Screws on strike!

I am still coming to terms with the shock of the prison officers’ strike. So I’ll let others speak. Obviously, I think that they did the right thing – and they are widely supported throughout England and Wales, and workers in Scotland will also be inspired by their courage.

First, John McDonnell:

The industrial action taken by members of the Prison Officers Association should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the dire straits of industrial relations in the prison service. The trigger for today’s dispute is the Government’s decision to refuse to honour the Pay Review Body’s pay award of 2.5% and instead to insist that the payment be staged resulting in prison officers receiving less than the rate of inflation and significantly less than other assessments of the real rise in the cost of living.

The depth of anger amongst POA members can be gauged by the 87% vote in favour of the industrial action in its recent ballot. It is completely understandable why are they angry.

In 1993 the the Tory Government took away the POA’s right to strike. Despite commitments from Labour in opposition that this issue would be addressed, the New Labour Government refused to restore the right to take industrial action to the POA and instead established the Pay Review Body process to determine future pay awards. Any attempt by the POA to take industrial action remains outlawed under this Government and the President and General Secretary of the POA have regularly found themselves being threatened with legal action for what in other sectors of public service would be seen as normal trade union activities.

Hounded by further rounds of privatisation, under pressure from a dramatic increase in the prison population and with a £60 million savings exercise threatening less staff to cope, morale amongst prison officers is reported to be at rock bottom. Warnings are being made that the prison service is under the same pressure that resulted in the riots that saw prisons burning in 1990.

The Government has refused to meet with the POA to discuss its concerns and to resolve this dispute. As Secretary of the Justice Unions’ Parliamentary Group I have emailed Jack Straw’s (Secretary of State for the Ministry for Justice) office today to urge him to meet the POA to listen to their worries and seek a settlement to this dispute. The POA just want justice for its members.

The POA’s dispute is just the tip of the iceberg of the discontent that there is amongst public sector workers at the way they have been treated on pay, pensions, and privatisation by a Government most of them voted into office.

It’s such a shame that “Dr” John Reid’s gone. In place of Straw, we would’ve had Mr Mackay from Porridge

And from the BBC:

A strike by prison officers in England and Wales has ended after the union agreed to fresh talks with the government over pay.
All 129 prisons suffered disruption after a surprise walkout by staff began at 0700 BST on Wednesday.

Members of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) later defied a High Court injunction to end their action.

[…]

General secretary of the POA, Brian Caton, told BBC News 24: “After a day of what we describe as somewhat traumatic times in the history of the union, we will lead our membership back to work and we will do that in an orderly fashion and that is regardless of any court injunction.”

[…]

He defended the union’s decision to call the strike without prior warning.

“If we had given notice to anyone of our intention, we would have been taken straight to court and threatened with imprisonment,” he said.

“If they gave us back our rights and put us under the restrictions that every other trade union is under, then they would have had that notice.”

[…]

The announcement to end the strike came after officers in Bristol, Canterbury and Long Lartin had already returned to work in the afternoon, but other POA members had said they would stay out for 24 hours.

Prison Governors Association chairman Charles Bushell told BBC News all 129 prisons in England and Wales had suffered disruption.

During the day, prisoners were kept locked in their cells and senior managers took charge of duties such as distributing meals. Visitors were also turned away and court appearances cancelled.

Earlier this year the independent pay review body for prisons recommended to ministers salaries ranging from £12,000 for auxiliary staff to almost £32,000 for principal officers, representing a 2.5% rise in two stages.

Most prison officers start on around £17,700.

The POA, which has 28,000 members, said up to 90% of those who had been due on duty had joined the strike.

It said the walkout had been “widespread and unprecedented” and there was “lockdown” – where prisoners are confined to their cells – at most prisons.

At Liverpool prison, about 25-30 striking officers temporarily suspended their action to deal with three inmates who had climbed on to a roof and in Birmingham fire engines attended to deal with two minor blazes.

[…]

The prison population in England and Wales is close to capacity levels, with about 80,000 people held.

[Emphasis added.]

It was amazing. Only the other day, the culmination of a trial saw two corporations fined less than half a million pounds for failing to prevent an explosion that killed nine workers. This “punishment” – not a slap on the wrist, but a dig in the ribs – took three years. Yet today, the government could menace thousands of workers through the courts within hours of them taking industrial action.

And whilst workers are struggling against pay cuts, The News Line reports that

ALMOST a third of Britain’s 700 biggest businesses paid no corporation tax in 2005-2006, according to a study carried out by the official National Audit Office (NAO), the results of which were published yesterday.

The NAO found that 220 of the companies paid no tax, 210 paid less than £10m and 50 paid 67 per cent of the £24.4bn raised by the Treasury in corporation tax from the 700 in that financial year.

These 700 huge businesses pay only 54 per cent of the total collected in corporation tax, with smaller companies paying the rest.

[…]

According to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) yesterday, City bonuses paid at the end of the financial year in April were 30 per cent higher than in 2006. They amounted to a huge £14bn, more than half the national total of £26.4bn.

About a million people work in so-called ‘financial services’ (money manipulation and speculation) in Britain, but only the top executives of the financial groups will have pocketed bonuses running into millions. For example, a survey of hedge funds revealed that the two top directors of GLG Partners hedge fund in London, which manages £40bn, got bonuses of between £200m and £250m each.

It will be interesting to read tomorrow’s tabloids. How will the capitalist press paint this? In 2003, they heaped a ton of shit on the firefighters for taking UK-wide industrial action. But can they slag off the POA for acting in the interests of prison officers?

I doubt it, but then, I’m sure they’ll be as inventive as the BBC. As Tony, posting at Lenin’s Tomb, notes:

We’ve not seen images like it for over 15 years. The scene outside that prison in Liverpool at just gone 2pm this afternoon is required viewing. The local Prison Officers Association secretary on a wall, addressing a mass meeting. He’d just got off the phone to “our national vice-chair, Steve Gough” whose reaction to the government obtaining an injunction against the union was “tell them to stuff it up their arse”. The sound of journos’ jaws dropping was drowned out by the roars and cheers.

The biggest success of this action so far is the fact that it has taken place. The BBC, having had it as top item, moved it rapidly down the pecking order. No one can seriously doubt there was contact with the Ministry of Justice. This image of raw, effective, illegal action with the rest of the state powerless to do anything is one that the government, state agencies and employers will be desperate to bury. Typically, the BBC website has been at pains to quote union officers saying the action has to end because of the injunction, yet strangely, the newsworthy quote above seems to be missing from their story. In addition, of two pictures the BBC is showing online, one of them is of Bristol POA members returning to work.

When I got home today and saw the reports on the news channel, I wondered what the impact of mass telecommunications would have on industrial relations. But I won’t trouble you with my thoughts on that at this time.

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One Response to “Screws on strike!”

  1. Postman Pat and his wildcat strikes « Rebellion Sucks! = a blog for socialism & self-determination Says:

    […] back. No, not Bernard Manning. Wildcat strikes! Who’d have thought that it would be the screws to show the way, and the posties to take it… Some 130,000 postal workers in the Communication […]


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