Which Side Are You On?

Screws Out of the TUC!

On 29 August, the Prison Officers Association (POA) defied the government and walked off the job for a day, in protest against a 2.5% pay offer. The government’s unwillingness to aggressively go after the POA has been celebrated by various reformist leftists as an example of how militant trade unionists can successfully defy reactionary legislation. But the POA is not a workers’ organisation – they represent the personnel of a vital arm of state repression. This is why the government has been so reluctant to move against them and also why it is a mistake to view their action as a blow against anti-trade union laws.

Marxists do not consider police and prison officers as part of the workers’ movement, regardless of their social origin, as Leon Trotsky made clear:

‘The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.’
(‘What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat’, 1932)

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Socialist Party (SP) were all enthusiastic about the POA’s strike. The SWP opined:

‘Prison officers should have the right to strike and to a union….’

. . .

‘There is a clear lesson for other workers here. If prison officers can take unofficial illegal strike action over Brown’s cuts and force concessions from New Labour ministers, surely other public sector unions must be able to do the same.’
(‘Prison officers’ unofficial strike rattles government’, www.socialistworker.co.uk, 1 September)

While the CPGB characterised the POA’s members as ‘direct agents of state repression’, they nonetheless consider them ‘exploited workers’ and concluded:

‘Communists are certainly in favour of prison workers and members of the police force having the right to form and join trade unions and having the right to strike. It is akin to our demand that members of the armed forces be given such rights.’
(Weekly Worker, 6 September)

The SP took a similar tack:

‘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.’
(The Socialist, 30 August)

Socialist Worker acknowledged that prison guards are usually right-wing and many are overt racists:

‘Prison officers’ work, upholding law and order, frequently pushes them to accept the most right wing ideas and actions of the system. One of their main jobs is to control prisoners – and throughout the prison system, many officers have a proven record of racism and violence.’
(op. cit.)

The Weekly Worker also tempered its enthusiasm for the POA with a disclaimer:

‘While Marxists can only but approve of prison officers and other workers in uniform trying to assert themselves as workers by organising in trade unions and striking, we never lose sight of the reality of the state’s institutions of repression of which they are part.’
(op. cit.)

The SP’s statement, by contrast, simply praised the strikers’ ‘courageous stand’:

‘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 who 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.’
(Socialist, 30 August)

The SP’s enthusiasm for the ‘courageous’ screws led them to invite POA General Secretary Brian Caton to speak at the opening rally of ‘Socialism 2007’. Perhaps he will be invited to join Peter Taaffe in singing the Internationale at the conclusion of the conference.

Workers Power (WP), which has occasionally criticised those who describe cops and screws as ‘workers in uniform’, tried to give its support for the POA a slightly leftist tilt:

‘… we do support prison wardens’ right to organise and to strike, and their demands for better pay, just as we support prisoners’ demands for democratic rights and better conditions. Any action that weakens the ability of the capitalist class to exploit and rule us has to be a good thing. Especially if it proves that the anti-union laws are toothless … if we only have the guts to defy them.’
(Workers Power, September)

Permanent Revolution (PR, a 2006 split from Workers Power) took essentially the same view, claiming in a statement dated 31 August that: ‘By supporting its [the POA] action … we push the fight for wider union action against Brown’s pay freeze forward’. Smashing anti-union legislation and Brown’s public-sector pay freeze requires a willingness to take on the capitalist state – those who want to paint disgruntled members of the repressive apparatus as a vanguard of a resurgent workers’ movement act to undermine the possibility of any serious struggle.

Abuse by prison officers: systematic and routine

Many of those leftists who have hailed the POA action suggest that prison officers have a contradictory role – sometimes good and sometimes bad:

‘We cannot by any means always endorse every trade union action that they take. There are many demands that they might make – such as those that would improve their own conditions at the expense of prisoners’ rights – which we would never support and would in fact argue should be actively fought against by the trade union movement as a whole.’
(Weekly Worker, 6 September)

In their statement of 31 August, PR takes a similar position:

‘The POA is a curious hybrid. Part of its membership is based in special hospitals like Broadmoor and operates, effectively like mental health nurses, though with extremely dangerous patients. Another part of its membership in the prisons – the screws – is, like the police, a coercive arm of the state. Their role in inflicting repression on working class prisoners is well documented and they have operated a no-strike deal with the state for many years (like the police) in order to carry out the role effectively. They are not, in other words, the archetypal union militants you would expect to be carrying the torch on behalf of the wider movement in the current struggle against pay-restraint.’

