Critical support for POA strikes

Are prison officers 'workers in uniform' or just agents of state oppression? Paul Greenaway argues for a nuanced approach and a strategy for splitting the state machine

Last week saw brief, but seemingly successful, wildcat strike action by prison officers on Merseyside. Unsurprisingly, they had had enough of being at the receiving end of 'continued bullying and harassment' by the macho senior management at HMP Liverpool. So in September a Prison Officers Association member took his grievances to an employment tribunal, which resulted in a particularly sharp tongue-lashing for both the governor and deputy governor.

However, the prison bosses blithely ignored the tribunal's strictures and carried on the regime of intimidation. Indeed, so much so that on November 13 the irate deputy governor, Mark Hanson - clearly an habitual offender - discharged a vengeful communiqu' declaring that the seditious prison officer in question was to be sent on 'detached duty' to another establishment. Saying enough was enough, there was an impromptu walkout by disgruntled POA members, demanding an investigation into the conduct and behaviour of the governor and his deputy and a 'public apology' from the management for their grossly 'unfair treatment' of the staff.

The strike is illegal, given that the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act prohibits any action which could be deemed to 'induce prison officers to go on strike or to take other industrial action which could put the safety of the public, prisoners or staff at risk' - and left HMP Liverpool being run by a skeleton staff of only 20 scab POA officers and 30 managers, with increased police patrols outside the building. Giving voice to their anger, the POA issued a press release on November 17, in which Brian Caton - its general secretary and now a member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - gave a resounding call to arms: 'The membership of the POA stand fully behind the Liverpool branch ... in the face of a management team who appear unable to command the respect of their staff and who have resorted to running their prison on threats and intimidation.'[1]

More significantly still, there were solidarity walkouts by prison staff from jails (including young offenders' institutions) in Lancashire, Cheshire and Dorset. Obviously surprised, and wrong-footed, by the sudden display of militancy, the management blinked and hurriedly agreed to a meeting with the POA - and agreed to a prompt 'investigation' into the managerial practices at HMP Liverpool, as, of course, demanded by the striking prison officers. Whether triumphantly or in sorrow, it is hard to judge, the deputy general secretary of the POA, Mark Freeman, told a local newspaper that 'after 25 hours' the prison service 'gave us what we asked for on the very first hour of this walkout' - if they had conceded this in the first place, then 'none of the other prisons would have walked out' in solidarity.[2]

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that this is an isolated incident - a callous culture of intimidation and bullying pervades UK prisons - and it is clearly not just the prisoners who are liable to become victims of the system, which dehumanises both the jailed and jailers.

So what attitude should communists take towards prison officers - and specifically the POA, which is a fully constituted member of the TUC? Well, there are those who you can very broadly classify as falling into reflex 'leftist' and 'rightist' stances. On the one hand there are those, such as SPEW and the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, who treat prison officers purely as 'workers in uniform', and therefore just like any other section of the working class - thus the POA is to be accorded the status of a 'normal' trade union, no different from the National Union of Mineworkers or the Communication Workers Union. Then there are those who assume a moralistic, and plain stupid, stance that regards POA members as merely agents of the oppressive state machine - and hence shrilly denounce any show of solidarity, or political sympathy, with striking rank and file POA members as tantamount to an act of class treachery.

For a pristine example of this brittle ultra-leftist nonsense you can do no better than the International Bolshevik Tendency - a split from the Spartacist League. A recent IBT leaflet demands: 'Kick the screws out of the TUC!' and, for good measure, 'Throw immigration cops out of the Public and Commercial Services Union'.[3]

But in contradistinction to the above confused and mistaken approaches, communists instead emphasise the dual nature of an organisation like the POA. We cannot simply treat it like any other trade union - because POA members are responsible for the direct physical oppression of the section of the working class: and a section that is regrettably - and quite monstrously - increasing in numbers with each month that goes by. That is the straightforward, honest truth and we should not be afraid to say so.

