Public discussion of pickets, politics and even avatars has become a daily occurrence this week for Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Railroad, Marine and Transportation Workers (RMT). As England, Scotland and Wales face major transport disruptions due to RMT strikes, Lynch has appeared on several news programs and been quoted in newspapers. As general secretary – or “union boss” – part of his job is to represent members, explaining that the strikes are about a dispute over wages, conditions and proposed cuts to the rail network.
However, many of these media references discuss “union barons” who are “behind the strike”. Such language not only robs railroad workers of their free will, but is also an inaccurate characterization of how strikes work in practice. This shows the lack of knowledge about unions in the media, perhaps due to the marked decline in the number of trade and labor correspondents since the 1970s.
Let’s start with words commonly used to describe trade union general secretaries. A baron is a recognized class in the British peerage system and has the historical connotation of nobility. The description of trade union general secretaries as barons may hint that they belong to separate sections of society with a different social and economic status than their members or the general public.
This is true in a sense. Trade unionists are often paid more than the workers they represent. There are a few notable exceptions – for example, the Assistant General Secretary of the Government and Commercial Services Union announced after his election that he would donate nearly £25,000 of his £70,000 annual salary back to the union’s strike fund.
However, it is important to note the democratic accountability behind these salaries. Members present at their union’s annual general meeting vote on a financial report that includes staff pay packages. RMT members voted to cut pay for their officers, including the general secretary, at the union’s 2021 annual general meeting, a proposal proposed by Lynch himself. This level of accountability is very different from the payroll committees and shareholder meetings that often brandish triple-figure bonuses in private sector firms.
And although the general secretaries of the unions are “bosses” in the sense that they are the heads of the organization, they are elected to their role by the workers they represent. Do railway service users or railway employees vote for the head of the train operating company? If they are dissatisfied with their work, are there democratic mechanisms in place to ensure that they are not re-elected for another term?
Union democracy is certainly a controversial term, and there are many studies on the dynamics of the relationship between union leadership and rank and file, including specifically on the RMT. But the model of democratic accountability applied in trade unions is not commonly found in the private sector.
Understanding Union Action
Descriptions of the general secretaries’ actions, both in reporting and in public discourse about strikes, are often inaccurate as well. General secretaries cannot “push” their members to strike, as Grant Shapps suggested last week. They organize independent voting by mail, as required by the Trade Unions Act passed by David Cameron’s conservative government in 2016. Members are asked if they are ready to strike if all other means of negotiation have been tried, rejected or failed.
In the most recent example of an RMT action, participants overwhelmingly decided that they would be ready to strike. Any other description of this process denies the freedom of the workers to express their dissatisfaction and choose collective action in an attempt to find a solution.
A recent study by the Equality Trust shows strong public support for executive pay measures and a more equitable pay distribution within companies. But at the same time, as the government urges the public sector to show restraint on pay, it also plans to lift caps on directors’ compensation packages. The CEO of Network Rail earns £593,000 compared to the Office for National Statistics average of £33,310 for a train guard or station employee. So where is the press coverage of the “railroad barons”?
Improving coverage of strikes
Research has also shown that the language used to discuss a strike in the public sphere can have a significant impact on the course of a strike, and that even metaphors shape and influence public opinion. During the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, the Sun tried to print a front page that compared Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Miners, to Hitler. Press workers at the National Union of Journalists refused to print the materials.
Fortunately, press coverage of the current transport strikes has not penetrated these depths. But presenting the current dispute as “driven” by union “barons” fails to understand how unions work and how their members should decide to take action.
Understanding of trade unions and industrial relations has declined in the media, in academia and among the general public. With strikes likely to continue this summer if teachers, criminal defense lawyers and other workers vote to strike, a better understanding of how unions and labor relations work in general could help people have a more balanced and informed mind.