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13 February 2023

Are trade unions facing their own #MeToo moment?

A shocking report into the TSSA exposes the misogyny and harassment endured by women in the labour movement.

By Rachel Wearmouth

A long-awaited report on years of misogynistic abuse in the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) has concluded that women in the union were sexually assaulted, touched inappropriately and subjected to coercive and manipulative behaviour.

Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report, published last week, struck a tone of cold anger and put the blame squarely at the feet of a toxic and closely knit leadership team who “enabled these behaviours through wilful blindness, power hoarding and poor practices”. Much of the anger was reserved for Manuel Cortes, the former TSSA general secretary, and the environment he presided over. It was said to be an “open secret” that Cortes “had a habit of drinking too much” and “becoming over familiar” with female staff. Women who joined the TSSA were “warned never to be alone” with him, Kennedy, a KC and Labour peer, said.

Cortes has apologised for any hurt caused by his behaviour but denies wrongdoing.

Top officials were often found “doing business in the pub”, the report said, while women’s complaints about their treatment were trivialised. Those who spoke up experienced “gaslighting and victim blaming”. Denial was rife among those in control. Kennedy was told that “this is just how political organisations work” was a common refrain among the union’s leaders, and that those who complained were described as “whingers”, “disloyal” or “damaging to the trade union movement”.

This problem is by no means isolated to the TSSA. An independent inquiry by Bruce Carr KC into the Royal College of Nursing, which reported in October, revealed similar trends. Carr found evidence of bullying, misogyny and sexism and a leadership team “riddled with division, dysfunction and distrust”. The nursing union’s membership was around 90 per cent female, while the RCN council was around 60 per cent male, the report emphasised.

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[See also: UK inflation rate is substantially higher for women]

In 2020 an independent report by Karon Monaghan KC judged the GMB union, which represents workers from a range of sectors, to be “institutionally sexist”. Monaghan said bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment were “endemic” and that the culture was one of “heavy drinking and late-night socialising, salacious gossip and a lack of professionalism”.

The GMB, under a new general secretary, Gary Smith, has undergone a series of reforms. Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the RCN, has vowed to adopt all of Carr’s recommendations and has begun investigations into the complaints raised. It is to both union leaders’ credit that they have acted, and that the reports were commissioned and then published in full. Trade unions exist to improve people’s working conditions, so being open and transparent with members and the public is vital to rebuilding trust.

The TSSA has pledged “sweeping change”. Its president and treasurer have stood down. Though it was not part of her remit, Kennedy also said that auditors should examine the union’s finances and questioned why officials refused to say how much was paid to Cortes when he retired.

Could there be more such “#MeTU” revelations to come? Sarah Woolley, the general secretary of the bakers’ union BFAWU, certainly thinks so. On Twitter Woolley, the first woman to lead the union said investigations into sexual harassment at other unions were “being dealt with quietly, internally”. Referring to the TSSA, RCN and GMB reports, she said: “Shying away from the fact that a significant culture change is needed in our movement or [saying] that we shouldn’t air our dirty linen in public in case the right or the media attack us has to stop now.

“Women in our movement have gone through hell, then have been disbelieved and/or silenced when they try and speak out about it. These reports show without doubt their experiences and many more who haven’t been spoken to are valid and true. We have a massive problem of misogyny, abuse and harassment that won’t go away while we pretend that it isn’t our problem because we haven’t witnessed it happening.”

Much of the language within Kennedy’s report on the TSSA was a thinly-veiled communication to the wider union movement. “I want to be very clear that closing ranks around unacceptable behaviour is not an act of solidarity that will protect or sustain the trade union movement,” she said in her opening statement. “It is simply the typical short-term self-preservation defence that we have seen in countless institutions; from the church to elite schools, from broadcasters to corporations.”

It also has echoes of the rotten culture of Westminster, where MPs from all major political parties have faced allegations of misconduct, bullying and cover-ups.

The Trades Union Congress, the umbrella group for the movement, has said unions “must be a place where women feel safe and supported”. It established a working group on sexual harassment at its women’s conference in 2021, when Frances O’Grady, now a Labour peer, was general secretary. O’Grady is regarded by many as a pioneer in promoting greater gender equality and diversity in trade unions.

Her successor, Paul Nowak, who became general secretary in December, told the New Statesman he was “determined” to bring about wider change. “The TUC is pushing on with its dedicated programme of training union officers and senior leaders to prevent sexual harassment,” he said. “We will continue this programme and step up its delivery in the coming weeks. And we have produced a tool kit developed with experts, tailored for trade union workplaces, which sets out useful resources for employers and union reps – including guidance on producing risk assessments to prevent sexual harassment.

“Our work will not stop there – we know there is lots more to do to tackle sexual harassment in our movement and in every workplace.”

Kennedy commended many “wonderful examples” of trade unions “pushing for diversity, inclusion and belonging”, but her report sheds light on appalling behaviour that shows once again there is still a lot of work to be done.

[See also: The civil servants’ expenses files reveal a government committed to waste]

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