Why prison officers joined the protests


Joe Simpson, Prison Officers Association assistant general secretary, speaking at Socialism 2011 , photo Paul Mattsson

Joe Simpson, photo Paul Mattsson

On 10 May, members of the POA prison workers’ union took part in protest meetings outside prisons against pension cuts. The POA’s assistant general secretary, Joe Simpson, spoke to the Socialist about the action.

How many prison officers marched out on 10 May and why?

We had 80% of public sector prisons in England and Wales out holding protest meetings by 9am and we had all the prisons in Scotland out by then as well. It was quite a big success for us.

The contributions increase – we’re not happy about that, CPI/RPI [the switch to the usually lower Consumer Prices Increase from the Retail Price Index measure of inflation] – we’re not happy about that either, but the main issue was SPA/NPA [state pension age/normal pension age] – our members were absolutely incensed and up in arms over it. They don’t want to work until they are 68.

This is just the start and we will not rule anything out in our campaign to resolve the matter of NPA/SPA for our members.

What was management’s response to the walkout?

Governors threatened our members with dismissal. Some called the police to arrest some of our members, which the police refused to do. Our members were met with bullying and intimidation by some managers.

Nationally we were told that we had to go back to work, that the rallies were illegal, and that they would seek an injunction. In fact, they sent a letter before the action.

At 1.30pm, with all the press coverage that we’d had, we decided ‘let’s call it off’, ready for another day. So this is not the end of the action from the POA. This is just the beginning.

Will the POA back down under the threat of legal action?

Absolutely not. We believe that this campaign’s right, our members protest on 10 May was just. It’s an unjust law. We call upon the trade union movement as a whole to get these anti-trade union laws repealed and the only way to do that is by mass action.

We are joining the call to the TUC for a general strike. Workers are being punished on a daily basis for something that was beyond their control.

Banks go out and do all this, yet they’ve still got no restrictions on the banking sector. Everybody in the top jobs have been given massive pay rewards and bonuses. Then all of a sudden, we see ordinary workers having pay freezes, taking a drop in their living standards because they’re having to pay more for their pensions, having to work longer.

It’s now time that workers say ‘enough’s enough’. We’ve seen it in Greece, we’ve seen it in Spain, we’ve seen it in France. It’s sending a shockwave as everybody’s now saying ‘no’ to austerity. We need to do the same in Britain.

Are there other issues that prison officers are angry about that influenced the protests?

The future of prisons as a whole – the mass privatisation that the Tories have come up with. We will always be against private money in prisons because prisons shouldn’t be run for profit. We’ve always said that if it’s the state’s responsibility to imprison its citizens then it’s the state’s responsibility to rehabilitate them.

Prisons are an expensive commodity now. They want to give it out and sell that part of the justice system to private sector companies. This year we’ve seen eight prisons up for privatisation. The next round will come and they’ve been talking anywhere between ten and 25. Then all the big companies will be coming over from America.

So is political representation important in fighting cuts and privatisation?

We saw the ilk of the Labour Party. When it was in opposition, it said they were going to return all private prisons back to the public sector. When it got into power, it increased the amount of private prisons. It had more private prisons than the Tories ever dreamt of. So the Labour Party is no friend whatsoever to the POA and never will be.

I was proud to stand in the GLA [Greater London Assembly] elections on the list for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition [TUSC]. We didn’t get in, but I think we’ve got to take TUSC forward nationally with trade unions backing it.

Why do some trade unions keep insisting on giving money to Labour, when they’ve got an alternative called TUSC. It’s in its infancy – get behind it, push it and lets make it into a viable political entity.