Trade Union Accused of Sitting on Report Into ‘Toxic’ Culture

TSSA staff called the trade union a ‘corrupt fiefdom’.

by Polly Smythe

22 February 2023

Photo: @TSSAUnion on Twitter
Photo: @TSSAUnion on Twitter

The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) has been accused of “buying time before officially being ‘found out’” by sitting on a damning equalities report.

The report found a “toxic” culture at the union which was “predicated on fear and victimisation”. Senior union officials received the report last September, but it was only published on Tuesday, after another highly critical report into the “mafia like” culture at the union was published earlier this month.

Staff at the transport union had repeatedly called for the release of the Equality Policy and Practice in the TSSA report, but were ignored, and incorrectly told by senior union officials that the report had not been received, a current TSSA staff member told Novara Media.

The report, conducted by Professor Hazel Conley and Dr Stefano Gasparri from the University of West England, was commissioned to “examine the equality policy and practice more broadly within the union”, after a 2021 survey found 41% of the people surveyed had either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at a TSSA event.

Senior union officials were initially dismissive of the survey, but submitted to the demands of the TSSA Women in Focus group, a self-organised group of members who asked that a report be commissioned into sexual harassment within the union. The TSSA Women in Focus group told Novara Media that the report’s remit being limited to “policies and practices” was an attempt by the union to “avoid a full inquiry.”

Nevertheless, the report reaches near identical conclusions to Helena Kennedy KC’s independent report into the union which was published earlier this month. The Kennedy report was established on the advice of the TUC after allegations of sexual harassment and bullying in the union in May 2022. The report uncovered “sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying” and a leadership and culture that enabled these behaviours through “wilful blindness, power hoarding and poor practices.”

All five senior members of staff named in the Kennedy report, including former general secretary Manuel Cortes, were suspended.

TSSA Women in Focus members said the Conley-Gasparri report had not been released sooner as the “corrupt fiefdom was buying time to do as much damage as possible in their own interest before being officially ‘found out.’”

The Equality Policy and Practice in the TSSA report was initially due April 2022, but was delayed for five months by senior officials at the union “disappearing” once the report was commissioned, a TSSA Women in Focus member who chose to remain anonymous told Novara Media. They said the research team had to wait for months to access documents agreed for analysis, saying that the TSSA “sent no policies and did not answer the researchers for several months.”

The report notes that “the delay we encountered in receiving the documents […] indicated a lack of organisation in relation to equality documentation. The departure of the HR officer in months prior to the research and additional workload to cover this was given as the reason for the delay in locating the documents.”

The report was eventually submitted to the senior union officials in September 2022, but the union’s executive committee did not see it until February 2023.

The report found “two opposing organisational cultures in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion” within the union. While the TSSA’s “outwardly facing culture” was that of a union that actively campaigned on equality, “as an employer” its culture was as “‘cliquey’ and ‘toxic’, predicated on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, using fear, victimisation and legal means to build ‘a wall of silence.’”

The report found that the wall of silence “certainly hampered the conduct of this research by limiting the number of responses we have received,” as most staff and members who came forward were “extremely anxious that they would be recognised and subsequently victimised.”

Several ex-staff members who wanted to contribute to the report were unable to, due to the union’s use of non-disclosure agreements. The report said “interviewing them if their settlement agreements prevent it is ethically problematic so we did not include them in this research.”

The report said a “across a wide range of staff and members described a toxic staff management culture in the TSSA that is predicated on fear and victimisation.”

One interviewee reported that a member of staff who complained about sexual harassment was “pinned against the wall” by a senior member of staff, who said “stop making a fuss. You can’t make a fuss. We gotta be careful. We can’t give the Tories anything.”

The report also found “most of the staff and many of the members that we interviewed felt that sexual harassment in the TSSA is a ‘widely known secret’ in the trade union movement.”

A TSSA spokesperson said: “The union is currently working through the findings and recommendations of the University of the West of England Report and is wholly committed to full transparency at the earliest possible time.”

In a bizarre twist, following the release of the Kennedy report, the TSSA’s executive committee were made aware that Cortes was still in the employment of the union, despite a statement from then interim general secretary Frank Ward announcing his retirement in October.

Update, 23 February: This article previously referred to the senior management team of the union. This has been changed to “senior union officials” to more accurately reflect the situation.

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.


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