On Tuesday 28 April, Tim Roache, general secretary of the big GMB union, which organises in many different sectors, stepped down, just months after his re-election.
He cited ill-health. On Wednesday, following the circulation of an anonymous letter to press outlets, GMB issued a statement: “GMB received an anonymous letter, last Wednesday, in which a number of allegations have been made about Tim’s conduct whilst he held the office of general secretary.”
The news of the allegations against Roach has reignited discussion of conduct in the labour movement, echoing previous incidents including the SWP “Comrade Delta” scandal, Steve Hedley of RMT being accused of domestic violence, and various high-profile sexual harassment claims in the Labour Party.
These very public debates are joined by many more less well known instances of gendered violence across the labour movement. We need to be prepared to tackle sexism and gendered violence within our movement, including on the left. Though instances are experienced incredibly personally by victims, they often reflect broader cultural and structural problems.
The immediate task for the GMB is a full and fair investigation. Barbara Plant, president of the GMB union, has said the safety of “our people, particularly women” is paramount, and called for a “fully independent investigation”.
Plant is right. For the investigation to have credibility with the wider labour movement and GMB members, it cannot be a GMB subcommittee or officer that investigates. A panel could be brought together from other parts of the labour movement, including appropriate experts in the field.
It would be naïve to think that in a society where sexism and sexual and gendered violence are so prevalent we can create a left or labour movement where they never occur. But we certainly can build a political and organisational culture which reduces violence and makes people more confident to stand up to unacceptable behaviour.
Unions should be organisations for collective action, uniting workers and knitting together struggles against exploitation and oppression. They should be democratic, political and rooted in their membership.
Currently, after a period of defeats, they’re bureaucratic and sluggish. Individuals and cliques act as gatekeepers for jobs, positions and power.
This cabal system creates conditions for abuse and incentivises cover-ups and looking away when it occurs.
We need clear processes through which women, and others, can raise issues, with training and support to help members and reps build the skills to use them. We need those in positions of power to be elected and accountable. We need a movement where sexism (or any other kind of discrimination), violence, intimidation and bullying are not accepted. We need education and discussion so we understand how and why abuse happens and how to fight it.
A labour movement which began a serious discussion could begin to sort out its problems and make itself fit to challenge exploitation and oppression in society.