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Employment

The next Mick Lynch? As strike action escalates, these are the union leaders you may come to know

Mick Lynch’s meme-worthy TV interviews have set a high bar for union bosses. Here’s a guide to others we might see more of over a summer of strike action

RMT union leader Mick Lynch – the straight-talking, shaven-headed Londoner who compared his appearance to that of Thunderbirds’ The Hood – has been putting in the hours to get the RMT’s message out to the public. And it’s working, with 41 per cent of people backing striking workers.

Whether he meant to or not, Lynch has awoken the spirit of solidarity that had diminished during the pandemic years of buckle down and shut up.

Discontent is spreading. Tens of thousands of trade unionists marched in London to demand an end to low pay while company fat cats scooped up millions in profit, and government inaction on the cost-of-living crisis.

As industrial action escalates, and union leaders become increasingly popular guests on news channels, these are some faces you’ll likely become more familiar with.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union

Who is Dave Ward? Heading up the CWU since June 2015, Ward started working as a messenger boy at the Royal Mail’s Tooting delivery office back in 1976.  

What is the CWU? It’s the largest union representing people who work in post and telecoms across the UK. It has over 180,000 members.  

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What’s the dispute? The CWU is balloting members who work for BT Group, demanding better pay. The Big Issue revealed that a BT Group run call centre in Tyneside had set up a “food bank” for staff to use when their pay won’t stretch to the end of the month. Over 115,000 Royal Mail postal workers could also be set to strike after the CWU announced it would be balloting its members.

Post Office staff, too, went on strike in May. Pay was frozen in 2021, and staff offered a 2 per cent pay rise in April, plus a £250 one-off lump sum. The CWU has rejected the offer.  

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of The Trades Union Congress  

Who is Frances O’Grady? Starting her career in the Transport and General Workers Union, O’Grady worked on the campaign for a national minimum wage in 1992. She was the first woman to be elected to lead the TUC in 2013. 

What is the TUC? It’s is a federation of trade unions in England and Wales that represents 48 affiliated trade unions. It has over six million members, and is often considered the voice of the union movement.  

What does the TUC do? The TUC lobbies the government to legislate to improve workers’ rights, and commissions research to back up the policies it proposes.  

It is urging the government to drop plans that would allow companies to bring in agency workers to replace striking workers. It also lobbied hard for the Employment Bill, which would have introduced the right to request flexible working from day one in a job.  

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Gary Smith, GMB

Who is Gary Smith? Smith has been general secretary for a year. Born in Edinburgh, he did an apprenticeship as a gas fitter and joined GMB at just 16. He has said he would be willing to coordinate strike action with other unions in order to “leverage our power”, in what could become a national strike.  

What is GMB? No, not the morning telly show, GMB has its origins in the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union which was formed in 1889, but is now known by its acronym. Its members come from retail, schools, the NHS, ambulance service and local government. Last month, it announced a partnership with Deliveroo.  

What’s the dispute? GMB was splashed across the front pages when it organised refuse worker strikes across Glasgow during the global environment conference COP26, demanding better pay. More recently, it has campaigned for a £15 minimum wage for care workers. 

Sharon Graham, Unite

Who is Sharon Graham? She held various roles within Unite before being elected as gen sec in 2021. She has been critical of the Labour party, writing in The Guardian that Unite will no longer “rely on Labour” to solve its members’ problems. She recently hit back at comments made by Labour MP David Lammy who said he did not support striking British Airways workers. “Supporting bad bosses is a new low for Labour and once again shows that politicians have failed. It is now down to the trade unions to defend working people,” she said.  

What is Unite? Unite is the UK’s second largest trade union, representing over a million members in both private and public sector jobs. 

What’s the dispute? BA check-in and ground staff at London’s Heathrow airport have voted to strike this summer. They are asking for their pay to be reinstated after it was cut by 10 per cent during the pandemic. Unite is also championing Stagecoach bus drivers across the UK, with a strike on the cards in Merseyside and a win for drivers in Worthing who received a 15.8 per cent pay rise after negotiations. 

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Christina McAnea, Unison

Who is Christina McAnea? First working at Glasgow City Council as a housing officer, she then worked for GMB. She was elected in 2021. 

What is Unison? A public-sector union representing 1.3 million members working in local authorities including the NHS, education, gas and electricity, and police. It’s the UK’s largest union and has a female majority membership. 

What’s the dispute? McAnea has told union branches to get “strike ready”. She warned that unless the government offers NHS workers a pay rise close to inflation there could be a mass exodus of employees and industrial action in already stretched hospitals. 

Mary Bousted, National Education Union

Who is Mary Bousted? Bousted has worked across the education sector, teaching at Harrow school in the 80s before becoming a head of English, a university lecturer, and headteacher. She was elected president of the TUC for 2016/2017, then joint general-secretary of the NEU alongside Kevin Courtney in 2017.  

What is the NEU? With more than 460,000 members, the National Education Union is the largest education trade union in Europe.  

What’s the dispute? Up to 450,000 teachers could be walking out of classrooms this summer. The action could lead to strikes in schools across the country in autumn, some of which may have to temporarily shut. The union is objecting to the three per cent pay rise offered by education minister Nadhim Zahawi.  

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association 

Who is Jo Sidhu? He studied the degree most associated with the UK’s powerful elite, politics, philosophy and ethics at The University of Oxford, before becoming a criminal barrister, now practising from 25 Bedford Row and No 5 Chambers.  

What is the CBA? The Criminal Bar Association exists to represent the views and interests of criminal lawyers in England and Wales. Their fees are paid by the government to either prosecute or defend someone who has been accused of a crime. Without them, justice cannot be delivered. 

What’s the dispute? Criminal barristers are going on strike for a set number of days each week, increasing in regularity until they walkout for an entire week. Lawyers working in criminal justice, which is funded by government legal aid, say they cannot make a living any more, with many moving into other types of law where there is better pay. This is worsening the backlog of cases, meaning thousands of victims of serious violent or sexual crime aren’t getting justice for years.  

Henry Chango Lopez, general secretary of the Independent Workers union of Great Britain 

Who is Henry Lopez? Originally from Ecuador, Lopez moved to the UK just over 20 years ago and worked as an outsourced porter at the University of London. He experienced how poorly outsourced migrant staff were treated at the university and, despite barely speaking English, united his colleagues to help form the IWGB.  

What is the IWGB? It exists to represent people in precarious work, including agency workers, outsourced staff and those in the gig economy. Many of the union’s members are on zero-hour contracts or classed as self-employed, and many are migrant workers. The union has 11 branches representing a wide range of professions from couriers to cycling instructors, charity workers, security officers, yoga teachers and nannies. 

What is the dispute? This grassroots-style union is best known for taking on the corporate giants of the gig economy like Deliveroo and Uber, to fight for basic workers’ rights including sick pay, holiday pay and minimum wage. The Union has coordinated the biggest strike in gig economy history, forcing takeaways across the north of England to close as drivers switched off their apps to protest low delivery fees. 

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