From International Socialism (1st series), No.59, June 1973, pp.6-8.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Now that the General and Municipal Workers’ Union is moving – however marginally – leftwards, the title of Britain’s most right-wing and undemocratic union must go to the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication Union – Plumbing Trade Union (EETU-PTU). How this once militant union came to be the epitome of right-wing trade unionism makes a cautionary tale for all trade unionists.
The Electrical Trades Union (the ETU), the main forerunner of the EETU-PTU, was founded in 1889 and had grown to some 66,000 members by 1939. However, the real growth in membership came after World War II. This, with the generally more favourable attitude in Britain towards the Soviet Union, was the basis for the growth of Communist Party (CP) influence in the union. In the forties and fifties, the party held most, if not all, the important positions in the union, so much so that efforts were always being made to have occasional .non-CP supporters (usually left Labour Party) elected to positions to help keep a ‘balance’.
However, CP control did not mean a more radical union. True most strikes were made official. The Daily Express complained that the ETU’s record of unofficial strikes was so low ‘only’ because they declared all strikes official.
At union conferences militant resolutions, usually in support of Russian or East European policies were passed, but still in the late 1950s the ETU supported and indeed promoted one of the first major productivity deals at Esso Fawley.
Even with its faults, the ETU under CP control was a power to be reckoned with. Yet throughout, the CP were unable or unwilling to reach the non-CP rank-and-file member, and this in the long run was to prove their undoing.
In Scotland, J.T. Byrne, a bitter anti-Communist, had been elected full time official. In 1947 he stood for the general secretaryship and polled 11,000 out of 42,000 votes. The next year when he stood for the assistant general secretaryship, a general anti-CP feeling brought on by the intensification of the Cold War actually resulted in his polling more votes than Frank Haxell, but the intervention of a third candidate kept him out.
At this time, Les Cannon, an executive councillor and Communist, probably disliked Byrne as much as any other party member, but this unlikely pair were to be instrumental in bringing down the ETU CP leadership.
In 1956 the Hungarian uprising and Russia’s brutal intervention caused a crisis of confidence among party members, and led to wholesale resignations. Among the many in the ETU was Les Cannon, and six months later he lost his job as head of the union’s college at Esher.
He left, reputedly saying he would spend every penny he had to smash Haxell and company. It was not to be long before he had the opportunity to do so. For years the ETU had been subject to press attacks alleging ballot defaults. The Daily Telegraph, the Illustrated, followed by a pamphlet by Woodrow Wyatt called The Peril in our Midst. The New Statesman and News Chronicle all alleged that at various times branch votes had been rejected to allow CP candidates to win.
All this came to a head in 1959 when J.T. Byrne stood against Frank Haxell for the post of general secretary. The result was announced by the union as Haxell 19,611, Byrne 18,577, but Frank Chapple and Byrne challenged the result in the courts. The resulting ballot rigging trial is now part of trade union history, and to describe the events fully would take another article. Suffice it to say that after 42 days and about 1,365,000 words the ballot rigging charges were found proven, and much to the surprise even of the plantiffs, Byrne was declared general secretary.
It is difficult to say now which is the more regrettable; the fact that the ballot had been rigged, or the fact that after controlling the union for nearly 15 years the Communists had still found ballot-rigging necessary. In the executive elections that followed soon after the trial on a wave of press and TV campaigning – the anti-CP feeling ran high and helped to return a right-wing executive.
The executive lost no time in consolidating their position, sacking the assistant general secretary, McLennan, and making provision for an early rules revision conference. But the Left had still much support, particularly among conference delegates: it defeated the executive’s proposal to extend the executive councillors’ period of office to five years. The executive withdrew into its shell and made no radical changes.
For the 1965 rules revision conference things were different. More work was done by the executive and their supporters around the branches to push their line, and special pre-conference classes were held at Esher College for delegates. To make sure that all this work bore fruit, lobbying of delegates had to be made difficult. This was achieved by having the conference away from the mainland in the Isle of Man. The strategy proved a huge success, for, at one fell swoop, resolutions were carried by small majorities that:
established a full-time executive council, elected for a five-year term of office;
abolished rank-and-file area committees;
provided for the executive to close branches and amalgamate others under a full-time branch officer;
removed the right of appeal by branches against decisions of the executive council.
This erosion of rank-and-file power has continued over recent years. In 1969, selection of officials was introduced. When the power and brains behind the EPTU leadership, Les Cannon, died in 1970, many thought there would be a chance for change. But Chapple has been stronger than many suspected though beset by inter-executive squabbles.
How has the present EPTU leadership’s tactic of collaborating with employers and government affected their bargaining position? Union members could be forgiven for supporting an executive that brought home the bacon in terms of wages and conditions, but have the executive done this? In supply, probably the most important single industry in Britain to-day, the union’s record speaks for itself.
Supply workers, who do more shift work than average, with productivity deals among the worst in British industry, have been for years below the average national wage. Yet in 1970, while pursuing a £5.80 increase – a work-to-rule was beginning to bite – Frank Chapple, who led the negotiations, called a halt to the action, saying ‘it is an act of good faith with the nation’. The consequent Wilberforce inquiry gave Chapple plenty of publicity and although many interpretations were placed on the outcome, very few supply workers saw it as less than a sell out.