Screws are indeed a ‘coercive arm of the state’, which is why they are not, and can never be, part of the ‘wider workers movement’. The brutal abuse of prisoners is routine in Her Majesty’s prison system. A few years ago the Prison Service admitted that officers at Wormwood Scrubs regularly ‘subjected inmates to sustained beatings, mock executions, death threats, choking and torrents of racist abuse’ (Guardian, 11 December 2003). All just part of the routine for POA members on the job.

The idea of kindly screws functioning as benign social workers, anxious to help rehabilitate prisoners, and concerned for the welfare of their charges is simply a bourgeois myth. The function of the repressive state apparatus is to intimidate and crush anyone who falls afoul of capitalist law and order. The abuse of those caught up in the machinery of the prison system is brutal and systematic – it is not down to a handful of ‘rogue elements’.

PR tries to spin its support to the screws as a matter of smart revolutionary tactics:

‘But life throws up contradictions and while weird purists who pass themselves off as leftists can only wail and denounce the POA revolutionaries have to take an active approach that uses the contradiction to hasten the break up of the capitalist order. That’s why we should support the POA strike and call on the union to defy the court injunction and intensify its action.

‘Such an approach can pose the question to the POA – who are you loyal to, the working class movement and its discipline, or the state?’
(op. cit.)

The POA membership are hired capitalist thugs. PR supporters should ask themselves how better rewarded and equipped agents of capitalist repression would be likely to ‘hasten the break up of the capitalist order’. ‘Weird purists’ like Lenin and Trotsky, who asserted that the repressive bourgeois state could never be wielded as an instrument of liberation by the oppressed, had harsh things to say about ‘socialists’ who pedalled similar notions as ‘Marxist’ tactics.

Reformist cretins & social-democratic illusions

To accept the POA as part of the workers’ movement implies that the coercive elements of the bourgeois state can somehow be brought under workers’, or ‘community’, control. This approach is in absolute contradiction to the Marxist position on the state. Prison officers are an integral part of the coercive apparatus which brutally enforces a social system based on exploitation and oppression. Like cops and members of the officer caste, screws are class enemies – they have no place in the workers’ movement.

The SP, who are among the most vocal proponents of the view that cops, screws, etc., are really ‘workers in uniform’, have long upheld the social-democratic illusion that the working class can use the capitalists’ state to build socialism. In the one union where the SP has real influence, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), they say nothing about the presence of immigration officers. A genuinely Marxist group would call for throwing these vicious thugs out of the union movement (see ‘The most disgraceful defeat: PCS capitulation on pension scheme’, www.bolshevik.org/leaflets/PCSbetrayal.html). The SP leadership pretends that there is no contradiction between defending ‘illegal’ immigrants persecuted by the state, and supporting the demands for higher wages and better working conditions for those who harass and deport them.

In its 31 August statement, PR echoes one of the SP’s traditional justifications for including cops in the union movement when it brightly proposes:

‘… we can also help split the union from those within its ranks who see their role as guardians of capitalism’s prison houses and win those who aren’t to a longer term struggle of fighting to overthrow the capitalism’s [sic] system of (in)justice and replace it with one based on the needs and interests of the working class.’

Individual prison officers may indeed grow tired of doing the capitalists’ dirty work and come to solidarise with the oppressed against the oppressors. But there is a class line that separates the organs of capitalist repression and the organisations of the working class. In order to become part of the workers’ movement, a screw, or a cop, must first resign their post. Those who remain on duty to carry out the instructions of Her Majesty’s government are, despite any private reservations they may have, agents of the bosses and, as such, opponents of the struggle for human liberation.

The workers’ movement should of course welcome and encourage any individual screws who are ready to change sides, but only social-democratic cretins can regard those who carry out the essential repressive functions of the bourgeois state to be part of the workers’ movement. Rather than support the prison guards, socialists should be campaigning to expel the POA from the TUC, and throw immigration cops out of the PCS.

10 November 2007

Posted: 12 November 2007