“The movement has to pull itself up by the bootstraps” – interview with John Moloney

John Moloney, a worker in the Department for Transport and activist in the Public Commercial Services Union (PCS) and its Independent Left socialist opposition grouping, is standing for PCS Assistant General Secretary. John was interviewed for The Clarion by activists in his campaign, talking about why he’s standing and the struggles and issues he’s seeking to promote.

All the declared candidates so far present themselves as being on the left. Why are you standing, and what is distinct about your campaign?

I want to stand to ensure a proper contest. The declared candidates so far are on the left, but the only argument between them is who will be the official left candidate. They′re not looking for an election, but for a coronation of a particular person. The main distinction between me and them is that all the declared candidates are full-time officials of the union. I′m the only rank-and-file member standing. I′m also by far the poorest paid individual standing. The assistant general secretary [AGS], and the general secretary, should be on a worker’s wage. My pledge is that I will take no more than the salary of an Executive Officer [the entry-level grade] in the DWP in London. That means pay awards will actually mean something to me if I′m elected.

It′s vitally important that the AGS should be a rank-and-file activist in the union – someone who actually knows what it′s like on the ground, and someone who has an organic link with the members and knows what it is to struggle.

The general impression of PCS in the wider labour movement, and certainly in terms of its self-presentation, is that it′s a left-wing, fighting union. Does that reflect reality?

PCS is a normal, top-down, TUC-affiliated union. The general secretary and the AGS are the only officials who are elected. Other full-time officials are not. The officials are a bureaucratic caste within the union with which lay reps have to plead for resources, have to persuade to take legal cases, have to persuade to take action. The union′s rhetoric has a left tinge, but if you drill down many unions are more democratic. The RMT has more democracy, the postal workers′ union has more democracy. In the postal workers′ union, as I understand it, branches are allowed to initiate industrial action without permission from the national union. We don′t allow that – the national union rigidly controls who can take industrial action. There′s a body called the National Disputes Committee, to which people have to plead to be allowed to ballot for strikes.

To give one example of how bureaucratic the union is, some years ago a group of members in my section of the union applied to be able to ballot for strikes. That request was knocked back because we apparently wrote it on the wrong form. No-one in the national leadership said, “No, that′s a disgrace, the most important thing is that you want to go on strike”. People were more interested in the bureaucratic procedures of the committee.

What’s the record of the broad left bloc that has run PCS for the last 15 years?

The broad left bloc has won elections, they′re a very effective electoral machine, but all that′s meant is that good activists have become full-time officials. The would-be left in the union has become a conveyor belt for full-time officials. People have become very well-paid in cushy jobs. Left Unity [the dominant left-wing bloc in the union, historically led by the Socialist Party] has solved the pay problems of people who were activists in the past by getting them jobs as full-time officials. It′s become a career mechanism.

There was never an attempt by the left leadership to change union culture. They were content with a top-down, TUC culture. They were the people who became the full-time officials and enriched themselves. They didn′t want to change things because that would′ve meant adversely affecting their own material circumstances.

If I′m elected, that won′t change things dramatically by itself. The AGS is just one person. One person trying to overturn a bureaucracy isn′t going to help. I urge people to vote for my comrades standing for the National Executive Committee as part of the Independent Left slate, but even if we had a majority, that wouldn′t be enough. This is a long-term struggle to turn the union around.

One person isn′t going to change much, but one person can help. One person can report back to members what′s happening, and be a voice for alternative strategies. You can say to members, ″this is what′s happening, this is why you should mobilise.″

As union full-timers, your opponents talk about their strengths as negotiators. What successes for members do you have?

I′m more than happy to put my record as a negotiator up against those of my opponents. It′s important to say, though, that whenever I′ve been involved in negotiating successes, it′s been as part of a collective effort. There′s nobody in the union who has single-handedly negotiated a great deal, without membership backing or legal backing. So, asking ″are you a great negotiator?″ is almost a false premise.

In situations where I have been in negotiations, I was part of the team that negotiated the first contractual staff handbook in the whole of the civil service, which has meant that management can′t arbitrarily change our terms and conditions. This has stood us in fantastic stead. Whereas the rest of the civil service suffered the debacle of the end of check-off [a mechanism by which an employer allows a union to deduct membership fees direct from salaries], where departments told the union “We′re ending check-off, we don′t care if you go bankrupt”, in our department, and another department with the same contractual arrangements, the management couldn’t change our check-off arrangements. If we had had those arrangements across the whole of the civil service, we could’ve prevented the end of check-off.

