The socialist interview
‘We reject New Labour’s policies and philosophy’
Party trade union organiser, Bill Mullins, recently spoke to BRIAN CATON,
general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association.
The POA organises 35,000 public and private sector workers and is
fighting to get full union rights – removed by the Tories in 1994 –
restored to its members.
Brian was hoping to address the CNWP conference but is now unable to
I believe Home Secretary Charles Clarke has threatened to sequestrate
the funds of your union. What’s the background to this?
My members are currently dealing with 78,000 prisoners in our penal
system. This is far more than we should have and far more than is
necessary for a civil society.
Mr Clarke and his colleagues are determined to go along with the Tory
philosophy that the way to restrict prison officers from having a voice
about the penal system and its failures is to attack their trade union
rights. In 1994 the Tory government took us to court and said that we
weren’t a trade union. They then brought in legislation saying it was
illegal for prison officers to take industrial action and for anybody to
induce them to do so.
Last year we got that legislation removed but only if we shackled
ourselves with a voluntary agreement. If that voluntary agreement was
adhered to the prison service, the government and ourselves could work
constructively together. But the government have constantly breached
that agreement. What we’ve said is that if they continue to do so, we’re
out of that agreement and we’re back to free collective bargaining.
A good prison service is where prison officers are represented fairly
and not restricted by the shackles of the New Labour government saying
we cannot be a proper union.
What’s your members’ reaction to these threats?
Our members are more than disappointed, they’re very, very angry.
We’re expecting the result of our pay review to be announced in the next
couple of days. The rumours are that it’s 1.6%, which would be a very
serious pay cut. This is against the backdrop of our members delivering
every target for the government and having more people in custody than
any other civilised country in the world.
We’re beginning to get more than a bit fed up with this government,
its actions, its ministers, its lies and its conceit. What we want is to
make sure that we’re a representative body that is listened to by a fair
government and a proper party that represents the labour movement.
The Socialist Party has launched the CNWP to bring as many people as
possible, particularly in the trade unions, towards building a new
workers’ party. What is your attitude to that idea?
I’ve been a member of the Labour Party all my adult life. I think its
very disappointing that we’ve got to talk this way. But I think it’s
essential that we send a very clear message to New Labour that the
labour movement has now rejected their policies and philosophy.
On a personal note, I’ll look with great interest at any party formed
that will represent working-class people and has the aim of ensuring
working-class people are fully represented in a fair and proper system.
We will be looking constructively at any declaration about a new
workers’ party. I’ll read it and discuss it with those on the left in my
The anti-trade union legislation is worse now than 100 years ago.
It’s an absolute disgrace. This means people will look very seriously at
the suggestions you’ve made. There’s a view amongst senior politicians
of all political persuasions that we have to go along with capitalism
and we can’t swim against the tide. But I’ve spent my life swimming
against the tide and I haven’t got tired arms yet.
Capitalism is wrong, it’s unfair and it leads to an uncivil society.
I don’t want to live in an uncivil society where greed is the master and
crime becomes the norm.