Trade Union Leader Loses Appeal Against Sexual Abuse Scandal Dismissal

Manuel Cortes failed to apologise for harassment and bullying at the TSSA.

by Polly Smythe

8 June 2023

Manuel Cortes appeared topless via video link.
Manuel Cortes took his top off during a video call and argued he was ‘made a scapegoat’.

The former general secretary of a transport union has lost a second appeal against his dismissal for gross misconduct.

Manuel Cortes was fired from the top job at the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) in February after a report by Helena Kennedy KC uncovered “sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying” and a leadership and culture that enabled these behaviours through “wilful blindness, power hoarding and poor practices.”

Delegates at the union’s annual conference voted on 4 June to reject appeals from Cortes and former TSSA interim organising director Luke Chester – both of whom had already failed to convince a panel to overturn their dismissals at an internal hearing on 19 April.

In a bizarre moment, Cortes removed his t-shirt during his appeal and appeared on video link to conference topless while waiting for the outcome of the vote.

Interim TSSA president Marios Alexandrou said the two men were not allowed to attend the conference in person and had to appear remotely “because of the actions and number people [sic] who have been affected by their actions.”

During Cortes and Chester’s appeals, neither of which contained apologies, several TSSA members present in the conference hall turned their backs in protest. 

Three former TSSA staff members, who are now part of MeTu – a grassroots movement tackling sexual harassment within the trade union movement – told Novara Media they were pleased with the outcome, but disappointed in the response from the two men. 

“A lot has happened since last year, when we were quickly dismissed and described as ‘disgruntled former staff’,” they said. “We remain pleased the discourse has been very different this year and centred on believing us.

“However, it is once again a further blow that those who have caused us so much harm continue to try and avoid taking any responsibility. Manuel Cortes and Luke Chester have clearly failed to acknowledge the harm they caused, let alone consider apologising.”

Cortes, who served as general secretary for 11 years, spoke of being “pained” at appealing his dismissal, but said he’d been “left no other option than to do so, to ensure natural justice prevails.” 

The disgraced former general secretary argued that he had been “made a scapegoat” by the Kennedy report, which he called “a fishing expedition”.

“Widespread media coverage made clear that anyone with an allegation/gripe against our union or any of its staff could come forward to be interviewed,” he said. “In a nutshell, I think that I and other staff have been made a scapegoat for the findings of the Kennedy and Conley Reports as a lot of the identified failings – fair or otherwise – fall with the executive committee.”

Cortes and Chester were named in the Kennedy report as belonging to the union’s “internal leadership”, an unofficial “very small group within the TSSA staff […] that exercises almost absolute power.” Kennedy concluded that this internal leadership was “not fit for purpose” and that “none of the internal leadership should remain in the organisation.”

Despite the TSSA announcing his retirement last October, the Kennedy report discovered that Cortes was still employed by the union until this year. 

In a statement, TSSA interim president, Marios Alexandrou, said: “Today our union has taken significant steps forward in our determination to fully implement the findings of both the Kennedy and Conley reports.”

A MeTu spokesperson said: “It would have gone a long way to have heard an apology. They have not been scapegoated. They have been held responsible for their actions over several years.

“We were not the ones to bring the union in to disrepute, not then and not now. 

“Solidarity with everyone fighting on.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.


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