Courting disaster

[Thursday]

So, Gordon Brown is claiming that the strike by prison staff changes nothing and that he will not bow to pressure from public sector workers and pay them the ammount recommended.

Brown will be fearful of “winter of discontent” talk: if there is a serious threat of co-ordinated action he will have to rethink his 2% limit.

United action might just be possible, but there was a mixed reaction to yesterday’s events.

Britain’s largest civil service union, The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents instructional officers and administrative support staff in prisons, sent a message of support to the POA.

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: ‘PCS members fully support those Prison Officers who walked out today.

‘We understand and support the motivation behind today’s industrial action by POA members. Below inflation pay awards leading to pay cuts in real terms are completely unacceptable and is a problem that PCS members delivering vital public services also face.

‘Like POA members, PCS members are prepared to stand up for fair pay and the services they deliver which is why your fight is our fight.

‘The government need to recognise that they cannot continue to use civil and public servants as an anti-inflationary tool, by beginning to value them with fair pay.’

Asked if the courts sequestrate the Prison Officers Association, should the other public sector unions take supporting action, a PCS spokesman said he could not comment as ‘that would be up to the whole NEC to decide’.

A Fire Brigades Union spokesman told News Line: ‘The FBU has sent messages of support and FBU members have been visiting prison officers’ picket lines.’

Asked if other public sector unions should take action in the event the POA is sequestrated, the FBU spokesman added: ‘The POA is fully entitled to restore union rights and normal industrial relations procedures that are available to everyone else.

‘We hope the government sees sense and addresses the issue of the staged pay award which has upset people.’

The GMB trade union said the government should pay the prison officers the pay review body award in full and stop using the threat of court action to settle industrial relations matters.

A GMB spokesman offered no comment on other unions taking action in support of the POA.

UNISON had no comment.

A spokeswoman for the TGWU trade union told News Line: ‘We are not going to comment on another union’s strike.’

We’ll have to see how things pan out at the conferences…

Back to the strike itself, the Socialist Worker has this considered piece by Simon Basketter:

Prison officers’ unofficial strike rattles governmen

Some 20,000 prison officers in England and Wales took illegal unofficial action on Wednesday 29 August against Gordon Brown’s public sector wage cuts and the disastrous overcrowding in prisons.

Brown’s initial response was to turn to the anti-union laws and get an injunction against the strikers. In response to a question about the prison officers’ action, he restated that public sector pay must be held down as an “essential part” of tackling inflation.

However the action has forced Jack Straw and Gordon Brown to the negotiating table. Straw is to hold emergency talks with the Prison Officers Association (POA) on Friday.

Colin Moses, chair of the POA, said, “The POA executive has decided in the light of the offer of meaningful discussions regarding the staging of pay, to lead our members back to work, irrespective of the threat of an injunction”.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, disputed that the action was illegal. “I believe every officer has human rights, and they include the right to withdraw their labour,” he said.

Prison officers were banned from striking by a court ruling in early 1993, which found prison officers had powers and authority similar to those of the police and subsequently could not strike. That was written into law by the Tories in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

The New Labour government promised to repeal a ban on strike action among prison officers. It did this – only to sign a voluntary no-strike agreement with the POA in 2001.

Wednesday’s strike came after a pay review body recommended a rise of 2.5 percent this year but the government decided that it should be staged, with an initial 1.5 percent rise followed by another 1 percent six months later. Overall, this kept the prison officers’ pay rise under Brown’s 2 percent public sector pay limit.

Prison officers currently start on a salary of about £17,500, going up to about £25,000 over ten years.

Brian Clarke, chair of Birmingham POA, told Socialist Worker, “Our pay awards are meant to be according to performance. There is a growth in prison population but not in prison staff, so our performance is increasing.

“Prison managers have received increases of £4,000 per year. That pisses me off. When they tried to serve an injunction on me this morning, I refused to take it.”

Every trade unionist should oppose the use of anti-union laws and welcome any assault on Brown’s pay freeze.

However, there are contradictions in the role of prison officers.

It is summed up by Cardiff prisoners chanting “you’re breaking the law” to the strikers.

Prison officers should have the right to strike and to a union and it is noticeable that the first response of Labour to industrial action was to head to the courts.

Getting relatively low pay for doing the system’s dirty work gives prison officers a collective identity and means they see themselves as workers.

But it should be remembered that the victims of the prison system are the 80,000 prisoners rather than the prison officers.

Those locked up in prisons are mostly poor and disproportionately black. Increasing numbers of prisoners suffer mental health and addiction problems.

Prison officers’ work, upholding law and order, frequently pushes them to accept the most right wing ideas and actions of the system. One of their main jobs is to control prisoners – and throughout the prison system, many officers have a proven record of racism and violence.

Some of the contradictions can be seen in the strike. In Liverpool the POA shop steward Steve Baines responded to the high court injunction by telling fellow strikers, “Tell them to shove it up their arse, we’re sitting it out.”

Yet when prisoners in the jail protested against their treatment, the POA members rushed back in to control the situation and end a roof top protest.

