On the prisons’ front Britain has been relatively quiet since last year’s spate of prison riots, especially when compared to recent events across North Africa and the Middle East. However, on thing that has been quietly simmering in the background has been a potential Prison Officers Association’s strike over the outcome of the ‘market-testing’ of 5 ‘failing’ prisons: HMPs Birmingham, Buckley Hall, Doncaster, Wellingborough and a new-build prison, Featherstone 2. The outcome of this tendering process saw the Ministry of Justice plumping for ridding itself of a long-established thorn in its side by awarding the contract to run HMP Birmingham (better known as Winson Green) to G4S (along with the contract for Featherstone 2); HMP Doncaster continuing to be run by Serco, but as a pilot for the Coalition’s pet new ‘payments by results’ method, and HMP Buckley Hall remaining within the public sector. 
The Winson Green privatisation is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the POA’s long-standing policy of opposition to prison privatisation itself; plus the fact that the prison itself is home to one of the union’s strongest and most militant branches, which is precisely why Jack Straw chose it amongst his privatisation targets in revenge for the union’s refusal to accept his initial Workforce Modernisation plans back in 2009. Simultaneously there is the fact that the POA has already announced their opposition to Coalition cuts-related mass job losses, via planned work to rule actions over health and safety issues; so is it any wonder that Ken Clarke’s announcement of the first ever privatisation of a public sector prison can be seen as a direct challenge to the union’s power? Add to that the less than secret training of 3,000 military personnel as potential strikebreakers, then things might appear to be hotting up.
Unfortunately, the POA’s strike ballot is only indicative, and whilst the union hierarchy has been trying to whip up potential support via regular ‘spontaneous’  lunchtime walkouts to hold branch meetings, alongside the odd branch deciding to work-to-rule over the issue, it now appears that the vote could go against taking any industrial action. Such is the picture emerging from the various on-line forums used by screws, with many citing the futility of the last attempted strike in 2009 (“2 weeks to ballot for strike, 2 weeks to talk about it, 4 hours for Clarke to get an injunction”), that this supposed last bastion of working class trades union power could be forced into an humiliating backdown.
1] Wellingborough was withdrawn early on in the process as being too disfunctional to privatise.
2] It is an offence for a prison officer to withhold his/her services or to induce a prison officer to do so i.e. for the union to call them out on strike. [Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994]
Article originally appeared in Freedom #7209
Freedom newspaper can be purchased directly from our shop or available at any good radical bookshop/social centre.
84b Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7QX
Alternatively take out a yearly subscription (only £20) and have the paper delivered to you.