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Congress and a lifetime of harassment

OUR BRANCH Chair Pennie Quinton was an NUJ delegate to Trades Union Congress 2018 - the annual meeting of the UK union movement. She reports on the motions the NUJ backed - and reflects on life-long sexual harassment in the workplace.

Pennie Quinton

Pennie Quinton

At TUC it soon becomes obvious that in the great scheme of trade unions the NUJ is tiny in comparison to the biggest unions affiliated to TUC, such as GMB or Unite - but being a journalists' union is highly visible and punches above its weight.

At the bi-annual NUJ Delegate Meeting three delegates are elected following their being nominated by their branch to attend TUC, with the General Secretary and President attending de- facto. The elected delegates for 2018/2019 are: myself (LFB), Steve Bird (FT) and Chris Frost of the Union's Ethics Council.

At TUC 2018 every member of the NUJ delegation addressed Congress, each composing their own speeches - in many other trade unions it is the norm for campaigns departments to compose the speeches and allot them to delegates. It must be noted that among the behemoth unions, with their many rows of delegates seated in the dark auditorium gazing up at the brightly-lit table of the general council, few can expect the chance to address Congress. TUC policy on controversial matters - such as, this year - the future of the fracking industry in the UK - is directed by the likes of Unite and GMB, which traditionally prioritise protecting jobs in nuclear energy or the arms industry over the long-term collective environmental welfare of the British Isles.

The NUJ put forward three motions, including one emergency motion. The first, moved by General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, called on TUC to urgently address the gender pay gap following Carrie Gracie's bold stance at the BBC.

NUJ president Sian Jones moved the NUJ motion on limiting the exploitation of night working in the media industries. The emergency motion, calling for the protection of journalists' data, was moved by Chris Frost - after two film makers in Northern Ireland had their computers seized by the police. All three motions passed unanimously.

Steve Bird spoke in support of the TUC motion calling for the protection of imprisoned workers in Turkey - many of whom are journalists.

Harassment is everywhere

I spoke in support of a composite of motions on sexual harassment from Equity the Actors Union, the Musicians' Union and UCU, the university and college lecturers' union. On arriving at Congress on Sunday night I am advised by General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, having barely put down my bag, that I will be speaking in support of the sexual harassment motion - which is "er... up next".

Sian Jones whispers to me that TUC had conducted a survey on sexual harassment and something like 95 per cent of female responders had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace - but only 5 per cent of women said they had thought of going to their trade union to address the issue. So, she said, TUC is really going big on this. "They" at TUC certainly were, with a huge line of speakers from the biggest unions queuing up to speak on the seats at the front of the hall. I did not know what I was going to say, having just arrived, and I was hoping the chair would call time on those speaking in support.

A member of Unite sitting next to me held a five page hand-written speech. I said to her: "Oh - if it comes to it you can speak instead of me". "Thank you" she said, but as the official in charge of speakers came to scan our delegate cards with a bar code reader, my hopes of avoiding speaking were dashed as she explained to me that the speaking order is all decided back stage.

Listening to the impassioned speeches - all by women - I was disappointed to see not one union brother lined up to speak on how he would support his sisters in the work place. That would have been particularly welcome from the majority-male membership of unions such as RMT or ASLEF.

As I waited to speak I reflected how much damage - not just sexual harassment - I had suffered in my working life by being excluded from informal male networking, such as the liquid lunches at television studios and post-work conversations about football scores, and the way men kept each other's backs in the workplace against their female colleagues.

On the platform I kept it simple. From the age of fifteen as a Saturday girl (having my arse slapped with a tray by the manager of Pizza Hut) - to at the age of 47 as a researcher in the Middle East (having to abandon a research site due to a colleague suffering a sexual assault), I have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It is a blight on women's careers. Please support this motion. I say this actually gazing down from the platform on a man who had physically assaulted me while at work.

The words of the UCU show the extensive work the trade union movement must do to root out sexism in the workplace and in the trade union movement itself:

Recent media coverage of the #metoo campaign and the University and College Union's survey revealed sexual harassment, assault and gender-based violence as endemic in our society and a serious unspoken problem. It has been clear how prevalent sexual harassment is across our most powerful institutions, including political organisations, entertainment industries, universities and colleges and unfortunately within our trade union movement, to name but a few.

Congress notes that companies treat sexual harassment and assault in the same way as other kinds of harassment, lost within a general harassment and bullying policy. Staff on precarious contracts, PhD students and early career lecturers can be particularly vulnerable because of dependence upon male white structures for promotion or work. They often suffer in silence.

Congress also notes that trade unions have a vital role to play in educating both employers and employees to eliminate sexual harassment and assault within the workplace...

That this work must thoroughly examine and challenge every sector in the British work place, was perhaps illustrated by an exchange I had with a male member of another smaller union, who was seated at the table behind the NUJ delegation.

I was looking for my bag in the semi-darkness. "Ha ha luv, your bag is there can't you see it?" he says. As I found it, he continued with his banter, punctuated by "luv" used in a demeaning somewhat patronising way at the end of his every sentence.

"Actually I hate being called luv", I say calmly. His female colleague sitting next to him bursts out laughing but hastily smothers her giggles as he glares at her and his hackles rise in my direction. He did not say another word to me for the rest of Congress but glared balefully at me every time I passed to sit at the NUJ table.