Prison Officers Association (POA) members defied the government yesterday and walked out for the first illegal strike against Labour over public sector poverty pay and trade union rights.
The POA executive later said a court order declaring their action illegal and ordering them back to work immediately would not affect their 24-hour strike and their members would remain out until 7am today.
In the first strike in the POA’s 68-year history, masses of prison officers demonstrated outside prisons throughout England and Wales.
Some prisons began to return to work after defying the court order for several hours but many others remained out until this morning.
The POA saluted the stance of the 90 per cent of its 28,000 members who had been due on duty and had joined the strike.
Colin Moses National Chairman of the POA said: ‘The moral of staff is at rock bottom and the decision of government to stage the pay award as recommended by the Pay Review Body for 2007 was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.
‘The POA recently conducted a workplace ballot and 87 per cent of those who voted said, yes to industrial action up to and including strike action.
‘This union is carrying out the rights of its members and the right of every worker to withdraw their labour.’
Brian Caton General Secretary of the POA added: ‘This government has failed to deliver promise after promise to this union and today it is reaping all that it has sown.
‘It is unforgivable that a Labour government should treat public services and workers with such disdain.’
The Pay Review Body recommended a 2.5 per cent pay rise but the government staged that rise as 1.5 per cent in April and a further one per cent in November.
Outside Brixton Prison southwest London, POA Rep Kevin Johnson told News Line: ‘It’s a national walkout for 24 hours 7am today to 7am tomorrow. We’ve been offered an under-inflation pay rise and that is unacceptable.’
Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: ‘The strike action by the Prison Officers’ Association is deeply regrettable and wholly unjustifiable.’
He claimed: ‘We have been actively trying to engage with the POA through talks and regular meetings and yet this action came without warning.’
Straw added: ‘We are urgently considering what other action to take in respect of this unannounced and unlawful action by the POA.’
Britain’s largest civil service union, The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents instructional officers and administrative support staff in prisons, sent a message of support to the POA.
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: ‘PCS members fully support those Prison Officers who walked out today.
‘We understand and support the motivation behind today’s industrial action by POA members. Below inflation pay awards leading to pay cuts in real terms are completely unacceptable and is a problem that PCS members delivering vital public services also face.
‘Like POA members, PCS members are prepared to stand up for fair pay and the services they deliver which is why your fight is our fight.
‘The government need to recognise that they cannot continue to use civil and public servants as an anti-inflationary tool, by beginning to value them with fair pay.’
Asked if the courts sequestrate the Prison Officers Association, should the other public sector unions take supporting action, a PCS spokesman said he could not comment as ‘that would be up to the whole NEC to decide’.
A Fire Brigades Union spokesman told News Line: ‘The FBU has sent messages of support and FBU members have been visiting prison officers’ picket lines.’
Asked if other public sector unions should take action in the event the POA is sequestrated, the FBU spokesman added: ‘The POA is fully entitled to restore union rights and normal industrial relations procedures that are available to everyone else.
‘We hope the government sees sense and addresses the issue of the staged pay award which has upset people.’
The GMB trade union said the government should pay the prison officers the pay review body award in full and stop using the threat of court action to settle industrial relations matters.
A GMB spokesman offered no comment on other unions taking action in support of the POA.
UNISON had no comment.
A spokeswoman for the TGWU trade union told News Line: ‘We are not going to comment on another union’s strike.’
• Second news story
Manchester NHS victimisation action
MENTAL health workers in Manchester began a three-day strike yesterday after an overwhelming 87.3 per cent vote in favour of action, in a ballot over the suspension of local UNISON leader Karen Reissmann.
Pickets are taking place in the mornings between 7.00am and 11.00am outside North Manchester General, Manchester Royal Infirmary and Wythenshaw hospitals.
Reissmann – chair of the Manchester Community Mental Health Branch of UNISON and a member of the union’s national executive – is known throughout the north-west as an active campaigner against NHS cuts.
UNISON members feel strongly that the decision of the employers to suspend her in June amounts to victimisation and an attack on free speech.
A total of 684 UNISON members are employed by the Manchester Mental Health trust.
The strike action covers all in-patient, hospital and community psychiatric services across the city.
Reissmann, a community mental health nurse, has received resounding support for her reinstatement from staff and the general public, and union members nationally.
UNISON said she was being ‘gagged’ for challenging cutbacks, pledging to ‘vigorously defend’ the rights of all its members to speak out, without fear of persecution.
UNISON said the closures of an elderly ward and a respite centre were damaging the trust’s reputation, not the actions of their branch chair.