by Colin Foster
What is the government going to do with illegally striking prison officers? Send them all to jail?
The strike on 29 August by prison officers showed up the union leaders who have been dithering and “consulting” and making calculatedly vague threats of future action for months about Brown’s imposed cut in real wages.
The strike was doubly illegal. The Tory government in 1994 made all strikes by prison officers illegal. And anyway, under the general Tory anti-union laws, continued by Blair and Brown, any strike is illegal unless the bosses are given seven days’ notice.
The government quickly got a court injunction against the action, but also agreed to talks which it had earlier refused. The Prison Officers’ Association says it may take further action if the talks are unsatisfactory.
The lawyer Marcel Berlins commented tellingly in the Guardian (3 September):
“The prison officers’ disregard of the court injunction against them was short-lived and partly cosmetic, done for publicity rather than strategic purposes. It was clear that the strikers would return to work. Nevertheless the act of mass disobedience should not be seen as irrelevant.
The fact is that a high court judge ordered the cessation of a clearly unlawful industrial action, and thousands of the strikers, including their leaders, took no notice.
But what if the situation had been more serious? What would have happened had thousands of strikers defied the court indefinitely? In such circumstances, is an injunction toothless? The strike leaders could be fined or even imprisoned for contempt of court.
But such measures would only increase bitterness, make a settlement less likely and cause chaos in the prisons, possibly endangering public safety. The law would, in practice, be powerless”.
What he writes applies to any moderately strategic group of workers, not just prison officers. Given working-class solidarity, the anti-union laws are “powerless”.
The rank and file in every union should press that message on their leadership; and all trade unionists should support the right to strike for prison officers — and for police, who have been banned from striking or unionising since police strikes in 1918 and 1919 left the bourgeoisie in holy fear of Bolshevik revolution.
Prison officers are an anomalous group of workers. Socialists might not support their economic demands in the same automatic way as we do other workers. But we support their democratic rights.
And in this case the prison officers are fighting the same 2% pay limit that hits all public sector workers. They’re doing it in conditions exacerbated by the policy, from successive Tory and Labour governments, of “dealing with” the social problems caused by an increasingly unequal and insecure society by stuffing prisons to overcapacity.
The Guardian of 30 August quotes a Leeds prison officer, Kirk Robinson: “When I started here we were locking up criminals. Now it’s mostly people with a drug habit or psychiatric disorders. I’d guess 80%”.
On official figures, 72% of prisoners have mental illnesses, 48% are illiterate, and only 30% have “basic skills” of literacy and numeracy. Stuffing them into prisons only worsens their social marginalisation.
Health service workers strung out by Blair and Brown’s privatisation policies in the NHS, civil service workers afflicted by job cuts, and teachers suffering from the school-league-tables frenzy, would do best to follow the prison officers’ example in refusing to be cowed.