Interview with Gregor Gall

Industrial relations professor discusses how his field has become dominated by HR, the role of public intellectuals and his book on rail union leader Mick Lynch

March 2, 2023
Source: Gregor Gall

An expert in trade unionism, Gregor Gall is a visiting professor in industrial relations at the University of Leeds and an affiliated research associate at the University of Glasgow. The author of books on the politics of the lead singer of The Clash, Joe Strummer, and the late trade unionist Bob Crow, Professor Gall will publish Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero, in late 2023.

Where and when were you born?
Forres in Morayshire in north-east Scotland in 1967.

How has this shaped you?
My upbringing was elsewhere – Montrose in Angus and Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. Any shaping was more to do with the times I lived through rather than the places themselves. The late 1970s saw the emergence of punk and the 1980s saw the domination of Thatcherism.

How did you first become interested in industrial relations?
As an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen, it was studying the sociology of work. The struggles of working people in terms of the miners’ strike, the Wapping News International strike and others were uppermost in my mind then, and it became increasingly clear to me that the Labour Party could not be relied upon [to support] workers, so unions became my central focus. Industrial relations was the field that studied unions more than any others.

What has changed since you first started in the field?
Union membership and union power have atrophied, so the field has increasingly become dominated by those studying management, through the prism of human resources. We live in hope that this situation may revert back to what it previously was.

Amid the wave of strikes the UK is seeing currently, what role do academics play?
We are public intellectuals and provide critical and historical commentary and analysis of these current events through media interviews and newspaper comment pieces. But we can also play the role of critical friends to unions, pointing out, for example, that the “power to” disrupt through strikes is not synonymous with “power over” bargaining opponents to gain bargaining demands.

How much public understanding is there about the role of unions?
Unfortunately, compared to the past, less and less. This constitutes a huge challenge for unions and those that see them as not only the means of pursuing self-interest but also wielding the “sword of justice” for others. Lessons about unions at school would help, but ultimately the dominant political discourse needs to change or unions will continue to be maligned and misunderstood.

How important is your left-wing activism to you, and does it make it hard to maintain objectivity in your research?
I see my extra-academic activities as an extension of my academic interests and rationale because I am a politically and publicly engaged academic. We are recipients of the funds of the public purse, so I believe in reaching outside academia. Social science provides any academic with a critical faculty so that being in favour of an objective does not mean one cannot be balanced in assessing the pursuit of that objective. When the society you inhabit is fundamentally unequal, being in favour of equality is not, for me, problematic.

What interests you about Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT rail union?
He has been designated a “working-class hero”, which is no mean feat, but this is precisely because he speaks for others rather than them speaking for themselves. This is an intriguing sociological phenomenon, which I am investigating along with the trajectory of him leading the RMT union at a specific point in time, namely, its greatest ever challenge.

How do you approach such a project?
By fully immersing myself in the framework of analysis and evidence. Having a past researching the same union and maintaining contact with some of the union’s activists is vital to be able to not have to start from scratch, as one might do on another, completely different research project.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take more time to develop a comprehensive body of work which consistently examines the same thematic issues – power, material interests and ideology – rather than following one-off projects that interest you at that moment in time.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
From the beginning of my first job in the early 1990s, John Kelly, now an emeritus professor at Birkbeck, University of London, because he effectively pursued investigating the big issues of power, material interests and ideology within and without industrial relations.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Studious and serious, but my weakness was that I thought the more I read, the more I would understand. I now realise that not all academic contributions are equal, and an essential skill is being able to differentiate between the pedestrian and the exceptional.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That we are overly practitioner-oriented and somewhat light on concepts and theory. That said, there are too many colleagues that are sparse in the use of their critical faculty when it comes to management and employers.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
Hopefully, writing scholarly books on the same kind of issues but without the pressures and restrictions of academia.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’?
Realising that I did not want to work for a private-sector employer whose raison d’être was the pursuit of profit, or work for any organisation where I did not have the utmost level of control over my great love of being creative through researching and writing.

What one thing would improve your working week?
More hours in the week to write and research and to allow more dog-walking, because it is at those times I’m able to have thoughts of greater clarity, incisiveness and reflection. My dog-walking provides good breaks from work to mull over and finesse my thoughts.


1985-89 MA in industrial sociology, University of Aberdeen

1990-93 PhD in industrial relations, University of Manchester

1993-2005 Lecturer/senior lecturer/reader/professor in industrial relations, University of Stirling

2005-13 Research professor in industrial relations, University of Hertfordshire

2013-18 Research professor in industrial relations, University of Bradford

2018-present Visiting professor in industrial relations, University of Leeds, and affiliated research associate, University of Glasgow


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