Women in Unite

Ian Allinson, the grassroots socialist candidate for Unite General Secretary, argues that equality issues have to be better integrated into our industrial agenda. That requires putting our own house in order, which can’t be done secretly.

Photo of Ian Allinson
Photo: Steve Eason

Bullying is an issue in most workplaces, while sexual harassment at work is experienced by a large proportion of female workers. All members deserve dignity at work, and we cannot allow the fact that this is a sensistive subject to obscure the fact that this is an industrial issue which must be tackled. Members need to have confidence that if they seek help with an issue they will be supported and it will be handled sensitively.

Last year the press revealed the existence of a report on the experience of women officers in Unite. I am told that the report shows that large proportion of women officers have experienced bullying and harassment and that many feel the systems in place within Unite to investigate and remedy such incidents aren’t working to protect them. Our leadership responded by claiming that the report had been leaked to damage the union, and to reassure members that the issues were being dealt with by Len McCluskey.

Since I announced I was standing for General Secretary I’ve been contacted by a number of women dissatisfied with the situation. I wrote to Len McCluskey as follows:

I’m being asked a lot of questions about the women in Unite report, which I understand was presented to the EC and which covered bullying, harassment and sexism experienced by women officers. I’m told that some of the issues related to the behaviour of lay members, so I’m struggling to see how these can be addressed without open discussion.

This is clearly an important equality issue involving both union employees and members. Please could you send me a copy of the report so that I can read it for myself, and also ensure that it is available to members before nominations open.

Unite is still sending out materials promoting McCluskey as General Secretary during the election, despite his resignation, but he chose not to reply to me. My email was passed to McCluskey’s Chief of Staff, who said it was not for the union to distribute the report, and that it had not been presented or circulated to our Executive Council. I find this astonishing for a matter of such seriousness. Neither was I provided with a copy of the report.

The questions raised by the report would be serious enough if they only affected women officers. But other union employees are managed under the same procedures, and the same people who deal with staff grievances within the union are also involved in dealing with member complaints.

Our strength as a union comes from the active participation of members. Sexism is a barrier to participation, even though it gives women even more reason to fight back. Our union is male dominated at the senior level, while women make up only about 1 in 5 officers. We need to be tackling barriers to involving those traditionally under-represented in our union, including women, BAEM (Black, Asian & Ethnic Minority) workers and people with disabilities. We can ill afford to lose good people from our movement.

Activists know that bullying and harassment is often linked to power relationships in the workplace. Most obviously, managers bullying staff is much more common than the reverse. But class is not the only factor in power relationships – gender, race etc. are of key importance too. We all live our lives within these power structures which put pressure on us all to accommodate to them. People inadvertently internalise and reproduce attitudes and behaviours which reflect those power inequalities. If we are to build unity and maximise participation then activists have to be consciously vigilant and challenge inequality and oppression. As a union we have to try to set a higher standard than our rotten society. If employers can point to Unite’s failings it makes it harder for reps to defend members and challenge employers over their handling of bullying and harassment.

Women have come a long way in the trade union movement, now making up a majority of UK union members. Within Unite many of the sectors experiencing membership growth have a high proportion of female workers. Failing to tackle the issues women face is simply not an option if we want a strong and successful union.

The failure to bring the report into the open is particularly worrying as I am told that the report suggests that most of the bullying and harassment experienced by female officers is at the hands of lay members. It is impossible to tackle this without an open discussion about the problem.

I understand that the report suggests that many women officers perceive that the response to complaints by Unite’s senior management depends on the relative position in the union hierarchy of those involved. Many of us will recognise this pattern from our own workplaces, where management close ranks to protect their own against complaints from below, but are only too ready to punish those at the bottom.

I repeat my call on Len McCluskey to make the report available to members now. How else can the discussions take place that are necessary to improve the union’s culture and people’s behaviour? Any decent rep would challenge an employer who avoided tackling bullying and harassment effectively because they were unwilling to be open about the issues.

If elected I will begin an open discussion on how our union can address bullying, harassment and sexism within the union. This will include seeking the views of members and union employees about their experiences and their views on how we can address the problems we may find. I hope that other candidates will make the same commitment.