Exclusive: GMB women lodge dispute with union in wake of sexism inquiry

Sienna Rodgers

Women working at the GMB trade union, one of Britain’s largest and a key affiliate of the Labour Party, have lodged a formal dispute with the organisation as they say grievances are not being heard fairly, LabourList can reveal.

LabourList can also exclusively report that Gary Smith, considered most likely to be the next general secretary, has been the subject of bullying complaints but is nonetheless in the running for the union’s top job.

An independent investigation conducted in the wake of former general secretary Tim Roache’s resignation last year found the GMB to be “institutionally sexist” and concluded that “bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment are endemic” in the union.

The leadership is now being accused by GMB activists and employees of “blindness” to the findings, with several sources saying the internal problems have become “worse” since the report by Karon Monaghan QC was published in September 2020.

The claims made by staffers over the alleged unfairness of the grievance procedures and the claim that little progress has been made on misogyny and bullying since the Monaghan report are denied by the GMB.

A GMB spokesperson told LabourList that any suggestion the union has not taken action or has denied an employee their right to agreed procedures is “wrong”, “misleading”, “unfounded” and “being used to damage the union”.

Staffers who have raised grievances with the GMB say they are being “silenced”, as their complaints are dismissed after being heard by members of the senior management team or regional secretaries who are almost all men.

Their dispute letter states that the GMB “allows for no natural justice to take place when grievances are submitted” against either senior members or the entire senior management team, and that the union is “not adhering to its own grievance policy”.

LabourList sources say a group of employees submitted a grievance about the GMB as a whole, and were told it would be heard by a member of the senior management team, rather than someone outside of the organisation as they had expected.

“We can’t get justice and we can’t get a fair trial inside of the organisation,” one well-placed source said. They told LabourList that men who put complaints in “seem to be getting a different process” to the one that women are put through.

For these reasons, a dispute has now been lodged by staffers, which is considered to be an exceptionally rare course of action. “Everyone’s really nervous about it,” one source said.

LabourList also understands that Gary Smith, widely thought of as the frontrunner general secretary candidate as the “anointed son of most regional secretaries” in the words of one source, has been the subject of internal bullying complaints.

He has nonetheless been deemed eligible to be a candidate and to have met the agreed qualifying standards and criteria, as confirmed by a letter from the GMB on March 10th inviting all branches to make nominations.

Potential candidates need 30 valid branch nominations from at least two different regions to secure their place on the ballot paper. Branches had until today, April 7th, to send in their nomination forms.

Paul Maloney, who recently retired as GMB Southern regional secretary, wrote in a Facebook post last month that – in light of the Monaghan findings – no regional secretary should become the next general secretary.

“I can’t fathom why any regional secretary could think of standing to lead our union after that report,” Maloney said. “An end to the back slapping and arse covering is long overdue. I really do worry that we have learned nothing since Monaghan.”

GMB national secretary Rehana Azam and senior organiser Giovanna Holt are also in the running as general secretary candidates. Either, if successful, would be the first woman in the role, coming soon after the GMB’s first ever female regional secretary.

Supporters of Azam have told LabourList they are optimistic that she could win, but GMB rules tightly restrict any campaigning by candidates, making it more difficult for those who are not regional secretaries to be successful.

Several GMB sources have expressed concern that the union could lose its “moral authority” with employers when seeking to tackle discrimination on behalf of its members – unless the misogyny within its own ranks is tackled.

All GMB women who shared their views and experiences with LabourList were offered anonymity, just as they were for the report by Monaghan QC, who noted that there was a “risk of retribution” if identities were disclosed.

Responding to the claims contained in this article, a GMB spokesperson said: “The actions following on from the Karen Monaghan QC report are being processed by a GMB taskforce who are on track to report on the implementation of the report’s findings at the union’s conference in June.

“The union also commissioned Schona Jolly QC to examine outstanding grievances brought by members of the union’s senior management team against each other, particularly around sensitive issues.

“The Schona Jolly report recommended that an external independent person deal with the outstanding procedural matters and this process is underway. It is neither appropriate nor complies with any application of natural justice to comment regarding these ongoing matters.

“The staff of the union have their own set of procedures enclosed within their terms and conditions and these are agreed between the union as the employer and the unions representing the GMB’s staff. This is the normal situation for any membership organisation, and always complies with employment law.

“The complaint procedure for union members is enshrined in the GMB rulebook and is nowhere near as comprehensive and detailed as the agreements that cover employees. This is the separation between employees and members in exactly the same way as for example, the Labour Party.

“All employees, irrespective of gender, have access and it is completely inaccurate to suggest that access to the staff procedures is selective or discriminatory. All grievances or complaints properly registered are acknowledged and allocated to an appropriate manager dependent upon the actual complaint.

“Any suggestion that the GMB has not taken action over the two reports or has denied any employee of their right to the agreed procedures is wrong and misleading. Clearly such unfounded allegations are being used to damage the union.”

Gary Smith chose not to respond when LabourList reached out for comment.

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