On 10 May 20,000 coppers joined a Police Federation demonstration against cuts and reforms. On the same day just 500 public sector workers joined London’s strike day rally against pension cuts.
Trade unionists should take note here — the police mobilisation put that of the labour movement to shame.
In 2010 Tom Winsor, former government advisor on rail regulation under New Labour, was commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May to review police pay and conditions. His report proposes a fundamental overhaul of recruitment and promotion structures, pay and conditions of service — including differential pay for officers undertaking more or less dangerous roles and a cut in pay for those failing regular health checks. It also proposes to end standard retirement after thirty years service.
Meanwhile year-on-year, overall police numbers have been falling.
Further cuts in numbers are proposed alongside handing over parts of the police service to private companies. Hence the Police Federation placards which read “Police for Public, Not for Profit”.
Winsor’s proposals and the government’s squeeze on the police budget mirrors cuts and privatisations in schools, hospitals and other public services.
Police officers are currently barred from joining a union and are not permitted to strike. Socialists should support the democratic right of any one or any group to form a union and to strike.
In France, where police have some union rights, in May 1968 the police unions declared themselves in sympathy with the huge workers’ strike wave of that month, and unwilling to be used against the workers.
We should “support” (or at least take note of) is the disruptive effect that police “trade unionism” or potential industrial action and strikes have on the state.
Such moves expose splits within the state and potentially weaken a government.
Any widening breach between police and Tories presents opportunities for us to strengthen our labour movement campaigns against cuts and privatisation.
But this does not mean socialists and trade unionists should back the Police Federation’s stance and see their campaign as at one with the broader anti-cuts movement; or see cops as just “workers in uniform”, as the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) used to call them.
The writer of the “Constable Chaos” blog (a serving police officer) says, “I, and virtually all of my colleagues around the country joined the police … to make a difference; to help people; to make our society better for everyone.” All very admirable, but he then continues, presumably referring to recent exposures of police racism: “The world and his dog are allowed to ‘have a go’ at the police these days. Certainly things have gone wrong from time to time”...
Things have “gone wrong” — but over and over again. And the apparent good intentions of police officers like “Constable Chaos” come to nothing when the fundamental function of the police is not to solve crimes against ordinary people but to act as part of the coercive, “armed” wing of the state.
And what has gone wrong? A disproportionate number of young black men are subjected to stop and search.
Multiple deaths in custody. Attacks on people Ian Tomlinson, killed by cops on a G20 protest. The “mishandling” of racist murders and attacks. The use of force against protesters. The kettling of demonstrations. The infiltration of campaign groups. Strike breaking. Harassment campaigns. “Protecting” racists and fascists from their opponents...
In short the things that have “gone wrong” tell us the police are racist, authoritarian and a threat to the workers’ movement.
We do not automatically support the demands of every strike — we would not support a strike of police to be armed.
We would not welcome a rise of police trade union clout like, for example, that of the Queensland Police Union in Australia. In 1995-6 the QPU campaigned publicly and successfully to oust a Labour government on the basis of a secret pledge by the National Party opposition to drastically weaken an investigation into police corruption and misconduct.
The Police Federation’s demand for more police on the streets and more visible policing. That is not our demand. We need alternative ideas about how to tackle social disintegration, the petty crime that affects working-class people.
If the Police Federation’s were successful in overturning Winsor’s proposals the police service would be returned to its normal mode of function — battering our class.
Nonetheless the labour movement needs to monitor and debate the dynamics of the dispute between the Police Federation and the government for it has important implications.
When cops had a union
In 1913 police officers formed their own “union” — the National Union of Police and Prison Officers.
It was a response to terrible pay, working conditions and a rigid, military style hierarchy within the police force. It was influenced by tumultuous labour movement struggles.
As any officer found to be a member of the union or to be attending union meetings could be dismissed, the “union” operated in secret.
In 1918, strikes involving bus, mill, rail and mine workers swept the country. Against this backdrop NUPPO member Tommy Thiel was dismissed for union activities. Though NUPPO membership was very small, the leadership was convinced that if they called strike action thousands would follow. Up to 12,000 of the Metropolitan Police’s 20,000 members struck.
It was the end of World War One. Few experienced soldiers could replace the duties of the striking police men. When Lloyd George summoned the leader of the NUPPO to Downing Street for negotiations, soldiers openly fraternised with the striking police.
The government gave in to the NUPPO’s demands.
NUPPO grew exponentially after this point. Lloyd George provoked them into striking by refusing to meet their delegation. The resulting strike had more than 2,000 NUPPO members nationwide taking part, but was broken.
NUPPO was finished.