Tasmanian Greens minister stands down prison officers

Issue 

Tasmanian Greens leader and state corrections minister Nick McKim has come under fire from unions after he stood down 56 guards at Risdon prison without pay on February 21.

McKim brought in police officers as scabs to replace the guards. The prison has been in partial lock-down due to the lack of staff.

McKim said he stood down the guards because they were preparing to take industrial action.

“It is unacceptable for staff and unions to simply stop performing their normal duties in this wildcat and unauthorised manner, especially considering that this follows a period of significant and genuine consultation about the issues of concern,” he said.

“We have been very patient with the unions over a long period of time but they need to understand that the prison will be run by management and ultimately me as minister, and not the unions.”

Earlier that day, the Community and Public Sector Union’s Mat Johnson said the workers had not taken industrial action.

“No we were not [taking industrial action],” he told ABC local radio. “We were holding a meeting to discuss how we were going to deal with the removal of the Tactical Response Group.

“Unfortunately that meeting could never be allowed to take place because of precipitous action by the minister.”

For months, unions representing the prison guards have held negotiations with the government over proposed changes in the prison.

The CPSU is concerned about unsafe conditions at the prison. Central to the dispute is the government’s removal of the prison’s armed Tactical Response Group and new rules about the handcuffing of prisoners, said the February 21 Hobart Mercury.

On February 24 the Tasmanian Industrial Relations Commission ruled the removal of the TRG did not compromise safety and ordered the guards to return to work.

However, only 15 returned as directed and 100 prison guards, family members and supporters rallied in Hobart on February 25, ABC News reported.

Unions Tasmania secretary Kevin Harkins has accused McKim of going against the Tasmanian Greens’ industrial relations policy.

Harkins told the February 22 Australian: “The Greens policy is all about the right to a safe workplace, free from hazards and about workers having the right to meet with their union to discuss legitimate concerns.

“And yet, when the chips are down, Mr McKim locks workers out and calls in the police.”

The Tasmanian Greens website says: “The Greens support the right of workers to organise collectively and, accordingly, uphold the rights of workers to organise in free association and to be represented by effective and reasonable employee organisations.”

For public sector employees, its policy says it would “require the government to negotiate in good faith with the public sector rather than forcing unions to industrial action”.

Tasmania’s Prison Action Reform spokesperson Greg Barns backed McKim's actions. Barns said the changes would make the prison more humane and safer for union members.

“Mr McKim should be congratulated and those members of the union that don't get it should get with the program," Barns told the February 21 Mercury.

Brett Collins from Justice Action told GLW the situation was “difficult”, but expressed support for the government’s reforms. Collins said: “Although they may not be satisfactory to the union, they are about ensuring the long term safety of prison officers.

“All the evidence shows the more brutal the regime, the more violent the prisons become, creating a more dangerous environment for the prison officers themselves.”

Hobart lawyer Kim Baumeler told a Supreme Court trial that management behaviour was a factor in sparking a prison riot in September last year, ABC Online reported on February 18.