The Socialist 30 August 2007 |
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Prison officers defy government's pay cap
The one-day strike on Wednesday 29 August by the Prison Officers Association (POA) was highly significant in that the entire Association, including its leadership, deliberately defied a no-strike 'agreement' with the government and the anti-trade union laws.
The action was planned secretly for maximum effect - with prison officers' leaders phoning their prison reps early in the morning on the strike day, asking them to spread the word to union members to stay out of the prisons that day.
All England and Wales prisons were affected and the government was left reeling in shock. This united and determined action will be applauded by socialists and trade unionists throughout the labour movement and stands as an example of how to treat the anti-union laws.
A ballot of POA members had produced an 87% vote in favour of action, yet when they took their action - officially organised by their leadership - they were ordered by a court to return to work, their association funds were threatened with sequestration and their leaders threatened with jail.
Prison officers' leaders are perhaps less intimidated by threats of prison than others might be, knowing that they would be looked after inside by their own union members! They would also meet a good reception from a layer of fellow inmates, some of whom welcomed the strike action, despite suffering deprivations on that day.
This support is partly because the officers were tipped over the edge into taking their first ever strike action not just as a result of a derisory pay offer, but also because of terrible prison overcrowding, a situation that badly affects prisoners and officers alike.
However, this does not detract from their courageous stand, which should be noted well by other trade union leaders, who in any case would also be treated as heroes by other trade unionists and workers if they defied the anti-union laws in the interests of their members.
At this stage the prison officers' action has only won talks (as did the summer Royal Mail workers' action), but the impact of their 'illegal' action is immense.
They laid down a marker against the anti-trade union legislation; laws which if defied in an on-going campaign involving a substantial number of the seven million trade unionists in Britain would quickly be rendered obsolete.
Also having a major impact as the socialist goes to press, is a 72 hour strike of RMT rail union members at bankrupt London tube maintenance company Metronet.
Just 2,300 workers have succeeding in closing three quarters of the tube network in their fight against job losses, forced transfers and pension losses.
The Metronet debacle is the result of a privatisation programme that was promoted by Gordon Brown. With London now becoming paralysed by the RMT's fully justified action, the Metronet administrator and the government will come under great pressure to give the workforce the necessary guarantees.
Unity over pay?
THE SOCIALIST believes that a one-day public-sector strike for above-inflation pay rises is urgently needed. The PCS has for a while been calling for co-ordinated public sector action over pay.
In an attempt to placate health workers, the government has offered them some very minor concessions, but still keeping their pay rise below 2%. The concessions only total £52 million, despite the fact that the NHS now has an expected £983 million surplus.
Council workers have been offered a slightly higher wage increase than the government limit, by the Tory controlled local authority employers, though it is still less than inflation and Unison is going to ballot for strike action against it. At the time of writing, Royal Mail workers are still waiting for the outcome of negotiations between their union and bosses.
The Police Federation even, has voted overwhelmingly that its members will start campaigning for the right to take industrial action unless the government improves its 2.3 per cent pay offer to police officers.
The POA, Police Federation and Fire Brigades Union are planning to meet to co-ordinate a joint pay campaign. Police Federation vice-chairman Alan Gordon commented: "You can only bite people so much before they want to bite back".
Gordon Brown says repeatedly that pay rises above 2% would break the "discipline" needed to tackle inflation. But showing that the government can be forced to break their pay limit, nuclear scientists have just won a 3.99% offer after threatening strike action.
In any case, where is the 'discipline' from company directors, who have never had it so good, or even from the government's own Bank of England, which recently handed over an emergency loan of £312 million to rich fat cat friends in Barclays bank? Brown's 'discipline' means tax leniency on the super wealthy and loaning tax payers' money to them, while telling low-paid public sector workers that they can't have a penny more.
Taking all this and more into account, it is hardly surprising that the Labour Party's lead over the Tories fell to just 3% in a recent YouGov poll, prompting the Financial Times' political correspondent to say that the 'Brown bounce' may have been short-lived.
Union leaders who are prepared to lead strike action when necessary, like those in the PCS, RMT, communication workers' union and POA are the only ones at present who are reflecting the angry mood of their members.
Other union leaders should stop holding repeated 'consult-ation' ballots when members' views for action are already clear; if their union is affiliated to the Labour Party they must break that link; then they would be getting on with the job their members pay them to do - that of defending workers' jobs, pay and conditions.