The BBC’s recent documentary Strike: Inside The Unions represents the first real attempt by any major British broadcaster to cover the unions as a story in themselves, not merely as yet another chapter in Westminster melodrama. The documentary covers four unions (RMT, RCN, Unite, and GMB) with varying degrees of access to their respective disputes. The fundamental flaws in its production are evident from the outset, opening with a lazy reference to a ‘winter of discontent’ and talks of action representing a “de facto general strike”. While it is good that documentaries such as this are starting to be made (even if in terms of insight and quality they lag behind their predecessors), the documentary itself was fairly superficial and at times muddled.
Inside the Unions is broadly sympathetic to its subject. This is likely in part because employers and the government, the other parties in the disputes, refused to participate in the documentary save for boilerplate press releases, attached to the end of episodes. This sympathy even extended to Conservative peer Lord Balfe criticising the proposed Minimum Service Bill and offering a defence of trade unions as “wealth facilitators”. That Lord Balfe may not be the most typical Tory Lord, he was previously a Labour MEP and joined the Conservative Party in 2002, is not mentioned.
As a result of said sympathy, the people who come out of the documentary best are the union officials. While Mick Lynch has established himself as a reliable source of good interviews (snippets of which appear in the documentary akin to a greatest hits reel), other trade union officials also receive plenty of attention. This documentary serves as a good soft launch of Senior Assistant General Secretary Eddie Dempsey’s inevitable leadership bid (when Mick Lynch retires). Sharon Graham, the Unite General Secretary, also came across well, with the documentary presenting her as trade union fairy godmother, jovially meeting reps and members at a Unite conference and turning up the Abellio bus picket line (the Unite dispute) reminding members “don’t fall out with each other”. Pat Cullen, head of the RCN, also receives considerable screen time and her honesty, and vulnerability, as to the pressures of leading a trade union in a national dispute felt refreshingly genuine.
The disputes that are covered – the RMT’s separate disputes with Network Rail and the various Train Operating Companies, the RCN’s dispute with the government, Unite’s dispute with Abellio, and GMB’s dispute with Amazon – are skimmed over, with important details missing. Egregiously, there was no mention of the wildcat strikes that took place at Amazon during the summer which enabled GMB Midlands to establish an organising foothold (an opportunity missed by other GMB regions). These wildcat strikes were an important expression of genuine worker outrage and also demonstrated why unions are necessary. Much emphasis was also placed on the GMB’s successful efforts to be able to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee for statutory union recognition, but the pros and cons of this are not discussed at all. The CAC is an arduous, prolonged, and intrinsically flawed process, as it takes months and places minimum obligations on the employer with little subsequent enforcement, and one that GMB previously decided would not work with gig economy employers such as Uber and Deliveroo. Additionally, it was not explained to what extent securing recognition at one bargaining unit (the Amazon Coventry site) will enable GMB to negotiate with Amazon on national terms and conditions.
Regarding the other disputes, there was no reference to Unite’s efforts at Abellio being part of its wider industrial strategy with bus companies across the country and the role that the bus Combine (linking bus sector reps across regions in a formal, representative lead structure) has played in this. With the RCN’s dispute there was no acknowledgment of the complicated politics of a deal concerning all substantively employed Agenda for Change staff, represented by multiple unions, or that the RCN broke ranks by being the first union to enter negotiations with the government and hoped to move Nurses onto their own pay-scale. As a result of this, it wasn’t made clear just how severe the quagmire the RCN leadership had sleepwalked into was.
The RMT’s agreed deal with Network Rail received some more nuanced coverage, courtesy of an honest assessment from Mick Lynch and acknowledgement that this dispute was about redundancies and changes to conditions more than pay, the complicated internal politics of the RMT, and the struggle to get a deal to the plebiscite stage, are not noted. This is to be expected, as the only way trade unions will have agreed to give this level of access is if they had strict control of the output. However, it does mean that the title ‘inside the unions’ is, perhaps, misleading.
With its presentation of the disputes being, at times, simplistic, the documentary worked best when it just shows trade unions being trade unions. The screen time given to nurses and Amazon workers felt authentic, as was the politics of picket lines with GMB members trying to recruit other Amazon workers while on strike and some Abellio workers accusing the union rep of selling them out. This is not an uncommon accusation during disputes. As well as this, it is notable that Pat Cullen consistently refers to nursing as skilled work, indicating the importance of professional skill to the RCN’s identity. A more explicit narrative thread on these aspects might have been useful, as would have some more detail on the respective disputes. While it is understandable that this documentary was made for a general audience, the show could have given more credit to its audience’s intelligence, even with its limited screen time.
Watching the end of the documentary it felt as though, when the project was commissioned, it was anticipated that each of the disputes would have a more definitive ending. However, the only dispute that gets this is Abellio. The documentary ends with the RMT still in dispute with the Train Operating Companies, the RCN going to re-ballot after its members rejected a deal that the NHS Staff Council has now voted to accept, and GMB applying for statutory recognition. The final form of the minimum service legislation is still not clear as it has returned from the Lords to the Commons. While this does accurately capture the nature of industrial relations, in that they are fluid and rarely have a defined end, it is incongruous with the documentary’s previous presentation of industrial relations as only amounting to defined discrete moments of industrial action. At least these threads leave room for a sequel.
Overall, it is good that this documentary was commissioned and it comes across as a sincere attempt to engage with British trade unionism in the 21stt century, albeit one that is callow in character. The documentary provides little significant new information to anyone who has just followed the news over the last year, and as a record of history it is flawed because of how much it elides. The documentary would have benefitted from either adding another four episodes, or tightening its focus to just one of the unions it covered. What it does do well is humanise trade unionism and trade unionists, both officials and the lay members and one would imagine that the union leaderships involved will be happy with the finished product as it firmly establishes their narrative. Hopefully, the production of this documentary was a successful exercise in building trust with trade unions and facilitates improved projects in the future. But ultimately Strike: Inside the Unions suffers from the same problem that plagues coverage of unions in the media: it cannot acknowledge that the trade union movement is not inclined to deliver the kind of definitive showdown with the government the media so clearly desires of it.