The suppressed report on women officers in Unite

Unite General Secretary candidate Ian Allinson had asked Len McCluskey for a copy of the report into women officers in Unite and asked for it to be made available to members before nominations opened. The union refused to release it. Ian Allinson has now been sent the report anonymously, and has published it alongside this statement.

Now having had the opportunity to read the report, it is clear both why it must be made available to members, and why the leadership of Unite has sought to supress it.

Many union activists have to argue with employers that hiding problems prevents dealing with them, and to be more open and transparent about equality issues. This was the logic behind our lobbying for mandatory equal pay reviews, and even behind the Tories’ watered down gender pay gap reporting. How can activists expect to be taken seriously challenging employers when our own union is adopting a less than role-model approach?

The research was commissioned by the Officers’ National Committee in 2016 and undertaken by two experienced and reputable independent researchers, Jennifer Hurstfield and Sarah Silcox. They have previously published in both academic and professional journals, and led research projects for organisations including ACAS, CIPD, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Institute of Employment Research, ACAS, and the Health and Safety Executive.

The heart of the research was a detailed survey sent out to 76 female Unite officers, which achieved a 100% response rate.

The report shows significant problems with sexism, bullying and harassment within the union and that many women officers do not trust the leadership to deal with these problems fairly. Many perceive that management will deal with problems according to the relative power of those involved within the Unite structure. As well as issues specifically affecting women officers, the report indicates problems with management and working practices in our union (e.g. work allocation) that are also likely to affect male officers. The wider implications involve not just women and those with other protected characteristics / equality strands but all employees and members of Unite.

  • 68% of the 69 women officers who answered the question said they had experience a hostile working environment, and the breakdown of what that meant is frankly horrific. Over 70% said that Unite members were primarily responsible for the hostility they experienced – which shows this problem cannot be tackled under a blanket of secrecy.
  • 70% of women officers report they have experienced hostility at work (primarily from Unite members) because they are women. The breakdown of what the hostility meant is frankly horrific. Around 40% have felt frightened because of a real or threatened incident.
  • Over half of women officers have raised a bullying or harassment issue with the union in the past five years. Half of these do not believe that the issue was handled at all well by management. Only a quarter said management handled their problem well.
  • Concerns were raised that how management dealt with a complaint of bullying or harassment could depend on the status of the people involved
  • While many women said there had been an improvement in how complaints were dealt with, the largest group of women officers (42%) believe the working environment at Unite has stayed the same over the past five years (with equal proportions either side believing it has got better or worse)
  • Many officers feel the current process for allocating work lacks transparency, 40% do not feel able to discuss work concerns with their line manager, and 40% also believe that talking about their work concerns is viewed by some colleagues and the organisation as a “weakness”.
  • One third “struggle” to achieve any sort of balance between working for Unite and their life outside the union. One fifth have taken time off work that they attribute to work-related stress in the past 18 month.

While Unite’s leadership claims that it is implementing the specific recommendations of the report, there is no way these issues can be effectively tackled behind closed doors.

How can we win an argument with members and activists about challenging aggressive and sexist behaviour from members without talking about the problem, its scale and its impact?

How can we reduce over-reliance on managerial authority and patronage without increasing democratic accountability?

There should be no climate of fear in our union. Officers should have confidence that issues they raise will be dealt with fairly and effectively. No organisation in this sexist society can be immune from it, least of all one that deals with such a variety of employers, members and others. But we can aspire to be a role model in how we tackle such issues. Not only is this the right thing to do, but failing to do so makes the job of all our activists, challenging employers over similar issues, much, much, harder. Tackling these problems is essential if we have to have the best possible officers, rather than being unable to recruit, retain and get the best from some because of how they are treated.

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.
  • Involve members, officers and staff in a major review of Unite’s structures to make them fit for purpose in the 21st century.
  • Champion lay member democracy and participation, including a move towards election of officers, to shift the culture from top-down management to bottom-up democracy.
  • Expand the lay companion scheme to involve more members (including those not in paid work) and free up officer time from individual casework.