Bringing the rail network to a halt can be thirsty work, so at the headquarters of the TSSA trade union in the City of London, staff are fond of letting off steam.
Some enjoy ‘drinking in the daytime, in working hours’. Others are in the habit of ‘doing business in the pub and putting the union credit card behind the bar’.
At times, bosses are prone to ‘falling asleep through excessive drinking, crashing into furniture and fixtures and speaking disrespectfully and aggressively to hospitality staff’.
Granted, this might not be the most sensible way to behave, especially if your wages are paid by the 17,000 workers who together contribute the thick end of £10 million a year in subscription fees. But even the most committed class warrior needs a little downtime.
So it goes that one senior official at the hard-Left union has been observed ‘summoning a drug dealer to a party attended by staff’, while another suffered hangovers so intense ‘they failed to attend important work meetings the following day’.
Former general secretary of the TSSA Manuel Cortes, 55, is summed up by Baroness Kennedy as having been described to her as ‘someone who becomes disinhibited by alcohol and then behaves inappropriately towards women’
But it isn’t fun and games for everyone. Many female TSSA staffers have complained about being routinely stared at, groped, leered at and asked for a kiss by over-refreshed male superiors.
Some new recruits have reported bosses plying them with alcohol ‘to the point that they can’t get home without help’ or propositioning them via a crude chat-up line, such as: ‘I would f**k you!’
On occasion, bosses at the Labour-supporting union — which in tandem with the strike-happy RMT and Aslef is currently presiding over our winter of discontent — have been seen ‘sliding 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 and repeatedly groping a woman from behind’.
This ugly behaviour has now been chronicled by the Labour peer Baroness Kennedy, an eminent KC who this week published a jaw-dropping report into the appalling culture of sexism, misogyny and dysfunction at the 126-year-old trade union.
Running to 31 pages, it reveals a ‘mafia-like’ organisation in which bullying is endemic and where junior staff describe their workplace as ‘toxic, dysfunctional, sexist, misogynistic, racist [and] homophobic’.
All the incidents cited above, many of which can be accurately described as sexual assault, are chronicled by Baroness Kennedy in at times shocking detail, laying bare the casual hypocrisy of an organisation whose spectacularly pompous rulebook requires it to ‘oppose actively all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination’.
Junior employees of the TSSA have been treated with staggering disdain, the report found, with senior officials smearing them as ‘whingers’, ‘vultures’ and ‘rats coming out of the woodwork’ if they complained.
Several highly vulnerable victims of sexual assault were forced out of their job when they sought redress, with some then required to sign draconian gagging agreements to receive compensation packages.
Cortes’ right-hand men from 2016 onwards was Sam Tarry, who worked as political officer for the TSSA until the 2019 election (Pictured: Labour shadow minister Angela Rayner with boyfriend Sam Tarry MP)
At the same time as they were being ushered out of the door, endless incidents of revolting behaviour by their male superiors appear to be have been tolerated — encouraged, even — by the TSSA on the grounds that, well, boys will be boys.
At the centre of this almost unbelievably sordid affair you’ll find one of the British trade union movement’s biggest boys of all, literally and figuratively.
His name is Manuel Cortes, the ponytailed firebrand who served as the TSSA’s general secretary — on a remuneration package that stretched to £122,000 a year — from 2011.
In October, a month after Baroness Kennedy’s investigation was launched, the union announced he was retiring.
But the Mail last night revealed that this was not the case. Disgracefully, chums at the top of the organisation allowed the shamed boss to secretly remain in post on full pay. It wasn’t until this week, after her report was published, that he was taken off the payroll.
This arrangement, which cost the TSSA tens of thousands, was withheld from Baroness Kennedy. It remains to be seen whether TSSA members will now have to foot the bill for a payoff.
Mr Cortes, a 55-year-old Marxist, is summed up by Baroness Kennedy with withering disdain as having ‘been described to me by many people as someone who becomes disinhibited by alcohol and then behaves inappropriately towards women’.
He first achieved major prominence when his old pal Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader.
During this period, he turned the hitherto relatively low-profile TSSA — which represents ‘white- collar’ rail staff such as ticket office workers and senior engineers — into a major political force, arranging for a section of his organisation’s booze-fuelled offices to double up as the HQ of Momentum, the campaign group behind the hard Left’s ill-fated takeover of Labour.
Importantly, one of his right-hand men from 2016 onwards was Sam Tarry, who worked as political officer for the TSSA until the 2019 election, when he became MP for Ilford South.
Mr Tarry remains a divisive yet influential figure in Labour circles. Separated from his ex-wife Julia, with whom he has two children, he is nowadays in a relationship with Sir Keir Starmer’s deputy Angela Rayner.
Awkwardly, given this domestic arrangement, he was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet last July after defying the Labour leader by giving a TV interview and posing for a picture with his old mucker Mr Cortes on the picket line at Euston station during a rail strike.
At the time the photo was taken, Mr Cortes was already the subject of the scandal that would culminate in his departure, with seven women having by then come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct.
Newspaper reports of the affair appear not to have fazed Mr Tarry, who accepted a £5,000 donation from the TSSA in late September, a week after Baroness Kennedy’s inquiry was launched.
Mr Tarry (pictured: left) was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet last July after defying the Labour leader by giving a TV interview and posing for a picture with his old mucker Mr Cortes on the picket line
Whether the TSSA’s fall from grace has fazed Labour remains to be seen. The party was handed £27,000 in donations from the union last year and £50,000 the year before, but has not accepted any cash since August.
The downfall of both Mr Cortes and his rail union — which according to The Guardian is now in a state of such dysfunction that it may be forced to merge with the GMB or Unite — stretches back to 2017.
