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Men and women outside, protesting, picketing, with signs and a megaphone
The UK could be facing a summer of strikes, but inaccurate language affects public understanding of how unions work. Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Rail strikes: words used to describe unions misrepresent the truth about how they work

Public discussion of pickets, politics and even profile pictures, have been a daily occurrence this week for Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). As England, Scotland and Wales face severe transport disruption due to industrial action by the RMT, Lynch has appeared on multiple news programmes and has been quoted across the papers. As general secretary – or “union boss” – part of his job is to represent members by explaining that the strikes relate to a dispute over pay, conditions and proposed redundancies on the railway network.

Many of these media mentions discuss the “union barons” that are “behind the strike” action, however. Such language not only denies railway workers their agency, it is an inaccurate characterisation of how strikes work in practice. It shows a lack of knowledge about trade unions within the media, perhaps due to the marked decline in industrial and labour correspondents since the 1970s.

Let’s start with the words commonly used to describe trade union general secretaries. A baron is a recognised grade of the British peerage system and has historical connotations of nobility. Describing trade union general secretaries as barons could insinuate that they belong to a separate strata of society with a different social and economic status than their members or the general public.

This is true in a sense. The salaries of union officers often dwarf those of the workers they represent. There are some notable exceptions – the assistant general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services trade union, for example, announced on his election that he would donate nearly £25,000 of his £70,000 annual salary back into the union’s strike fund.

It is important to note the democratic accountability behind these salaries, however. Members attending their union’s annual general meeting vote on the financial report, which includes staff salary packages. RMT members voted to cut the salary of their officers, including the general secretary, at the union’s 2021 AGM – a motion proposed by Lynch himself. This level of accountability is quite different to the pay committees and shareholder meetings that often wave through three-figure bonuses in private sector firms.

And while trade union general secretaries are “bosses” in the sense that they are the head of the organisation, they are elected to their role by the workers they represent. Do service users of train companies or railway staff vote for the boss of the train operating company? If they are unhappy with their performance, are there democratic mechanisms in place to be able to ensure they do not carry out another term?

Trade union democracy is certainly a contested term and there is a wealth of research on the dynamics between union leadership and the rank and file, including on the RMT specifically. But the model of democratic accountability practised within trade unions is not typically seen in the private sector.

Man on phone walking behind sign for RMT national strikes
Transport union strikes have been called throughout June in England, Wales & Scotland, with more sectors expected to strike in coming months. Tolga Akmen/ EPA-EFE

Understanding union action

Descriptions of general secretaries’ actions, both in reporting and general public discourse on industrial action, are often similarly inaccurate. General secretaries cannot “drive” their members to take strike action, as Grant Shapps suggested last week. They organise an independently conducted postal ballot, as required by the Trade Union Act passed by David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2016. Members are polled on whether they are willing to strike if all other means of negotiation have been tried, refused or failed.

In the most recent example of RMT action, the workers involved decided overwhelmingly that they would be willing to strike. Any other description of this process denies workers agency in expressing their grievances and choosing to act collectively in an attempt to find a resolution.

Recent research by the Equality Trust shows significant public support for action on executive pay and for more equitable pay distribution within companies. But at the same time, as the government is urging the public sector to demonstrate pay restraint, it is also planning to remove restrictions on remuneration packages for company directors. The CEO of Network Rail earns £593,000, compared to the Office of National Statistics average of £33,310 for a train guard or station staff member. So where is the press coverage of the “railway barons”?

Improving coverage of strikes

Research has also shown that the language used to discuss strike action in the public sphere is likely to 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 newspaper tried to print a front page that compared Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, to Hitler. Print workers in the National Union of Journalists refused to print the content.

Thankfully, press coverage of the current transport strikes hasn’t plumbed those depths. But framing the current dispute as being “driven” by union “barons” fails to recognise how unions work and the agency their members have to decide to take action.

Understanding of trade unions and industrial relations has declined in the media, within academia and among the general public. With the likelihood of continued industrial action this summer if teachers, criminal barristers and other workers are balloted for strike action, developing a greater understanding of how unions work and of employment relations more broadly could help people get a more balanced and informed view.

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