Whatever the bigoted and spiteful crap churned out by the tabloid and rightwing media, only a tiny minority of UK prisoners are dreadful anti-social monsters (cynical murderers, serial rapists, etc) who need locking up for the protection of society. There are very few 'Mr Bigs' or criminal dons behind bars - forget it: they normally have the money, power and influence to flee the roost long in advance and securely hole themselves up far away in some considerable comfort.

No, rather the vast majority of prisoners are nothing more than the victims of an indifferent society, which prefers to sweep them under the carpet of a hellish UK prison system than seriously address and resolve the manifold and pressing social problems which produce such huge numbers of criminals in the first place. So, almost inevitably, the vast majority of prisoners have some form of drugs and/or alcohol dependency, while one-fifth have debilitating mental health issues and nearly a quarter of all youth offenders officially suffer from 'learning difficulties' (see opposite).

Self-evidently, such offenders should not be locked up at all in prison - to further deteriorate and become effectively institutionalised. Consequently, we oppose any demands of the POA that could only come at the expense of prisoners - like yet longer lock-up times or additional refinements to the means of oppression (bigger and harder batons/shields, use of water cannons or tear-gas, etc). But at the same time we will critically support those demands - as we would for rank and file police officers - that act to cohere intra-solidarity against the senior officers/wardens and thus help to undermine and eventually split the state machine. So, yes, we are definitely fully in favour of prison warders and members of the police force having the right to form and join trade unions and the right to go on strike. It is logically analogous to our demand that members of the armed forces also be given such rights.

In other words, it would be utterly crass to regard prison workers as simply part of the state machine - any more than Russian army was by mid-1917 - by then ever larger swathes of it were 'defecting' to the Bolsheviks and the general revolutionary (anti-war) cause. As for the POA itself, it has clearly shifted to the left as an organisation, under the influence of a not insignificant tranche of former miners entering the prison service over the last 20 years or so (and let's face it, if incarcerated, who would you want in charge of you - a former NUM man or the more 'traditional' POA military type, like a down-on-his-luck, semi-sadistic ex-army sergeant?). But, whatever the exact explanation, the POA's distinct turn to the left is something we should welcome and hope to see continue.

And we should not forget that there is a long history of militancy among unionised prison officers, with the POA tracing its origins to the Prison Officers' Federation - which in 1916 affiliated to the Labour Party. Not long after its formation, the POF fused with members of the police to form the Police and Prison Officers' Union. Then we had the 1919 police strike, which so put the fear of god into the British establishment - and quite rightly - that it was made illegal for police and prison officers to join or form trade unions. It was only after two decades of vigorous campaigning that prison officers won back the right to organise, though it still remained illegal for them to take strike action. More recently the Tories introduced legislation which was nakedly designed to smash the POA as a trade union, but eventually a 'compromise' was settled upon in the shape of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, where industrial action remained illegal.

As for Brian Caton himself, he is undoubtedly a sincere leftwinger - indeed, he is one of the most militant and leftwing leaders we have at the moment in the essentially quiescent trade union movement. Before a fanfare-free decamping to SPEW this September after 40 years of Labour Party membership, Caton had already made plain his views on 'crime and punishment' - telling The Socialist: 'Capitalism is wrong, it's unfair and it leads to an uncivil society. I don't want to live in an uncivil society where greed is the master and crime becomes the norm.'[4] In September, Caton informed The Socialist - now his publication, of course - that he had become 'sick and tired of people saying that just because you're a prison officer you're rightwing' and recounted how he had told Jack Straw (former home secretary) at a POA conference what the 'founder fathers' of the Labour Party 'would think of him now': engaged in 'fighting illegal wars and privatising prisons', for which Caton received a 'standing ovation' from POA members[5].


  1. www.poauk.org.uk/press-release-171109.asp
  2. Liverpool Daily Post November 19.
  3. www.bolshevik.org/1917/no30/no30-Screws_out_PCS.html
  4. The Socialist March 16 2006.
  5. The Socialist  September 15.