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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 February 2008

Prison officers fight Labour's strike ban

Brian Caton, Prison Officers Association  general secretary, joins protest outside the Royal Court of Justice. Photo Keith Dickinson

Brian Caton, Prison Officers Association general secretary, joins protest outside the Royal Court of Justice. Photo Keith Dickinson

THE PRISON Officers Association (POA) special delegate conference met on 19 February in emergency session. They were hammering out what the POA should do in response to the Labour government's reintroduction of the Tories' 1994 legislation which makes strikes illegal in the prison service.

Bill Mullins

'Justice' minister Jack Straw has used the excuse of the POA's strike action last August to do this. This strike took place after Labour cut the pay award to prison officers of 2.5%, awarded by the pay review body, to less than 2%.

The association's national executive put two separate motions to conference. The first was that the association would take action if there was any attack on its finances or its members and that it would also pursue the right to take strike action in the European Court of Human Rights.

The second resolution, related to the first, called for "binding arbitration" to resolve disputes as long as that is not seen as a "no strike agreement".

POA protest outside Royal Court of Justice, photo Keith Dickinson

POA protest outside Royal Court of Justice, photo Keith Dickinson

In the debate, delegates spoke of their outrage at how they have been treated by the government. One delegate made the point that all the parties in parliament had voted in January to reintroduce the no-strike laws.

POA general secretary Brian Caton, in moving motion one, said that the reintroduction of Section 127 [of the Criminal Justice Act - which removes prison officers' right to strike] was an act of betrayal by New Labour.

In 1994 the Tories said that the prison officers were the same as the armed forces and the police. At the time prison officers were taking action against prison overcrowding, with 45,000 in prison. Now the prison population has gone up to a crisis level of 89,000 and the government says striking in protest at that is illegal as well. Brian said: "They won't get away with attacking us with impunity."

Other delegates referred to Jack Straw as a "liar" and "a traitor to the working class". Steve Baines from Liverpool said the government was hell-bent on crushing the association and warned the national executive not to abuse the membership's confidence in forthcoming negotiations.

Motion one was unanimously carried. Motion two was more controversial as the delegates tried to get their heads around the apparent contradiction between calling for "binding arbitration" for everything including pay, whilst insisting this would not mean a no-strike deal.

Steve Gillan, the national finance officer, who moved motion two, said it was necessary to call for proper "compensatory measures" in response to the government's action when they went to the European Court of Human Rights. The conference accepted this explanation and the motion was unanimously carried.

The High Court the previous day had continued the injunction, awarded against the POA last year, to go on until 8 May. That injunction followed the August 2007 walkout.

It remains to be seen whether the government will go on with the introduction of Section 127 or reach some agreement with the POA over the next few months, particularly around the issue of binding arbitration.

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