'A fresh start': TSSA's new general secretary Maryam Eslamdoust
Maryam Eslamdoust (Photography by David Bebber)
The Labour-affiliated trade union TSSA was rocked by scandal last year. Sienna Rodgers speaks to Maryam Eslamdoust in her first interview as the new general secretary
Maryam Eslamdoust was neither a transport worker nor a member of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, TSSA, when a bombshell report that changed everything for the trade union dropped in February. Now, just months later, she finds herself in the position of general secretary – and in charge of ensuring crucial reforms are implemented.
Last year it emerged that TSSA head Manuel Cortes was the subject of sexual harassment complaints from staffers in his own union. He denied the accusations but was soon dismissed for gross misconduct. An independent investigator, Labour peer Helena Kennedy, concluded female workers had been subjected to assaults and a range of inappropriate behaviour. In response, TSSA members took the unprecedented decision of giving the top job to a complete outsider.
“Of course it was shocking to read the Kennedy report, but it was an opportunity to really go in and change things”
“I’m from the Middle East so I like to feed people,” says the transport and travel union’s new Iranian-born leader as she welcomes us into her office, clutching sushi and gingerbread biscuits. She seems a little nervous: TSSA’s new broom is doing her first interview in the job when she speaks to The House, and it is only her second week.
She is only at the start of her tenure, yet the first woman and first person of colour to lead TSSA goes so far as to describe the union now – so soon after it was rocked by scandal – as “an equalities masterpiece ”. She explains: “Me, I’m a woman of colour, general secretary; our president is a woman, newly elected; and our treasurer is a woman of colour. I don’t think you have that in any other union.”
Eslamdoust, 41, was a councillor in north London for 12 years, and a senior Labour Party staffer, most recently head of equalities, stakeholders and community engagement. Why, then, her interest in running TSSA? “In 2016, I got the opportunity to work in TSSA offices when they were hosting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign,” she says. (Being firmly on the Labour left, she worked on Corbyn’s campaign and subsequently advised him as leader.)
“I worked with TSSA staffers and had a really positive experience. Then, when the Kennedy report came out, like everyone else I was really hurt and shocked. But at the same time, they had had their conference, so major changes were taking place, and there was this genuine opportunity to open up to an external pool of candidates. So I put myself forward.”
At the annual conference in June, former TSSA boss Manuel Cortes made a direct appeal to members to have his dismissal overturned. As general secretary, the Corbyn-supporting Gibraltarian – with his trademark ponytail of corkscrew curls and his emphatic delivery, particularly when battling Brexit – was known in the labour movement as a character.
Cortes’ personality came across rather differently when, having pleaded his case via video link to the conference, he made the surprising decision to go topless on camera while waiting for votes to be counted. The members rejected his appeal and decided, for the first time in the union’s 126-year history, to allow external candidates to apply for his position.
Eslamdoust’s rivals were a TSSA staffer and an executive member; running against them, she won with 47 per cent of votes cast. “I didn’t come from the rail industry, I’ve been pretty open about it. But they were looking for people who could bring a fresh perspective. And that’s where I came in. I guess members genuinely wanted someone different.”
In her bid to be general secretary, Eslamdoust offered another dimension to her interest in transport: the experiences of her brother, who is autistic and was born blind. For her, the fight to keep ticket offices open – which has just been won – was personal. “He can’t drive, he can’t go out independently. What he can do is get on trains, but without the assistance of rail workers he wouldn’t be able to do that. He owes his independence entirely to hard-working transport workers.”
“As a mother, I am horrified by what’s happening in Palestine. I think Keir should reflect on the facts”
Eslamdoust is determined to represent “a fresh start, a new chapter” at TSSA after Baroness Kennedy uncovered sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying within it. Non-consensual sexual acts reported to the peer included “the sliding of a hand in between the upper thighs of a woman from behind”, “squeezing breasts” and “repeatedly groping a woman from behind”. Concerning Cortes specifically, Kennedy was told by many staff that women were warned never to be alone with him and it was an “open secret” he could become “overfamiliar” after drinking too much. (Cortes denied wrongdoing and apologised for any hurt caused.)
What was Eslamdoust’s initial reaction to the findings? “I was saddened,” she says. The general secretary treads carefully as she says ongoing legal issues make this tricky territory. She emphasises the positives: “Of course it was shocking to read the Kennedy report, but it was an opportunity to really go in and change things. I felt really passionate about that.”
In 2020 a damning report into the GMB union, another Labour affiliate, found it was “institutionally sexist” and described bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment as “endemic”. To what extent is this a problem across all trade unions? “I think it’s very common as a woman – I’ve experienced sexual harassment,” Eslamdoust replies, later clarifying that she is referring to “everyday sexual harassment in wider society” rather than in the labour movement. “It’s something that is unfortunately ingrained in our culture.”
She is keen to point out that many changes have been made, and quickly. Unlike the very large and heavily regionalised GMB, TSSA is small with a tight-knit group of around 50 staff members all based in the same London offices. TSSA sources say this immediacy made the Kennedy report all the more traumatising but also means progress is easier to scrutinise.
Before the publication of the Kennedy report, there were discussions with GMB about a potential merger. There were also rumours that RMT, a bigger and fast-growing transport union, may be interested in one. But asked whether such talks could resume, Eslamdoust could not be clearer: “No. A merger is not on the cards.” Hinting at historical tensions with TSSA’s competitor RMT, she adds that she would like to “reset the relationship” – while evidently wary of any suggestion of a takeover.
As for TSSA’s future relationship with the Labour Party, she suggests their link is conditional, though only on the already adopted policy of rail public ownership. “We are a union, we have industrial demands, and one of them is rail nationalisation. No blank cheques for the Labour Party.” Unlike other left-wing unions, she does not give the impression there will be debates about breaking their historical ties: “Affiliation is important to TSSA.”
This does not stop Eslamdoust from being critical of the Labour leader. She notes that in her first week in the job shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves sent her a handwritten congratulatory note, whereas she received nothing from Keir Starmer or shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh. And the general secretary says she is “very open to having a co-operative relationship with the Labour Party”, but on the crisis unfolding in Gaza, which has caused Starmer so much trouble internally, she does not hold back.
“I was honestly really upset by Keir’s position. I don’t understand it. His refusal to call for a ceasefire is really untenable, because brutality brings about more brutality,” Eslamdoust says. According to Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health data, at the time of writing 2,326 women and 3,760 children have been killed in the Gaza strip. “As a mother, I am horrified by what’s happening in Palestine. I think Keir should reflect on the facts.”
Buoyed by their success in allying with disability groups and passengers to oppose ticket office closures, optimistic staffers say such victories will show that, post-Kennedy, TSSA is a coherent union that can fight for members. TSSA’s general secretary is on a mission to turn over a new leaf – and she has much to prove.
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