Socialist Worker

Should we support a prison officers’ strike?

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2246

Prison officers across Britain have held meetings over the Tory government’s controversial plans to privatise jails.

Tory justice secretary Kenneth Clarke’s plan is that private contractors will soon run three prisons in England. HMP Birmingham will be handed over to private contractor G4S from this October.

Clearly the ideological determination of the Tories to put everything under the rule of profits knows no bounds.

Privatised prisons, in the pursuit of making a profit, will inevitably make conditions even worse for prisoners than they are now.

The Prison Officers Association (POA) was set to decide on its course of action on Tuesday of this week.

It already has a union mandate to take industrial action—even though this is currently illegal.

Prison officers should have the right to strike and to a union. And it is disgusting that the first response of the Tories was to start talking about sending in troops to break any strike.

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

Prison officers’ work upholding “law and order” frequently pushes them to accept the most right wing ideas 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.

The POA should be making demands for fewer prisoners and better conditions in prisons.

Traditionally prison officers—like their colleagues in the police—have been accommodated at the first sign of trouble.

But there is a lesson for other workers here.

If prison officers can take unofficial illegal strike action against the cuts, and if they can take on the government, despite their right wing position in society, why shouldn’t the rest of us?

Coordinated industrial action can beat the restrictions of anti-union laws—and the Tory government.

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Tue 5 Apr 2011, 18:23 BST
Issue No. 2246
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