Screws Out of the TUC!
Which Side Are You On?
The following statement, dated 10 November 2007, was produced by the IBT’s London branch.
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 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:
While the CPGB characterised the POA’s members as ‘direct agents of state repression’, they nonetheless consider them ‘exploited workers’ and concluded:
The SP took a similar tack:
Socialist Worker acknowledged that prison guards are usually right-wing and many are overt racists:
The Weekly Worker also tempered its enthusiasm for the POA with a disclaimer:
The SP’s statement, by contrast, simply praised the strikers’ ‘courageous stand’:
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:
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:
In their statement of 31 August , PR takes a similar position:
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:
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’). 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:
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 [Trades Union Congress], and throw immigration cops out of the PCS.