Protest meetings outside jails across UK called off after government views stoppages as industrial action
Prison officers made a dramatic contribution to a day of action by public sector workers with a wave of unofficial protest meetings, before a threatened injunction forced them back to work.
The Prison Officers Association claimed more than 80% of its 25,000 members had supported the stoppages, which appeared to contravene a ban on strikes by prison staff. “This has been a great success in raising the public’s awareness to the inherent dangers that the coalition government’s policy change will bring to the prison service in the future,” said a spokesman.
The protests came as civil servants, lecturers and health workers took part in the third wave of national strikes against pension changes in less than 12 months, and amid reports that the government is planning a system to assess and sack underperforming civil servants.
The Cabinet Office said about 150,000 employees stayed at home, as the general secretary of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, pledged more strikes next month and throughout 2012.
The POA action was a surprise addition to protests. Steve Gillan, the association’s general secretary, said the organisation had been warned by the Treasury solicitor that ministers considered the protest meetings tantamount to industrial action and would seek an injunction if they continued.
The prisoners at the jails affected were put on a “lockdown” regime, but Gillan said minimum cover arrangements were in place to ensure prisoner safety.
Echoing concerns among the public sector workers who staged walkouts on Thursday, the POA is unhappy about plans to link the normal pension age for prison officers to the state retirement age.
“The state pension age will ultimately rise to 68 and it is unrealistic to expect 68-year-olds to walk landings and grapple with prisoners aged 20 or 21,” said Gillan.
As police officers marched nearby against proposed pay changes and job cuts, a rally in Westminster marked a national strike against public sector pension changes by five unions: the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) civil servants’ union; health workers from Unite; teachers and lecturers from the University and College Union; the Nipsa civil servants’ union in Northern Ireland; and Royal Navy support staff at the RMT union. The PCS, the biggest participant in the walkouts, claimed support among members was “very strong”.
Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, told the rally “if we lose this fight, we will regret it for generations to come”, adding that he would ask the TUC to reopen talks with the government on pensions.
Referring to Wednesday’s comments by the cabinet secretary Francis Maude, that the protests are “futile”, Serwotka said: “Francis Maude may say this is futile – but I say it’s inspiring.”
Serwotka added that members’ pensions were being “robbed” by changes that include higher contributions and raising the public sector pension age.
Speaking at the rally, McCluskey said: “If the government thought their fight was over, they best think again. There will be more strike action in June and on into winter, spring and on, and on.”
The Daily Telegraph reported that plans to overhaul the civil service were expected to be published within the next month. Aimed at bringing government departments into line with private companies, managers would be expected to rate employees under a “rigorous assessment regime”.
In an interview with Francis Maude before the day of strikes, the Cabinet Office minister had said it was a myth that civil servants could not be sacked and that forcing managers to rank people would be one of the issues “we will be addressing in our civil service reform plans”.
In a personal speech, McCluskey paid tribute to the care his mother, who died this week, had received from care workers.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, drew parallels with the continent as he called for a nationwide walkout in the autumn. “You know the general strike action in Greece and France? We’re going to bring it to Britain.”
The government played down the impact of the stoppages, saying 102,000 civil servants had stayed at home compared with 146,000 in a national day of action in November, when other civil service unions took part.
The Cabinet Office said nine out of 700 jobcentres had closed, while four courts had shut. Major airports including Heathrow said there had been no significant disruption or delays at immigration halls following stoppages by PCS members in the Border Agency. The Department of Health said the strike by Unite members including radiologists, pharmacists and health visitors had “little impact” on the NHS, with some hospitals claiming that there had been no walkouts. Unite said “tens of thousands” of NHS and Ministry of Defence employees went on strike.
Maude ruled out reopening talks on changes to pensions for education, health, civil service and local government employees. He added: “The combination of the dedicated majority of public service workers who came to work as usual and our rigorous contingency plans ensured that public services were mainly unaffected.”
The PCS and Unite are proposing another day of national walkouts next month and the TUC is planning a repeat of the March for the Alternative that attracted 250,000 people last year.
Law | guardian.co.uk