Damning report uncovers years of sexual harassment at transport union

<span>Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Rex/Shutterstock

Women working at a transport union were subjected to sexual assaults, inappropriate and sexual touching and coercive and manipulative behaviour over many years, a damning inquiry has concluded.

Helena Kennedy’s investigation into sexual harassment and leadership at the TSSA union has called for a tight-knit group of four senior figures to leave the organisation, saying they had “enabled [sexist] behaviours through wilful blindness, power hoarding and poor practices”.

The inquiry was sparked in September after the former general secretary, Manuel Cortes, was accused of harassing and attempting to kiss several women. He retired with an undisclosed pay-off in October while still under investigation, the report said.

Lady Kennedy said: “It gave me no pleasure to uncover a series of appalling incidents, alongside leadership and management failings in the TSSA. These incidents included inappropriate and sexual touching, sexual assault, coercive and manipulative behaviour, violent and disrespectful language, humiliation and denigration of members of staff, reps and members of the Executive Committee.

“Some of this behaviour was actually witnessed – or heard – directly by me,” she said.

The Labour peer also heard evidence of failings in due process, natural justice and governance. “My impression is of a concentration of absolute power in a very small number of hands, with little or no scrutiny,” she said.

Auditors should be brought in to examine the union’s finances, Kennedy said. She questioned why the union refuses to say how much was paid upon retirement to Cortes, who has denied any wrongdoing and apologised for any hurt caused by his behaviour.

Allegations about sexually inappropriate behaviour against Cortes, which centred around the union’s offices near Euston station in central London, emerged in the spring. Claire Laycock, who worked for the TSSA for several years as an organiser in Yorkshire, said she was harassed in a pub after a Christmas party in 2018. A video posted online by Laycock claimed Cortes had asked her to kiss him and had invited her to “go outside”.

The union faced criticism in May after it enforced a non-disclosure agreement to stop Laycock from repeating the allegations.

Weeks later, other women including the former organisers Maggie Hayes and Hannah Plant came forward to say they had witnessed inappropriate behaviour.

One current member of staff agreed to be named in the report after giving testimony that she was inappropriately touched by Cortes at two TSSA gatherings in 2011 and one in 2015.

Mel Taylor said the first incident was witnessed by many colleagues but she did not feel able to raise a formal complaint against the general secretary on either occasion and to her knowledge it was not raised or reported by others. “Mel has stated that she was told by a senior colleague that it was her fault because she had sat next to Manuel,” the report said.

Kennedy’s inquiry was launched in September. She heard specific examples of non-consensual sexual behaviour, which included “the sliding of a hand in between the upper thighs of a woman from behind, sliding a finger up and down the thigh of a young woman, squeezing breasts, repeatedly groping a woman from behind [and] whispering inappropriate suggestions(‘I would fuck you’),” she wrote.

Kennedy suggested that auditors should be brought in to examine the books of the union.

“There appears to be a failing in leadership and a failing in culture. Its finances, I understand, are in a poor state and its membership has declined. I conclude that the internal leadership at the TSSA is not fit for purpose,” she wrote.

Managers at the union were controlling, hierarchical and bullying, she said. “The leadership seem to see staff as a problem,” she said. “I have heard that people in the organisation have been described by senior staff as ‘useless cunts’.”

Kennedy said “the significant majority” of the testimony she had been given by 50 witnesses were truthful. “I have no reason not to accept their testimonies, albeit unsworn. They are consistent, credible and given by individuals who display clear and visible distress,” she said.

Senior sources close to the union said it will be difficult for it to survive Kennedy’s report. The union has for some time been in negotiations with other unions about a merger, which include the GMB union and Unite.

In a statement, the TSSA said that it would act on the report’s recommendations and is committed to achieving the change that is required to secure the confidence of members, staff and women across the movement.

“With immediate effect, the president and treasurer have stood down and an interim president and interim treasurer have been appointed,” it said.