More specifically, I helped win improvements around the sick trigger point. This is the cut-off point beyond which you can potentially be disciplined for sickness absence. The vast bulk of the civil service has a sick trigger point of eight days, or three occasions of sickness. Our management tried to change our sick trigger point and we launched a campaign which included a legal challenge, which we won. They appealed the decision and lost, meaning we′re the only area in the whole civil service where management can never change our sick trigger point, because they′ve exhausted the entire legal process in this country.

Again, I′m more than happy to talk in terms of my record as a negotiator, but in terms of the crisis PCS faces, this misses the point. We can have good negotiators, we can train good negotiators, but what we actually need is an active membership, to ensure we have some strength in negotiations. Fundamentally we need members!

What would you do, if elected, to more directly involve the union rank-and-file in the process of negotiation?

Negotiations should be open. While we probably can′t go as far as Solidarnosc and do live broadcasts of negotiations to mass meetings of members, partly because many people would be bored to death by it, we should clearly refuse confidentiality agreements. We should be open with members and tell members what′s happening in negotiations. I′m totally opposed to secret negotiations – we should be as open as possible.

The bulk of all negotiating teams should be lay reps and officials. Full-time officials should be there, but to help make the tea, go out and get legal advice, or whatever. They should be auxillary to the main people, who should be the rank-and-file members.

Brexit is the biggest political issue of the moment. How will that issue feature in your campaign platform, and what are your views specifically around questions of migrants′ rights and freedom of movement?

I′m pro-Remain, and believe there should be another referendum. I′m for freedom of movement. I do not accept the argument that workers coming into this country depress wages. The people who depress check wages are employers. We should say that straightforwardly.

Both my parents are immigrants, who came to this country for economic reasons. I therefore couldn′t sign up to policies that would′ve meant my parents would never have come to this country. I′m for every EU citizen having the right to work for the civil service, and I′m for new migrants coming into this country having the right to join the civil service.

I also want a different kind of Europe. Instead of the Europe we have now, dominated by big corporations, I want a Europe of a united working class. In the here-and-now, our key task is to defeat Brexit.

The campaigns for living wages by cleaners and other outsourced workers at the Ministry of Justice, where the workers are organised by the United Voices of the World union, and at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, where the workers are in PCS, have rightly garnered a lot of attention. What should PCS be doing to support outsourced workers?

PCS needs to make a fundamental decision about whether we′re serious about organising outsourced workers. On the whole, we don′t, at all. That′s why United Voices of the World have been so successful, because they′ve effectively moved into a vacuum.

My branch, and others in the Independent Left, have advocated for many years that where PCS will not organise outsourced workers, we should work with other unions who will.

We should link up with as many other unions organising outsourced workers as possible to organise not only in individual workplaces, but across whole companies. Hopefully the workers at MoJ and BEIS will win, but that′s a win on a single contract. Of course, they shouldn′t be outsourced at all, so the long-term political aim is to get the work back in house. But while they are outsourced, unions′ aim should be to organise entire companies.

PCS has been losing members over the past few years. Density has reached all-time lows in some big government departments. How can that trend be reversed?

Ending check-off is a cause. This was a political attack by the Tories on the union, aimed to bankrupt us. It hasn′t been successful in that regard but it has had some success in reducing membership numbers. The attack on facility time for reps also has an impact on organisation.

The employer generally tries to curtail, and in some cases literally bans, freedom of association and expression in the workplace. The union has rarely tackled that head on, and we must do if we′re going to rebuild membership and organisation.

The people who try to organise are good people, but we′re operating on a failed model. We identify an area, recruit one or two people, then withdraw resources and hope the organisation survives. We need to take a fundamental look at the workplace and rebuild, workplace by workplace, rather than trying to cash in from blitzes.

I look to models such as that of the Chicago Teachers′ Union, who have organised themselves to overcome huge strike ballot thresholds. They built school by school, with a systematic effort to win activists, propagandising for certain things. We have to win an activist at a time, then a workplace at a time, and build from the bottom up.

