Sexual harassment in the TSSA

Simon Pearson examines allegations in the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association following the release of the Kennedy report.


The TSSA, a prominent transport trade union, has been accused of turning a blind eye to allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination within its ranks.

In response, an independent inquiry led by Baroness Helen Kennedy QC was launched last summer to investigate the allegations and determine the extent to which the union’s culture and leadership enabled or prevented such behaviour. The results of the inquiry, announced yesterday, are deeply concerning, painting a picture of a toxic culture within the organisation marked by power struggles and a lack of accountability.

Toxic organisational culture

The inquiry’s findings reveal a toxic organisational culture within the TSSA, characterised by excessive drinking, drug use, belittling of women, and a lack of accountability for unethical and harmful behaviours, including sexual harassment and assault. The report cites specific examples of such behaviour and notes that individuals who have attempted to speak out have faced gaslighting and victim blaming.

The leadership of the organisation, including former General Secretary Manuel Cortes (who retired last year), Luke Chester, a member of the TSSA staff, and Tim Roache*, former General Secretary of the GMB, was found to have enabled these behaviours through wilful blindness, power hoarding, and poor practises. The inquiry emphasised that Cortes’ retirement from the union does not resolve the issue and that the root causes of the toxic culture must be addressed.

The Kennedy report has revealed significant concerns with the governance of the TSSA, finding that the Executive Committee (EC), the body responsible for governance, had failed to properly fulfil its role. The report found that the EC was not made aware of a complaint about the general secretary sexually harassing a staff member and that the complaint was handled internally without external, independent review. This should not have been allowed to happen.

Additionally, the report concluded that there was a lack of appropriate information flow to the EC and that the culture of the EC made it difficult for civil and sensible discussions to take place. The findings of the inquiry paint a picture of poor governance within the TSSA, with a lack of routine reporting to the EC, leading to inadequate scrutiny of the leadership and management.

Union values undermined

The inquiry found that the TSSA’s EC failed to hold the general secretary to the union’s values, including promoting equality and opposing all forms of harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. There was also a lack of routine reporting to the EC with metrics on the health, wellbeing, and performance of the organisation’s staff, leading to inadequate governance.

The president of the TSSA was found to have never conducted an annual performance review of the general secretary, leaving the GS without formal scrutiny for ten years. The inquiry concluded that these governance failures contributed to a culture of “pick your side” and “groupthink” within the union’s leadership.

The GMB union did a survey in 2021, and the results showed that 71% of TSSA staff thought the culture at the union was sexist, while only 12% thought the union would deal with harassment in the right way. However, the internal leadership dismissed the findings of the survey, calling them flawed and without merit. The inquiry also heard from staff members who reported feeling unsafe at the union due to a heavy drinking culture and inappropriate behaviour from senior staff at social events.

A wake-up call

Kennedy was correct to acknowledge that in the current climate of wage suppression and the erosion of employment rights, the importance of a high-performing and healthy union movement cannot be overstated. The findings of this inquiry serve as a wake-up call for the TSSA to address the toxic culture and governance failures within its ranks and to prioritise the health, wellbeing, and equality of all of its staff and members. TSSA activists who knew of this behaviour and did nothing should be ashamed of themselves. If the TSSA is to put this sorry mess behind it, then the senior management team must go, followed by elections for a new general secretary, president, treasurer, and executive committee. Nobody tainted by this investigation should remain in their post.

The movement needs to thank Reel News for highlighting this story and Claire Laycock for speaking up so fearlessly. Starting today, every trade union general secretary and executive committee should study this report, examine its findings, look at their own organisation, and question whether they can do better.

The full report can be read here.

* Who is being investigated separately.

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Simon Pearson is on the Editorial Board of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and is a Midlands-based political activist.

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