That was when its ruling executive committee was first emailed by a whistleblower expressing concerns about ‘serious sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by a senior figure within the staff at TSSA’.
At the time, Mr Cortes, who the Kennedy report suggests ran the union as a sort of personal fiefdom, persuaded the committee to ignore the complaint, saying its author was a disgruntled ‘troublemaker’.
But behind the scenes, ill feeling was rife. A 2021 staff survey concluded that 71 per cent ‘felt the culture at the TSSA to be sexist’ and 61 per cent ‘had felt uncomfortable for themselves or others at work’.
Fast forward to last May, and a major bombshell dropped. Claire Laycock, a member of the union’s organising team who had been an employee for 12 years, released a 20-minute video on a Left-wing website named Reel News, alleging that she’d been forced out of her job after complaining that Mr Cortes had sexually assaulted her.
The first incident, she said, had occurred at the union’s Christmas party in 2018. ‘We went for a meal.
There was a lot of drinking. A lot of Christmas spirit, if you like,’ she recalled. ‘And then, in one of the pubs later on, the general secretary came over to me, put his arm over my front and asked to kiss me.’
Ms Laycock responded with a vociferous refusal and Mr Cortes was removed by colleagues — only to return minutes later, bellowing to his employee: ‘I’m being told I’m not allowed to kiss you. Do you want to go outside?’
It was thanks only to a concerned female colleague, who ushered her to a toilet, that she was able to escape his clutches.
The downfall of both Mr Cortes and his rail union — which according to The Guardian is now in a state of such dysfunction that it may be forced to merge with the GMB or Unite — stretches back to 2017
After the incident, Ms Laycock raised a complaint and was summoned to a meeting in Manchester with an HR officer.
Here, she says, Mr Cortes ‘looked me in the eye and said “I don’t remember doing this, but I do know that I did do it because you say that I did it.
I was very drunk. I don’t remember anything. I know that isn’t an excuse. It won’t happen again.”’
It proved to be an empty promise, she claimed. The following year, at a union dinner in Glasgow,
Mr Cortes stared at her in a manner that made her uncomfortable. Later, at a hotel bar, ‘he smashed a load of glasses by accident, followed me around the room [and] stood behind me saying “Hey, hey, how are you?” which made me feel really uncomfortable’.
Soon after, she alleged, he positioned himself ‘behind me, too close’, until two colleagues ‘came over, pretended that I smoke, and said “Do you want to come outside with us for a cigarette?” ’
The two incidents, combined with other misogynistic abuse Ms Laycock experienced while working at the TSSA, left her suffering PTSD, depression and anxiety, and, she says, culminated in her departure from the union via an HR process that saw her paid substantial compensation.
So far, so regrettable. Yet when Ms Laycock’s claims were aired on Reel News, the TSSA responded not by apologising but by putting out a statement calling her a ‘disgruntled former member of staff’ whose claims were ‘demonstrably untrue’.
Then it took her to court, claiming she had violated a non-disclosure agreement. It would prove to be an ill-fated move: not only did efforts to silence her fail, but the union was left with a substantial legal bill.
Moreover, coverage of the affair persuaded other women to come forward. Within days, newspapers reported that no fewer than six more women had made allegations against Mr Cortes.
Among those who subsequently spoke to Baroness Kennedy was a TSSA organiser named Mel Taylor, who agreed for her account to be shared in this week’s report. She recalls being inappropriately touched by Mr Cortes at two TSSA gatherings, one in 2011 and another in 2015.
Labour peer Baroness Kennedy, an eminent KC published a jaw-dropping report into the appalling culture of sexism, misogyny and dysfunction at the 126-year-old trade union
Baroness Kennedy writes: ‘The first of these incidents was witnessed by many individuals who came to speak to me. At the second incident it was reported to me that MC [Manuel Cortes] finally stopped groping Mel (“he kept doing it”) once Mel had spoken to [a female co-worker] who told MC to stop.’
Ms Taylor did not feel able to raise a formal complaint, Baroness Kennedy says, due to an environment where staff took the view: ‘Oh, that’s just Manuel . . . you know what he’s like!’
Baroness Kennedy says more than 50 current and former TSSA staff members spoke to her during her inquiry. Only two ‘had something positive to say’.
From the remaining contributors, the words used to describe the culture included ‘toxic, dysfunctional, worn-down, vindictive, fearful, sexist, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, embarrassing, mafia-like [and] in freefall,’ she writes.
‘I have heard that people in the organisation have been described by senior staff as “useless c***s”.’
Victims of this toxic workplace are now being counselled via a helpline run by the Survivors Trust, a charity that supports survivors of rape and sex crimes.
The TSSA has said it ‘accepts’ Baroness Kennedy’s report and recommendations, adding it ‘highlights serious issues that the union needs to face up to and tackle’.
Mr Cortes, who has previously denied wrongdoing, has not so far commented. Mr Tarry, who is not personally accused of any misconduct, said yesterday: ‘I gave evidence to and fully co-operated with Helena Kennedy’s investigation and subsequent report. I support in full its recommendations.’
However this plays out, the TSSA isn’t the only union in the post-Me Too firing line. In September 2020, for example, the GMB was described as ‘institutionally sexist’ in a hugely critical independent report that found ‘bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment are endemic’, and concluded ‘the culture in the GMB is one of heavy drinking . . . and a lack of professionalism’.
Report author Karen Monaghan KC said examples of sexual harassment included leering, staring at a woman’s breasts, ‘propositioning young women, “sloppy kisses”, “lip kisses”, “sticking a tongue” in a woman’s ear, touching of knees, bottoms and hips, hugs, and slapping of a backside’.
The TSSA’s fall from grace will empower more victims to speak out, which perhaps raises an important question: how many of the other hard-Left unions presiding over this winter of discontent will turn out to be rotten to the core?
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