That one prisoner died locked in his cell in Acklington prison in Northumberland during the dispute should also be a reminder of the harsh reality of life in prisons.

The POA should be looking for fewer prisoners and better conditions in prisons as part of the their demands.

Traditionally prison officers – like their colleagues in the police – have been accommodated at the first sign of trouble. This is the POA’s first strike in 68 years. It is noticeable therefore that Brown’s commitment to neoliberalism means he is currently more interested in maintaining the public sector pay limit than keeping the POA onside.

The strike will have focused minds – as every strike does. The government quickly offered talks to head off the action.

There is a clear lesson for other workers here. If prison officers can take unofficial illegal strike action over Brown’s cuts and force concessions from New Labour ministers, surely other public sector unions must be able to do the same.

The prison officers’ strike is another sign of the crisis facing New Labour and another argument for workers pushing hard for action against Brown.

Yesterday I alluded to the speed with which the government was able to secure an injunction against the Prison Officers’ Association in comparison to the Stockline trial.

The conclusion of the court case, in which two companies were only charged with health and safety offenses, saw the judge fine ICL Tech and ICL Plastics £400,000 for failing to spend £405 on repairs that would have saved nine lives. This leniency will continue if Brown has his way: no corporate killers will be threatened with jail under New Labour.

Socialist Appeal has this article by Kenny McGuigan:

Scotland’s Worst Workplace Disaster: £405 would have saved lives

In May 2004, we reported Scotland’s worst ever industrial disaster when the Stockline plastics factory in Glasgow exploded leaving 9 dead and 40 injured. It was another searing indictment of breaches in Health & Safety legislation, now a matter of course in Britain. Public anger ran high as extensive news coverage showed 4 days and nights of rescue workers in the rubble of the 4 storey building searching for survivors. Ex-employees told journalists they had been sacked after raising concerns about safety. One man claimed the gas oven was shielded by a metal door improvised from the rear end of an old bin lorry. The authorities in Glasgow launched a criminal investigation which turned into a dead end and the 2 companies jointly responsible, ICL Tech and ICL Plastics, faced only charges relating to Health & Safety. On 26th and 27th August 2007, the accused companies admitted 4 Health & Safety offences at Glasgow’s High Court. As the inquiry drew to a close, lawyers for the companies pleaded for leniency, asking that the subsequent fine be “not too severe” as to force their clients into bankruptcy. They were fined £400,000.

The court heard that risk assessments in the factory were “carried out by a student on a holiday job” who was also the son of one of the company directors. An expert stated the estimated cost of replacing the leaking, corroding pipes, which had never been properly lagged,would have been £405. The cause of the explosion was established as ignition of gas, built up due to leakages in old pressurised petroleum gas pipes that had never been lagged with suitable anti-corrosion protection.
Kirsteen Murray, whose brother died in the explosion was one of the many relatives in court. She said, “It has taken over 3 years to come to court and the result is pointless. A £400,000 is no deterrent…I spoke to a relative of mine who said his house was worth almost as much”.

But Lord Brodie, who presided, said the fine should not be equated with the loss of life. “It is balanced against the company’s ability to keep trading and providing employment,” he mused. Oh really! How considerate of the noble Lord to think first and foremost about our employment opportunities! Who would want to work in a place where bosses neglect the safety of their workers and the premises to such an extent the place goes up in a massive explosion for the sake of £405?

This single horrific fatality should never have occurred, that much is obvious. 3 years after the explosion, one would have thought that employers would have been shocked into some action to ensure the safety and health of the people who create the wealth they enjoy; sadly, the most up to date figures show that this is not the case. In the TUC’s document, “Risks” of August last year, the report showed, “Scotland has the UK’s worst prosecution record and highest fatality and injury levels. It also has the lowest penalties for safety offences”.(TUC Annual Report. Risks (219)). As recently as February the TUC website reported, “European research published today (Feb 21) exposes the myth that British workers are quick to use illnesses caused by their work as an excuse to ‘throw a sicky’. In fact the study shows that British workers are the least likely in Europe to complain about the affect of work on their health”.

The latest official figures for 2005/6 from the Health & Safety Commission (HSC) website reveal 2 million workers in Britain are suffering ill-health due to work related illness. In a section entitled, “Progress on fatal and major injuries” HSC report that their initiative to reduce these catastrophes for the decade 1999-2009 is “not on course” (their emphasis). But at the same time the number of working days lost due to illness has decreased! “There has been a significant decrease since 2000″. This is due to the constant bully boy management techniques in place, especially, but not exclusively in the private sector. Workers are faced with speed-ups to maximise profits. This raises the question: Given the scandalous figures reported by trade unions, HSC, and on the T&G website, there must surely be evidence of an increase in prosecutions against ruthless firms who disregard Health & Safety legislation? Alas, no – in 2005/6, the period covered by the HSC figures and one in which Scotland was shown to have the poorest record in workers safety, prosecutions were DOWN by 23% (hse.gov.uk/statistics). Sadly, those who perished so tragically in the Stockline plastics explosion in May 2004, will simply be lost in the figures.

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