The union has in the past supported pay deals which have sold terms and conditions for salary increases, for example in the DWP. What do you think of these kinds of deals?

The DWP deal was atrocious. The lowest paid members would′ve gotten those pay increases anyway, as standard increases to the government′s so-called ″National Living Wage″ would′ve guaranteed that. In effect we′ve generated a two-tier workforce, with the ″lower tier″ mainly being women workers, many of whom couldn′t give up the flexibilities without impinging on caring responsibilities.

We are a union that bargains within the capitalist system, we are going to make concessions when we have to. But our tasks is to make the minimum concessions possible while winning gains through the action of an engaged membership. My model is to put ambitious demands that try to advance terms and conditions, rather than accepting the status quo as all we can get.

We should be serious about demands for a shorter working week, a 35, 33, or 32-hour week. As artificial intelligence and automated systems come in, we should say to the employer, ″you′ve got these systems in place that reduce working time, we want to enjoy the benefit of that by having the same, or increased, pay but having reduced hours.″

The Independent Left proposes these demands are things the union should be fighting for, and we genuinely mean it. Not only the shorter working week, but also a reduced pension age. We′ve gone backwards in the civil service, with a general pension age of 67. I want to bring it down to 60, and then to 55 and even to 50.

How should PCS relate to the Labour Party?

I think that PCS should affiliate to the Labour Party. I understand that′s going to be a difficult argument for some members – some members genuinely believe we should be a non-political union. But I believe that history has shown us that, with an explicitly political employer, we have to be political as well.

I′ve been a long-standing member of the Labour Party, since long before it was fashionable! I′ve stuck it out because I′ve always seen the vital necessity of the organic link between the Labour Party and the unions. In the current era, I believe every union should affiliate to Labour. Partly that′s to have an organised voice in politics, but also to defend the gains made inside the Labour Party and to make them permanent.

Jeremy Corbyn is just one person. We have to ensure that whoever comes next has the same or better politics.

We have a real prospect now for a left-led Labour government. What policies would you want to see Labour implement to benefit workers in the civil service, and the working class generally?

We as a union should say to a Corbyn government, ″you may be our friends, but if you don′t deliver, we′re going to put pressure on you, and if necessary strike against you.″ The immediate thing I want Labour to legislate for is equality.

There′s tremendous pay inequality on gender terms, there′s mistreatment of BAME workers within performance and disciplinary systems. There′s mistreatment of disabled workers. So I′d want to see a Labour government ensure real equality within the civil service.

Clearly that has to be part of a wider package of positive rights for workers: repealing the anti-union laws and legislating for the ability for unions to recruit and organise, a positive right to strike without having to go through the statutory ballots we have now, rights to time off, rights to organise in the workplace, genuine freedom of association.

The wider trade union movement must be arguing for a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between the employer and the worker, and legislate to put as much of the balance of power as is possible within a capitalist society on the side of the workers, rather than the policies of the last 30 or more years which have massively shifted the balance of power towards an already powerful boss.

Despite the Corbyn surge inside the Labour Party, there′s been no equivalent in the unions. In fact things have gone the other way, with union membership stagnating or falling, and strikes at their lowest ever level. Why is that, and how can it be turned around?

The Labour Party should be educating its members and saying they should all be trade unionists. The Labour Party should be mobilising its own members in support of the unions, but also saying to unions that they have to mobilise their own troops in real campaigns that people can relate to – around outsourced workers, around workers in the so-called ″gig economy″, campaigns that can make trade unions relevant.

A Labour government will improve things tremendously, as such a government could legislate in favour of workers′ and unions′ rights, but the trade union movement has to pull itself up by the bootstraps and say yes, we are in a crisis, we can′t continue as we are.

We′ve seen a resurgence of the far-right, including attacks by fascists on picket lines. What can organised labour do to counter this?

This is taking place within the context of Brexit, which is a nationalist, xenophobic project. We could have predicted that as we prepared for Brexit, the far-right would be emboldened, and clearly they are.

The trade union movement has to mobilise itself. We have to defend picket lines, and be prepared to confront the far-right, including physically were necessary. Where the far-right march, we have to march in greater numbers. We have to take on their arguments amongst union members and in wider society. We have to make the arguments inside the Labour Party about why it should oppose the far right, not only in Parliament but on the streets.

• For more on John’s campaign, see the PCS Independent Left website.

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