‘When you raise concerns about sexism in your union, you get “the right-wing press will get hold of this”. We’ve heard it so many times’, one whistle-blower told Byline Times
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The largest union in Transport for London, which represents tens of thousands of white-collar transport workers UK-wide, will be told to make sweeping changes to its internal processes and culture in a “damning” report.
In a probe into sexism in the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), due to be launched imminently, the TSSA executive will hear today from Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, who was commissioned by the union last year after testimony from a former TSSA employee.
Claire Laycock, who worked for the GMB for 12 years, broke her NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with the union last April to allege the union failed to tackle sexual harassment. The union initially tried to take out an injunction against the video site ReelNews for hosting her testimony, which was rejected by the court.
Laycock and those in the #MeTU collective, set up to tackle sexism in the trade union and labour movement, then pushed for an independent inquiry. She said she was sexually and psychologically abused by a colleague for “years”. She also says she was sexually attacked by a branch secretary a year before she left, leading to a breakdown. And she describes heavy drinking, harassment and inappropriate language and behaviour at TSSA gatherings – raising allegations against senior TSSA officials.
Then general secretary Manuel Cortes stood dow in October after 12 years, amid a string of sexual harassment allegations he vehemently denied. He apologised for any hurt caused by his behaviour.
A TSSA spokesperson said last May that the union refuted the accusations from Laycock “in the strongest terms”, after she claimed general secretary Manuel Cortes had tried to kiss her at a Christmas party in 2018. The union called them “categorically and demonstrably untrue” and from a “disgruntled former member of staff”.
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They also claimed allegations had been “thoroughly investigated and found to be without merit, with no corroboration from witnesses,” adding ‘TSSA senior managers have never silenced or covered up any allegations of harassment”.
Since Laycock’s testimony, hundreds of women have joined the #MeTU group to share their own experiences of sexism, sexual harassment and bullying, both at TSSA and elsewhere across the trade union and labour movement.
The report from the respected barrister Helena Kennedy KC is expected to be damning of the Executive Committee in TSSA and “generations of senior officials” in the union, highlighting an “endemic culture of abuse, harassment, silence and complicity” according to some of those affected.
A MeTU spokesperson said: “For so long we have not been believed and have been actively discredited, sustaining irreparable damage to our lives, livelihoods and standing in the trade union and labour movement.”
One GMB activist and whistleblower told Byline Times: “There is a lot of trust in Helena Kennedy KC – but where do we go from here?… It’s not over. Non Disclosure Agreements are still happening for women who’ve faced sexism in unions.
“We’re concerned about what will happen with the recommendations. Who’s involved, what is the taskforce, who is monitoring it?”
Manuel Cortes retired as general secretary in October and denied allegations of sexual harassment. Photo: Kevin Hayes/Alamy
TSSA is set to merge with mega-union GMB soon. But the whistle-blower said: “Clearly GMB have had the same issues. Lots of women will tell you it’s not sorted out. It’s a real concern.” In September 2020, the GMB union was found to be institutionally sexist following an independent inquiry. GMB accepted the recommendations of the report.
“Every union needs a voluntary investigation,” the union activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “When you raise concerns about sexism in your union, you get ‘the right-wing press will get hold of this’. We’ve heard it so many times. We say ‘we need to be fighting fit’. If you are spending money bullying talented people out, you’re not fighting fit. We need to put our own house in order. We want something transformational.”
There is understood to be at least one employment tribunal still underway with the TSSA union over alleged sexism internally.
MeTU is working with Zelda Perkins on NDAs – the former PA to Harvey Weinstein who broke her NDA to launch the Weinstein investigations. She co-founded Can’t Buy My Silence, an organisation campaigning against the use of NDAs.
We met block after block in tackling sexism… Where do you go if you have a complaint with a union?
One whistleblower told Byline Times: “The TSSA Women’s Group met block after block in tackling sexism. We knew something was going on. We wrote to the TUC. We got ‘we can’t help you’. MeTU are concerned: where do you go if you have a complaint with a union? In a firm you have a higher body. If the TUC says “we can’t adjudicate” – where do you go?”
The TUC did tell the TSSA union to launch a public inquiry, after GMB attempted to take out an injunction against ReelNews.
#MeTU describe themselves as a “group of women and non-binary people committed to ending sexism, structural inequality, sexual harassment, violence, and bullying in the trade union and labour movement”.
“Many of us are survivors of sexual violence, misogyny and harassment, all of us are active in the trade union movement and many of us work for or are former employees of trade union employers,” the group said in a statement. “Far too many of us have experienced bullying, harassment and sexual violence in the very place which is meant to be about equality and social change. We seek to build solidarity and provide space for sisters to speak out, tell their story and be believed.”
A TSSA spokesperson refused to comment.
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