Don’t mess with the Prison Officers’ Association

Prison Officers Association general secretary Brian Caton

The Prison Officers’ Association’s rejection of the Ministry of Justice’s modernisation plans will worry Jack Straw. The POA and its general secretary Brian Caton are nothing if not militant. At last year’s TUC congress, a vote was held on holding coordinated strike action across unions. I wasn’t in the hall at the time, but I’m told that on a show of hands the ayes had it. But Unison general secretary Dave Prentis in the chair, no fan of general strikes, denied there was a clear result and called for a card vote, whereupon the Unite members suddenly ‘mislaid’ their cards and the vote was lost.

Caton’s response? Prentis should “get new glasses”. The POA also put forward a vote calling for an actual general strike, which didn’t get even that far.

So if the POA have rejected a pay-and-modernisation offer, it’s likely they’ll want to make trouble over it. The BBC and the Daily Mail jumped on the angle of fitness tests for officers, but in reality this is a much bigger argument over a) whether Straw’s carrot of a promised £50 million cash injection for extra pay in 2009-10 is worth the modernisation hoops that officers will have to jump through, and b) whether (as the POA says) the prison service is being cut to the bone anbd the plans will see staffing numbers fall and the best-trained staff going to the wall – even as the government wheels out its titan prisons.

Strike action by prison officers was made illegal last year. But in 2007, prison officers took unofficial strike action, and the recent nationwide wildcat strikes will no doubt have emboldened the union. Despite the sensitive role of prison officers, the POA’s militancy has traditionally meant it’s more likely to take a hard line with government that most other civil service unions. Put simply, if the POA’s members don’t take unofficial action (suitably disowned by their leadership, of course) I’ll be surprised.

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