Socialist Worker


Issue No. 2068

Prison officers have provoked a public debate about strikes  (Pic: Jess Hurd/»  )

Prison officers have provoked a public debate about strikes (Pic: Jess Hurd/ » )

Prison officers and the fight for decent pay

The recent unofficial walk out by prison officers, which forced an unwilling government into negotiations over pay, is a useful reminder of the power of organised workers.

It was great to see the government floundering in the face of a strike.

The prison officers’ action shows that determined and militant action is the best way to get results, at a time when millions in public sector are battling below-inflation pay rises.

However, our enthusiasm for the sight of ministers getting a black eye should not blind us to the class position that prison officers occupy. They are the people who administer the brutal method that the state has chosen to punish those it cannot discipline in other ways.

People in prison are from the most deprived backgrounds and kept in appalling conditions.

The anti-working class nature of their jobs means that prison officers generally embody more of the prejudices that help divide workers than you might otherwise expect on a picket line.

At the highest points of class struggle the entire criminal justice system – especially prisons – become the focus for a working class that seeks to smash the old order. We are unlikely to find either prison officers, or police, alongside us in that battle.

Jane Hardy, UCU National Committee (personal capacity)

“Tell them to stuff it up their arse.” Those were the words of a Prison Officers Association official after their recent unofficial strike. They show the kind of attitude we need if we’re to break from the anti-union Labour Party.

Therefore, I was disappointed that Socialist Worker’s online article about the dispute wasn’t a celebration of workers engaging in a battle against the state. That was the central issue on the day, no matter what else we might say about prison officers.

Of course, prison officers can be among the more reactionary part of the working class.

But we have to understand that they are suffering because of the attempt to “discipline” the working class into taking pay cuts.

If these workers defy the law, despite their position in society, they need to know that the left will back them in any way that we can.

Tony Collins, RMT rep, London Underground

As a former prisoner, I welcome the recent strike by the prison officers’ union. They are fighting for decent pay, against overcrowding and for better safety measures in the face of rising attacks on officers.

Such strikes force the government onto the defensive, and help give other workers confidence to fight.

However, prison officers, like the police and other “bodies of armed men”, help those at the top of society to remain in power, and they often hold extremely right wing ideas.

I witnessed racism, intimidation, corruption, and a lot of bullying while in jail. There are exceptions, but they tend to be on the margins of the system. The vast majority I had little time for.

Ex-Prisoner K, by email

Victory in Edinburgh

Your report about Scottish National Party (SNP) councillors being forced to withdraw their support for the closure of 22 schools by a coalition of striking school children, a lively and inclusive public campaign, and a day’s strike by council employees hit the nail on the head (Socialist Worker, 6 September).

Ordinary people in Edinburgh have had enough of the spin and gloss that “markets” the city as a prime tourist destination, while daily life for inhabitants is one of struggle with high rents and mortgages, making do on low wages, and trying to access inadequate services.

We have won a victory but we cannot be complacent. The council’s debt – which is growing daily – is still there, and they are sure to return with another cuts package.

This struggle, like many others across Britain, is for public services and in opposition to New Labour’s agenda of war and privatisation.

Gordon Brown says there isn’t the money, but we know that at least £5 billion has been spent on the war in Iraq.

We also know that if the rich were taxed at 60 percent, instead of 40 percent, at least £20 billion could be collected.

The money exists, but we have to force councils to stand up for the people they represent and demand those resources from our governments in London and Edinburgh.

Marlyn Tweedie, Edinburgh Unison steward (pc)

Nuke deal

John Hutton MP, secretary of state for business and enterprise, recently repeated the government’s line that no subsidies would be provided for new nuclear power stations.

But nuclear power continues to enjoy a large subsidy because it pays only a small fraction of the cost of insuring fully against Chernobyl-style disaster.

If the government is serious, then it should require the nuclear industry to pay its costs in full, without any limitations on liabilities.

Dr Gerry Wolff, by email

Folk, not Elvis, is true music of resistance

Ian Birchall surely had his tongue firmly in cheek with his stinging criticism of Pete Seeger, and more generally his denigration of folk music as an expression of protest (» Letters, 1 September).

