Fighting for trade union rights
The Prison Officers Association (POA) shocked the government by going on a one-day strike on 29 August 2007. This year, a 2% pay offer, with strings, was made a few days before the leadership of the union were dragged into court on 11 and 12 February. John Hancock, local official of the POA in Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London spoke to Keith Dickinson and Alison Hill for The Socialist a few days before the court case.
What is the latest situation in the aftermath of the strike – your battle for decent pay and working conditions and the right to strike?
The union executive, led by Brian Caton and Colin Moses, have been having talks with Jack Straw. At the moment we don’t know how fruitful these talks have been but there is a special delegate meeting on 19 February when we’ll have a report.
I think a lot of staff are frustrated that there’s been no progress since they took that day of action. They thought things would happen more quickly. But I think we are going to be in this for the long haul.
But we have still got quite a high profile, certainly amongst trade unionists and I still think we’ve got the public on our side.
Do you know what [Justice Minister] Jack Straw is after?
It looks as though they’ve been talking about modernisation. Jack Straw wants a no strike agreement again because he’s introduced section 127 of the Criminal Justice Act.
He’s reintroduced that even before we’ve started discussions in May when the union formally leaves the previous agreement – JIRPA.
That has upset a lot of us. We have had a new agreement put to us – the Trade Union Dispute Resolution and Recognition agreement. But I’m pretty sure that will mean a no strike agreement and I don’t think very many branches will want to sign up to that.
What is this court case about?
Our leadership is going to be on trial on 11/12 February because of the strike. I’m not sure what will become of that but they could sequester the union’s funds. If they try that, I’ve got a lot of members that say if that happens we should go out.
But we started this union off without a penny piece 69 years ago so we can start again if we have to. And this time we’ll call it the National Union of Prison Officers.
Straw is going for our throat but a pay award has been announced a few days before the court case. It’s 2.2% roughly but contingent on us agreeing to discuss ‘modernisation’.
And there’s no guarantee that the pay won’t be phased in like last year when the award became 1.9%.
What is the mood amongst POA members now?
The mood is still high. Morale went through the roof on 29 August. It’s always difficult to maintain that mood but I now think a lot of people accept the fact that we’re in this for the long haul.
The government talk hard about crime, what are the consequences of that for working conditions ?
We’re overcrowded and we’re understaffed. We’re locking up more and more people with mental health issues. That is one of our biggest concerns.
Assaults are up 50% on male staff and 105% on female staff overall.
So there’s overcrowding and many people are locked up who shouldn’t be in prison at all. They should be getting treatment in a proper hospital.
And now they are talking about more cuts – 3% year-on-year for three years.
Your strike shocked the government but it also seems to have had an effect on the police – showing them that they had to protest if they were going to get anything.
When you see the police out on the street you know the government have serious problems. The chances are they will settle with the police because they can’t afford to do without them. But that may be at our expense again.
What about other public-sector unions?
There’s a need for unity amongst public sector unions. I was at the Stand Up for Public Services meeting last year where [PCS general secretary] Mark Serwotka said if they came down hard on us, other unions should come to our support. We’ve also had support from the RMT.
How well is the union organised in your branch?
We have a rep in every part of the prison now and the branch committee are excellent. Nationally our membership increased dramatically after the strike. At Wormwood Scrubs we’re now on about 98% membership.
We will be there at the court to support the union’s leadership. What happens there will have quite an effect on our special delegate meeting on 19 February. We may even have to act before then.
What is your attitude to the Labour Party and the Labour government now?
Labour used to have socialist principles but not any more. All three parties are the same, vying with each other to cut public services.
They are out of touch with reality. People are struggling and they don’t seem to care about them any more. They don’t want to hear about us.
During the strike all the frustrations with the government came out. If we’d said: “we’re going back in” the members wouldn’t have come! People on rest days came to support us.
When the police turned up the members thought they were going to arrest us. When we looked round, the branch committee were surrounded by hundreds of our members just making sure we were all right!
It isn’t just a pay issue, it’s about dangerous conditions in prisons. A lot of prisoners recognise that. Just this week someone had their teeth knocked in by another prisoner who should be in hospital.
When the Labour Party were in opposition Blair and Blunkett came to our conference and told us it was outrageous that the Tories were privatising prisons. They said that they would bring them all back into the public sector. And they didn’t do it.
Our national executive is actively saying now that we do not support the Labour Party. Some MPs supported us but that’s it. And we’ve never been that political before.