We’ve not seen images like it for over 15 years. The scene outside that prison in Liverpool at just gone 2pm this afternoon is required viewing. The local Prison Officers Association secretary on a wall, addressing a mass meeting. He’d just got off the phone to “our national vice-chair, Steve Gough” whose reaction to the government obtaining an injunction against the union was “tell them to stuff it up their arse”. The sound of journos’ jaws dropping was drowned out by the roars and cheers.
The biggest success of this action so far is the fact that it has taken place. The BBC, having had it as top item, moved it rapidly down the pecking order. No one can seriously doubt there was contact with the Ministry of Justice. This image of raw, effective, illegal action with the rest of the state powerless to do anything is one that the government, state agencies and employers will be desperate to bury. Typically, the BBC website has been at pains to quote union officers saying the action has to end because of the injunction, yet strangely, the newsworthy quote above seems to be missing from their story. In addition, of two pictures the BBC is showing online, one of them is of Bristol POA members returning to work.
In one burst of officially sanctioned unofficial action the prison officers have brought the possibility of serious action to break Brown’s pay freeze many steps closer. More significantly, they have rehabilitated the great weapon of the 1970s – the wildcat strike – traditional values in a modern setting, you might say.
Of course, prison officers as a category are not clear cut in the way, for example, nurses are. The state ultimately is bodies of armed men and their associated courts and prisons, and all that. But both in the demands of this dispute and the wider positions taken by the POA over the last 10 years, there’s a significant shift towards a social democratic trade unionism as opposed to a narrow craftism shot through with highly reactionary views and thuggery.
The statement put out by George Galloway and Respect rightly placed the dispute in the wider context of overcrowding and the government’s crazed policies:
"The POA and its members have my full support. I utterly condemn the injunction issued against the union, and Jack Straw should hang his head in shame for seeking it. Prison service management and the government ought to know that sympathy for the POA over the denial of union rights goes way beyond the trade union movement.
"The government is responsible for this action, and any consequences that flow from it, and no one else.
"This action is taking place on the day when news breaks of an ever growing bonanza in the boardroom. Anger among public sector workers over Gordon Brown's pay curbs, which amount to a cut, is growing.
"The prison officers' union has resisted the obscene privatisation of the service and has also championed calls for providing the staff, resources and training to ensure rehabilitation rather than tabloid-driven retribution.
"This government in caving in to that tabloid pressure is responsible for record prison overcrowding, which is damaging to prisoners and staff as well as doing nothing to tackle crime and its causes.
"Everyone should support the POA in this battle, which the government has it in its power to avert. In particular, I believe all public sector workers and their unions have an immediate interest in standing together and acting together to break Brown's pay freeze and ensure decent pay for all.
"In taking action despite the unjust anti-union laws and in refusing to cave in the prison officers union has set an example for the entire labour movement. Everyone must rally to their side.
"Respect opposes the Tory anti-union laws, which New Labour has reinforced. Every union has policy to have them repealed, as does the TUC. Now's the time to act on that policy."
The central question is that the prison officers today said, “Screw the anti-union laws.” In so doing they have created an example that might well spread.
At the time of writing Bristol had gone back in, but others were staying out. Whether they are all back tonight or by 7am tomorrow is not decisive. The genie is out of the bottle.
What's clear is that there will be relentless pressure on the strikers to return to work.
What else is clear is that we need to make sure those workers are inundated with messages of support, and that they are under no illusion that if action is taken against them by their bosses or by the government, we'll all do whatever we can to back them.
Send emails right now to email@example.com - but don't stop there. Raise the issue at work and get your colleagues to send messages too. Make sure everyone in your union does the same. And be prepared to do a lot more if the action spreads.