The likes of Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and many other folk singers beside, were active in the working class movement, opposed US imperialist ventures and were involved in the civil rights movement.

Like many others, they suffered in the anti-Communist witch-hunt hysteria at the height of the Cold War.

Bob Dylan and others continued this tradition in the more commercialised era of the 1960s, and took the message to a large number of people.

The same page of Socialist Worker contains a reference to the Latin American socialist folk singer Victor Jara, acknowledging that in a lot of working class communities, the folk tradition is resonant and relevant.

I am no fan of rap music, but it does not restrict my appreciation that it is a ready-made vehicle for any disadvantaged person in the world to express their anger, frustration and demands.

Ian is a committed and intelligent socialist, and maybe he was just trying to stimulate debate on a relevant issue.

Graham Richards, Manchester

‘Successful’ but not role models

There are arguments in favour of having positive role models for young black people (» The real role models are not in the boardroom, 8 September).

I believe that those who have grown up within deprived black communities, and have made a success of their lives, can serve in this way.

Because such people have seen it all, they can positively influence young people away from a life of drugs and gang culture.

But there are other black people who, despite their origins, will never have a positive influence.

They are the ones who, having made a success of their own lives, seek to have nothing more to do with black people.

If we mistakenly make eye contact with them, they give us a look to make us feel we are less than human beings.

People who are obsessed with their own success and achievements often regret being black. To them, the rest of us are rubbish, scum – the dregs of society.

These people serve only to help fuel the rage and disenchantment that many young black people feel.

Do we need such people as role models? Certainly not!

Simon Owoade, West London

This bunny’s not funny

In response to Playboy opening a “concept” store in London this September, Anti-porn UK are holding a protest on Saturday 29 September.

We are opposed to the continuing expansion of Playboy as the acceptable face of porn and its increasing cross over into everyday culture under the guise of “cute” products.

This merchandise is often designed to appeal to young girls, and is part of a continuing attempt to promote the message that being a playboy “bunny” is to be desirable and successful.

You can find out more about our campaign by visiting »

Anti-porn UK, London

King Cotton and slavery

It is not only in Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum that we can see a “refreshing change from much of the coverage of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade” (» A refreshing approach to history, 1 September).

Eight museums and galleries across Greater Manchester have joined together to explore the lasting legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

For decades official histories either denied the role slavery played as the source of cheap cotton spun in Manchester’s “dark satanic mills”, or pointed to the port city of Liverpool as the main beneficiary.

These exhibitions show that slavery was central to the growth of Manchester as “King Cotton”.

Mark Krantz, Manchester

Death in custody

A report has just been issued on the death of a 14 year old boy at a secure training centre in County Durham in 2004.

He hanged himself after being subjected to so-called “pain distraction”, whereby physical blows are applied to the nose as a method of restraint.

This is legally sanctioned child abuse. Will anyone face prosecution as a result? Unlikely, if other recent deaths of young people in custody are anything to go by.

Such methods should be halted immediately. They give a hollow ring to Labour’s much vaunted commitment to child protection.

Unsurprisingly the report gained little attention in the media, which by far preferred the latest plans to get tough with teenagers.

Keith Prince, East London

Military can’t keep mum

In the light of recent draconian curbs on military personnel accessing the media, blogs and emails while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is noticeable the same restrictions do not apply to service chiefs.

General Jackson is one who is clearly not leading by example. Having supported the campaign in Iraq since its outset, he now highlights the failure of the military campaign just because things have gone disastrously wrong!

Military personnel of any rank should have the same rights as civilians to criticise government policy, and indeed the political comments of their superiors.

Nick Vinehill, Norfolk

Defeat that can’t be spun

There is no way to hide the fact that the withdrawal of British troops from Basra is a major political and military defeat for the British imperial project.

Whatever Brown or his military commanders might say about a “pre-planned and organised move”, or a “transition to an ‘overwatch’ role”, it is clear that both the Iraqi and British public believe troops have been driven out.

The government will try to spin its way out of Iraq the same way as it spun its way in, but the consequences of this defeat should not be underestimated.

Tim Evans, Swansea

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Article information

Tue 11 Sep 2007, 18:38 BST
Issue No. 2068
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