The prison officers dilemma

Cameron Richards takes issue with Jim Moody's article 'The turn of the screws' (September 6) and the position of the CPGB leadership

For over a quarter of a century the British trade union movement has been shackled by a set of anti-trade union laws designed to weaken the ability of workers to fight back against the attacks of the capitalist class. Compulsory postal ballots, seven-day notice of strike action, restrictions on secondary picketing, solidarity action made illegal - all have been enshrined in the law of the land, the courts able to cripple the finances of workers' organisations who resist these laws.

Wednesday August 29 saw a glimpse of how workers can smash these repressive laws. The Prison Officers Association (POA), after balloting its members, caught the government by surprise by calling an illegal strike over pay, striking in a fashion not seen by a union in many years.

Frightened stiff by the sight of workers breaking the law and threatening its policy of pay restraint, the Labour government was forced to resort to using the courts that day to bring the POA into line. The reactionary nature of Brown and his ilk was laid bare.

The left should have wholeheartedly supported this struggle of the POA and should have praised the methods it used on the day. The illegal strike - although it lasted only a matter of hours - was an inspiration to all those wishing to resist not only the government's pay policy but, above all, its anti-union laws. Although coming from an unlikely set of workers, it was an object lesson in how to carry out industrial action and should be studied carefully by other unions - particularly left-led public sector unions, some led by ostensible revolutionaries.

However, the left's response has been mixed. Some sections rose to the challenge and unequivocally backed the POA. First out of the blocks was George Galloway and Respect. Galloway said: "The POA and its members have my full support. I utterly condemn the injunction issued against the union, and Jack Straw should hang his head in shame for seeking it. Prison service management and the government ought to know that sympathy for the POA over the denial of union rights goes way beyond the trade union movement" (Respect website, August 29). The following day the Morning Star led with a front page attacking the deployment of the anti-trade union laws by the government.

On the ball too was the commentary from the Socialist Party. Praising the POA, its editorial welcomed "their courageous stand, which should be noted well by other trade union leaders, who in any case would also be treated as heroes by other trade unionists and workers if they defied the anti-union laws in the interests of their members" (The Socialist August 30).

Some on the left, however, have been more mealy-mouthed in their support for the POA. The online edition that week of Socialist Worker, normally the house journal of strike-chasers everywhere, did not quite bring itself to offer its solidarity to the union (in contrast to the full support offered on the Respect website by George Galloway). Yes, it went as far as stating that "Every trade unionist should oppose the use of anti-union laws and welcome any assault on Brown's pay freeze" (September 1).

But Socialist Worker could not quite bring itself to demand "full support" for the POA in the manner in which Galloway was able to. After all, it argued, prison officers were frequently responsible for locking up working class prisoners, racially abusing black inmates and using violent methods. Its method is to regard the POA as, at best, the enemy of our main enemy and, therefore, the normal fulsome support for a group of trade unionists is withheld.

Such was the method too, I am afraid to say, of the belated article in last week's Weekly Worker, titled 'The turn of the screws' (September 6). Try as I might, I find no unequivocal support for the POA dispute in Jim Moody's article. Rather it reads as rather neutral and 'objective' commentary. It is certainly not a partisan, communist defence of the prison officers' action. Its stress, if anything, being to knock the prison officers rather than praising the stand they took, the article failing to generalise the lessons of August 29 for the trade union movement as a whole or take a dynamic approach to the action.

Only in the final paragraph - the last paragraph of all places! - does Jim even implicitly advocate support for the POA in this particular dispute when he writes that, "While Marxists can only but approve of prison officers and other workers in uniform trying to assert themselves as workers by organising in trade unions and striking, we never lose sight of the reality of the state's institutions of repression of which they are part." Yet the equivocal nature of the final paragraph says much about the carping method employed in the article and also about the stance adopted by the CPGB's Provisional Central Committee (the real target of my article).

What Jim is most keen to establish, like Socialist Worker, is that prison officers are not really bona fide members of the working class. As he puts it, "One big proviso, however, relates to the contradictory position prison officers hold: on the one hand, they are exploited workers; on the other, they are direct agents of state repression."

Of course, prison officers play this role. Indeed, it is also imperative that communists highlight the appalling treatment of prisoners and the barbaric nature of the prison regime in general. However, it is imperative for Marxists to grasp that prison officers are overwhelmingly working class and potential allies in our struggle to overcome capitalist society. They and their families suffer from the same things that blight the lives of so many working class units up and down the land - poor wages, dead end jobs, hospital waiting lists, round-the-clock care of elderly relatives and so on. They have partners who might be low-grade civil servants, postal workers and firefighters. At work they face many of the same problems as other public sector workers - chronic understaffing, assaults and stress-related illnesses.

