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RMT Strikes Out at Christmas

By Rachel Groves
24 November 2022

By Rachel Groves

In the wake of the latest RMT strike announcements, the red tops have hailed the RMT leader Mick Lynch ‘Mick Grinch’, ‘the man who is stealing Christmas’.

While it is certainly true that the new strike dates announced by the RMT for 13,14,16 and 17 December and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January, with an overtime ban across the railway running from 18 December until 2 January, have the potential to wreak havoc on the rail network for four weeks covering Christmas, taken against the backdrop of the biggest cost of living crisis for a generation, are tabloid depictions fair and how are they likely to land with the public?

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT said:"… our message to the public is we are sorry to inconvenience you, but we urge you to direct your anger and frustration at the government and railway employers during this latest phase of action.”

The reaction on social media has predictably been mixed. Some commentators back the strikes as one part of a national push for fair pay from workers in many industries (from the NHS to postal workers and the RMT). Others see it as outrageous brinkmanship that will harm the economy, potentially stoke inflation further and create more problems than it solves.

One thing that we can safely say from a communications perspective, is that the unions will be judging the mood and PR’ing the strike efforts very assiduously.

The days when Trade Unions called a strike and then hung around on picket lines drinking tea and slinging insults are long behind us. The communications and social media operations of the unions are well honed and delight in guerrilla tactics.

On one hand, the depiction of Mick Lynch as ‘grinch’ will not be well received, on the other it will merely stoke the narrative that the ‘establishment’ is ignoring the workers and that this is a battle between those at the bottom of the economy who are suffering and those at the top who appear to be impervious.

For the government they will be keen to ensure that communications remain focused on the need to keep inflation in check and get the cost of living crisis back under control. Yet asking people to be responsible in their demands for more money at a time when their taxes are rising and their energy bills and cost of living going through the roof, is a big ask.

While industrial action at Christmas is inconvenient for many the reality is that it will be existentially difficult for some. The real victim of this is likely to be the hospitality and retail sectors at a crucial time of the year.

Still reeling from three Christmases lost to Covid, the hospitality sector is predicting industry-wide carnage if the strikes go ahead, with cancellations of Christmas parties and meals. Similarly, retailers worry that people will abandon festive shopping trips to city centres and excursions to the capital, crushing seasonal forecasts. Concerns have also been raised around the commercial impact of employees being unable to get to work as well as vulnerable people missing important hospital appointments and school.

The railway would also be hit hard as it loses around £20m in revenue on every strike day and the 300 planned Christmas engineering projects, worth an eye-watering £120m, could be at risk.

The RMT would counter that the industries are also filled with people earning lower salaries who also need support and a cost-of-living pay rise. That the rail workers, postal workers, and NHS workers who are striking or threatening to strike are fighting a battle for all those on lower wages.

The communications battle is set to run very hot in the coming week. Yet among the biggest communications challenges is whether the RMT will retain the support of its 40,000 members. In the current climate, it is unclear if members will be able to afford to continue to support the escalating strike action. Potentially losing the best part of two weeks of pay may seem like too high a price to pay when living costs are so high and there is an eight percent pay offer over two years already on the table.

Disrupting the travelling public at Christmas is one thing, leaving your members out of pocket is entirely another. How the RMT and other unions manage the communications around all of this – with members, government, employers, the public and the media, will be instrumental in whether these strikes deliver what the unions want or weaken their cause.