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A Policeman's Lot: The Police and Industrial Action

Fri 6th Jun 2008

The recent ballot by members of the Police Federation who voted overwhelmingly to press for full industrial rights including, ultimately, the right to strike is evidence of the understandable anger and disillusionment currently felt by rank and file police officers at the derisory pay increase they have been offered, at a time when the price of many of life’s essentials is rising so sharply.

The outcome of the ballot has provoked convulsions of seismic proportions in the press and elsewhere. Along with indignant fulminations from well-heeled backwoodsmen about how the police could dare to vote in the way they did, there have been more measured comments ruefully pondering on the prospects of police setting up picket lines instead of going about their duties safeguarding law and order.

We’ve been in this place before! There is nothing new about anger in the police concerning low pay and poor conditions. In 1872 a substantial number of officers were dismissed by the Metropolitan Police for refusing duty, but their action led to improved pay and conditions. The lesson was learned that collective action could successfully win concessions. In July 1890 another stoppage took place among Metropolitan officers, this time over pensions. The speed with which the government addressed the officers’ grievances strongly suggests considerable official concern about the need to propitiate the ‘thin blue line.’

At this stage the idea of forming a union would probably have been rejected by virtually all the officers. It is evident however that issues over pay, benefits and working conditions continued simmering away beneath the surface because in 1913 concrete moves began to establish a union. Surreptitious recruitment started taking place, despite official statements that any men found to have joined would be instantly dismissed. The National Union of Police and Prison Officers clearly met a perceived need and grew with great speed, in spite of the loss of income and pension rights that dismissal incurred.

The sacking of PC Tommy Theil of the Metropolitan force sparked off a strike in 1918. He was an activist and union organiser greatly respected by his fellow officers for his integrity and hard work. His summary dismissal brought the whole festering mass of long-term grievances to a head, but the central issue in the strike was official recognition for NUPPO.

The date of the strike, 28 August 1918, was well-chosen because the government was already confronting high levels of militancy in many of the major industrial areas, a general public tired of the shortages and extra hardships of wartime and rumbles of mutiny among the workers-in-uniform impatiently waiting to be demobbed. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 had overthrown arguably the most decadent monarchy in Europe. The action of the Bolsheviks, with mass support from workers, peasants and soldiers, had repelled and terrified the forces of reaction everywhere. Likewise it had inspired ordinary people with the idea that, collectively, they could overthrow the capitalist system and the wars, the injustices, the deprivation and despair that went with it.

Within 24 hours 12,000 officers, all but a handful of the rank-and-file Metropolitan force, had gone on strike. Caught wrong-footed, the government moved to end the strike as quickly as possible. Prime Minister Lloyd George met the NUPPO executive and the strike ended on 31 August. Theil was reinstated and all the other demands were met fully. Rumours of possible strikes elsewhere and NUPPO’s success in London led to the implementation of improved conditions in various other forces. NUPPO membership rocketed. Although official recognition of NUPPO was withheld, the fact that Lloyd George had negotiated with the union was taken by many members as evidence that recognition was only a matter of time.

The government was determined not to be caught out again. General Macready, a notably blimpish army brass hat, was brought in as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police for the sole purpose of destroying the influence of NUPPO, a task he greatly relished. He lifted the ban on officers joining the union but banned union members from actions which urged strikes or interfered in any way with discipline. Meanwhile the government had established the Desborough Committee to investigate every aspect of policing in mainland Britain. The Committee recognised that officers had genuine grievances. Low pay was identified as a major problem, as also were varying levels of pay between different forces.

Late 1918 and much of 1919 saw industrial disputes throughout Britain, not only in engineering, the docks and railways where they were common, but more unusually in the baking industry, where there was a national strike. There was even a rent strike in Glasgow. In such a volatile situation, the government could not risk the police being drawn into sympathising with strikers or being involved in actual strike action itself. It was time to excise NUPPO for once and for all.

The Police Act of 1919 set up the Police Federation, in effect a company union. NUPPO was proscribed and it was made illegal for police officers to belong to a trade union. The granting of so many of the men’s demands the previous year had clearly been designed to draw the sting from the mood of militancy among police officers, especially in London and the big industrial towns. Although NUPPO called a strike for the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1919, only a small number of officers responded in London and few elsewhere.

The one exception was Merseyside. The Liverpool force in particular was notorious for poor pay and conditions and harsh discipline. Morale was particularly low in Liverpool, as it also was in the neighbouring forces of Bootle and Birkenhead. The call to strike evoked a massive withdrawal of labour and required the use of troops to ensure that the riots and lootings that took place did not spread out of working class areas like those around Scotland Road, London Road and Islington. In a show of force, a naval battleship and two destroyers were anchored in the Mersey with searchlights and guns focussed on working class ‘trouble spots’ on both sides of the river.

The isolation of the strikers on Merseyside and the small numbers involved in London meant that the action was defeated. Disciplinary measures were taken against strikers, and in Liverpool 955 officers were instantly dismissed without appeal. Men in the Metropolitan force were similarly made an example of. Vindictive though these measures were, it is clear that the government had experienced a nasty fright, and substantial improvements in officers’ pay followed quickly.

The police were hated by much of the working class community on Merseyside. This was because of the role they so often played during strikes, in effect acting as stooges for the bosses by defending scabs and strike breakers under the guise of safeguarding law and order. To their credit, some local trade union leaders urged their members to show solidarity with the striking police, but they had decades of accumulated bad memories to overcome.

Karl Marx pointed out the living reality of the class struggle in the mid-nineteenth century. It was every bit as much a reality in 1918-19 and it remains so today. The police are among other groups of workers in the public sector who are being insulted and whose pay and conditions are being eroded as the result of New Labour’s spending priorities. These are designed to please corporate capitalism rather than to address the needs of the working class. More and more groups of working people are being ‘proletarianised’, that is any relative income and status differentials they may have enjoyed in the past are being undermined.

The police are one of the arms of the state. This, Marxists have long explained, can ultimately be reduced to bodies of armed men who use force when required to defend the power and privileges of the capitalist class and its hangers-on. However the police cannot possibly avoid the class struggle, and the results of the recent ballot are evidence of that. The Labour and TUC leadership should support the basic democratic right of the police to join a genuine trade union and to use their collective strength to defend and develop their pay and working conditions.


This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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