He exudes patient confidence and is well mannered. He uses an easy-to-understand vocabulary and responds to what interviewers think will be sucker punches by taking a step back and then firing back both barrels – but always doing so calmly.

For other union leaders, this calm confidence can come about through combinations of specialist media training, personal psychological preparation and particular personalities.

Re-inforcing the fighting morale of members has been one of the key outcomes of Lynch’s media performances. Poor performances would likely undermine members’ determination and so make the strikes less effective and less frequent, leading to a lower level of leverage at the bargaining table.

But if that was all that could be learnt from Lynch, it would barely be half the story. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he has become a tribune for many more than just his own members.

He has become something of a “working-class hero” to many other workers in a world where direct, plain speaking is in somewhat limited supply. He’s been able to fashion what are specifically sectional demands into a more popular phenomenon where the strikes – as shields of self-interest – have become signifiers of “swords of justice” being seen to be wielded by one group of workers on behalf of many other groups of workers.

But contrast the impact of Lynch’s fulminations against P&O’s brutal actions in March this year over sacking 800 workers without any notice with those over the recent rail strikes. The key difference is that the Tory government volubly criticised P&O’s actions. It talked of moral outrage and let it be known it would change the law in order to stop recurrences of this affront.

Fast forward to June and the tables have turned because the same government is now the main body not only causing the strike – over limiting pay rises and insisting on efficiency saving via job cuts – but also stopping its resolution.

In other words, other union leaders need to understand “context is king” when thinking about whether their members will be seen as villains or heroes or something else altogether. In this situation, Lynch has become an effective opponent of both Boris Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (below), and far more so than Labour’s Keir Starmer and Louise Haigh, Shapp’s opposite number.

The National: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Applied to the coming disputes, it may be harder, therefore, for union leaders to develop the same kind of traction in some parts of the private sector that are not strategic to the wider economy or society, or are not subsidised by the public purse as the railways are (hence involving the government as the ultimate paymaster).

Strength speaks volumes but weakness is welcomed by opponents so these other union leaders must also factor in the foundation upon which they speak. Lynch’s calmness and confidence come from knowing his members are united and effective in their action. The RMT successfully did the necessary groundwork in order to secure overwhelming mandates for striking in the lawfully required ballots.

Non-union members, strike breakers, members of other unions and managers simply do not exist in any significant way in the dispute in order to tip the scales against the RMT. Indeed, the signallers who work for Network Rail are capable by themselves of shutting down the railway system. This helps mask any weakness elsewhere that the RMT may have among the 13 rail franchise companies.

This evidence of power was not there in the P&O dispute, where as soon as the workers were taken off the ships, they lost their point of strategic bargaining leverage and then the vast majority took enhanced redundancy packages.

So, for other union leaders, the lesson is that strong leaders can only exist on the firm foundation of strong followers – the members.

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Ballots have to be won and won well, showing members are willingly and actively choosing to be led. Tactics have to be creatively thought out and fine-tuned to create maximum disruption with the minimum sacrifices of wages lost on strike days, and people’s lives not put at risk by such actions.

Like it or not, this has implications for those workers whose jobs are in health, prisons, social care and the fire and rescue service. They will be politically attacked for putting people at risk. The disruption caused by striking has not just got to be the maximum the striking group of workers can achieve in length and breadth.

For some, it also has to become a political “hot potato”.

This speaks to knowing the terrain you are fighting upon. Private-sector strikes are quintessentially about trying to hurt the employer in the pocket. Public-sector strikes are about trying to embarrass the party in government and make it look increasingly unelectable. In this situation, some strikes will have an immediate and widespread impact.

Bus, HGV lorry and train drivers as well as airline pilots are the most obvious examples where this can happen, with few readily available alternatives to the services they normal provide. By contrast, most public-sector workers’ action takes longer to take its toll. There are exceptions such as refuse collectors and border security guards but for most, strikes must be part of a way of building political pressure on government. Producers – the workers – protesting that their actions are to secure the services the public needs and uses is one way of uniting shields of self-interest with swords of justice as Lynch has helped do. This is particularly important in health, prisons, social care and the fire and rescue service.

Once this distinction is recognised, strikes as tactics must be tailored in such a way to fit into an overall union strategy of how to win its members’ demands. Sometimes, other union leaders will get quite envious of the power the RMT can wield in rail.

But getting angry even requires careful consideration of the context rather than trying to replicate the RMT’s actions.

The RMT is also united at the top. This was not always so. Turn the clock back to 2020 and the extent of fractious fighting between the National Executive Committee and the general secretary was such that Lynch’s immediate predecessor, Mick Cash, was off ill for a year with stress and then resigned due to this ill-health.

It was, to use his words, a “toxic work environment”. Before being elected in 2021, Lynch stepped up to help fill in for Cash but also ended up being off work due to ill-health because of stress. With a differently composed National Executive Committee now and an obvious external common enemy, peace has broken out. The likes of Eddie Dempsey and John Leach, respectively senior and junior assistant general secretaries, are fully behind Lynch so he does not have to fear looking over his shoulder. Other unions, such as Unison, are not quite so united.

Lastly, one of the unseen, subterranean factors in the current rail dispute is that there is no inter-union rivalry to speak of. There are cases in some sectors of unions being competitors rather than collaborators.

The National:

The current crop of leaders of the major unions – Mark Serwotka (PCS), Matt Wrack (FBU), Dave Ward (CWU), Sharon Graham (Unite, above), Christina McAnea (Unison), Kevin Courtney (NEU), Jo Grady (UCU) and Gary Smith (GMB) – are all very capable individuals. If they are to knit together the lessons from Lynch on effective public performances and industrial leverage, they will have to be able to think creatively about how to take advantage of the most promising opportunities as they arise as well as help create such opportunities in the first place.

These processes must have already been set in train some time ago as they cannot be magicked out of the air at short notice.

Professor Gregor Gall is Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds and author of ‘Bob Crow: Socialist, leader, fighter – A political biography’ (Manchester University Press, 2017).