Jim's understanding of the complexities of these contradictions is rather black and white. More serious, however, is his failure to offer any insight into how Marxists can relate to the most advanced sections of the POA - other than to say we should flag up the draft programme about prisons. Correct in one sense, of course, but hopelessly inadequate.

On the Permanent Revolution website Mark Hoskisson offers a better understanding of the complexities facing revolutionaries. He points out that "life throws up contradictions and, while weird purists who pass themselves off as leftists can only wail and denounce the POA, revolutionaries have to take an active approach that uses the contradiction to hasten the break up of the capitalist order. That's why we should support the POA strike and call on the union to defy the court injunction and intensify its action. Such an approach can pose the question to the POA - who are you loyal to: the working class movement and its discipline, or the state?" (www.permanentrevolution. net/?view=entry&entry=1624).

Hoskisson's dynamic analysis stands in contrast to Jim's attempt to put maximum distance between Marxists and prison officers. If we adopt a sniffy attitude to them, then Marxists will, in the future, be unable to draw a wedge in the POA. Indeed if Marxists do not show the hand of friendship to such a group of workers, then do not be surprised if, in different conditions, other political forces fill the vacuum in such a union. That would be a disaster.

Jim fails to draw the lesson that was so obvious to a reformist like Galloway - that the strike demonstrated that the trade union laws can be broken and that this will be necessary in the future if the working class is to regain its industrial combativity. This was even obvious to Socialist Worker. He is rightly keen to quote other sections of the Draft programme of the CPGB pertaining to prisons in the article, but not once does he make a call for the repeal of all of the state's anti-trade union laws. Read your programme again!

He and Socialist Worker, the latter not usually known for bringing wider demands to the fore in industrial disputes, relies too much on moralism and not enough on astute communist tactics. Providing the aims of a strike are not reactionary and anti-working class, we will call on the workers' movement to give its full solidarity to any set of workers, however backward, who set out to undermine those laws which tie the hands of the rest of the class. A victory for the POA, especially one that adopts illegal methods of action, would be a victory for the whole of our class. That ought to be ABC to communists. That an organisation like the SWP feels queasy about offering solidarity to the POA, but has no qualms about calling for 'Victory to the Taliban' ought to tell us something about the compass of that party. Jim should have lambasted the lame response of Socialist Worker, but chose to ignore it.

Jim does acknowledge that the POA is moving left. Yet a bid to warn readers that all is not what it seems with the left reformist leadership of the POA, Jim thinks he's on a winner when he notes that Lib Dem and Tory politicians speak at its conferences. Blow me down with a feather! Having attended many conferences of that oh so right-on union, the National Union of Teachers, I have regularly had to listen to the same political parties address delegates. Comrade Jim wants to establish how atypical the POA is in this regard and, indeed, generally. He will have to do better.

Of course we should not be starry-eyed about the POA. Very true. Yet they would not be unique amongst TUC-affiliated unions in prioritising sectional demands - indeed sometimes reactionary and anti-working demands - over the wider needs of our class. I well remember Nigel de Gruchy, the former leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, saying, "Teachers pay my wages, not pupils." Some dockers went out for Powell once. Perhaps in the event of a murder of an RMT member, Bob Crow will make a call for the return of capital punishment. So be it. It will be our duty as communists to advocate our programme when backward ideas come to the fore.

The complexities of the question mean that winning influence amongst prison officers will be difficult. A communist fraction in the POA would face numerous problems in raising demands relating to the rights of prisoners and the role prisoner officers play as jailers.

Arguably, this is why a reformist like Galloway can find the question of support for the POA more straightforward than a revolutionary, since reformists tend to accept that prisons are a necessary evil. As a reformist with a penchant for the old Stalinist states, he might find prisons a natural corollary of a socialist system too. Similarly, the very softness of the Socialist Party to the question of state power means that it will often approach the institutions of the state - above all the police- in a way that apes the methods of left reformism.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating such a flawed approach. However, Marxists are sometimes susceptible to a quite different and perhaps more dangerous problem - that, faced with such tricky questions, we adopt an approach that becomes abstentionist and ultra-left. This is what I am suggesting Jim's article lurches towards.

Today, when the working class movement in Britain remains in the doldrums, it is imperative for Marxists to celebrate acts of audacity as we witnessed on August 29, however modest they may appear. Even more importantly, we need to grasp how Marxists can begin to win sections of the working class who might be atypical, but will need to be won over if the capitalist state is to be overthrown. 'The turn of the screws' was not an attempt to do this.

Victory to the prison officers! For a communist fraction in the POA!