However in supply, the full effect of the EPTU leadership is masked as they have to collaborate with other unions in negotiations. In electrical contracting, the union hold the sole negotiating rights for about 70,000 members. It is also in contracting that many of the union’s best militants work. What better testing ground for the leadership’s policies could there be.
For years, wages and conditions were negotiated between the union and the employers’ associations – the National Federated Electrical Association (NFEA) in England, and the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) in Scotland. In most of these negotiations the union was being pressured by the militants on the sites, a position it clearly did not enjoy. Its concern over this was echoed by an NFEA spokesman who, at one conference, proposed: ‘Between us, Mr Chapple, you and I will sort out the cowboys in the contracting industry’. Chapple was quick to reply in kind:
’When my union reviewed the position of electrical contracting in the light of the rates of pay and conditions of our members, we were forced to the conclusion that only the closest co-operation between the union and your association could produce the circumstances required that would make possible, on the one hand greater efficiency, and on the other the wages and conditions we desired.’
This statement heralded the introduction in 1967 of the Joint Industry Board Agreement (JIB), probably the most open piece of class collaboration in recent times. This agreement, copied from a similar one in force in New York state, and supported by the then Minister of Labour Ray Gunter, was introduced as a revolution in worker-management relations. The agreement provided for electricians to be graded on different rates of pay, with fines for breaking JIB rules.
A Prices and Incomes Board report said:
’The agreement implies a far higher degree of discipline among member firms and workers than is commonly found in British industry, and is likely to be strengthened as the work of the JIB develops’. 
These rules were to be enforced by a national committee, consisting of an ‘independent’ chairman and 13 members of the old NFEA and 13 EPTU members (to date the union executive plus one has formed the union side). An interesting point is that a two-thirds majority on the committee is needed to pass a wage increase , so if the employers do not support a rise it cannot be enjoyed.
Needless to say this agreement provoked a wave of anger among workers in the contracting industry, particularly as the agreement had been introduced quickly and with little or no discussion allowed to union members. Protest meetings were held up and down the country – 2,000 attended a meeting in the Matrix Hall, Coventry.
But the executive were determined to push it through, and they proceeded to deal with the protests in a way that indicated their true nature. Agent provocateurs phoned up asking where protest meetings were to be held, then used this ‘evidence’ to charge militants; photographs of demonstrators were taken and used in evidence, so much so that masked EEPTU demonstrations were seen in the 1960s. Resulting from these charges over 20 militants were expelled from the union.
The acceptance of the JIB by sections of the workers has to be seen in context, The initial high basic rates clouded many workers’ judgement, especially in the smaller unorganised workshops that make up the majority of contracting workers. But on the large sites the fight has gone on. This was inevitable given the JIB’s attitude to site agreements. The PIB report records:
’The JIB is hostile to the whole concept of site agreements and claims that they are a threat, not only to their own agreement, but to the national incomes policy and good industrial relations.’ 
This attitude has led to sparks being the lowest paid workers on many sites, and has caused strikes on many major sites.
Fresh impetus has been given to the fight against the JIB with the publication of the latest stage in a wages and conditions agreement. EPTU members are learning that the best way to win conditions and wages is to follow the building workers’ example and fight the bosses. But the battle will not be easy to win and must go hand in hand with a fight against the industrial policies of the union’s leadership.
It is difficult to say anything about EPTU without looking at the role of the CP. The ballot rigging trial had a traumatic effect on the party and has made members approach work in the union very cautiously. It is easy to see why they have adopted this line. When, after a ballot vote of the members, the CP was proscribed in the union, only one member, Bert Attwood – in line with party policy – gave up his union job. Many of Chapple’s right-hand men are ex-CP. But at the same time, many of the union’s best rank and file militants are party members, and they have – however cautiously – been in the forefront of the struggle to democratise the union.
They started the rank and file paper Flashlight and have attempted to co-ordinate opposition to the executive. However their general strategy has been to get left-wingers elected in the union, despite a number of cases in which their nominees have betrayed them and sided with the executive. Recently there has been some opposition to Flashlight’s views, particularly among younger party members. This came to a head when many of the older CP members wanted to support Eric Hammond in the election for general president. Hammond, an executive councillor, was elected on a left-wing ticket, but has since moved to the right, and is one of the leading supporters of the JIB on the executive. This was too much for many Flashlight members, who forced the paper, however reluctantly, to support the rank-and-file candidate, Fred Gore.
The party’s decision to withdraw from all union positions, including branch committees and shop steward’s positions, has also caused dissent, some of the younger CP stewards sticking to their posts. If all this internal debate makes Flashlight more militant it will be worthwhile. It may awaken the group to its real task: that of reaching the union members and convincing them that the Chapple leadership can in the long run only lead to a worsening of their conditions.
Chapple, at present, is quite secure in his power: his walk-out at the recall TUC conference is an indication of his confidence. He projects the image of a go-ahead union leader, backed by an increasing array of appointed specialists, and served by the union’s computer, all working in the interests of the membership. Flashlight if it really reached the membership can go some way towards smashing this image.
1. Prices and Incomes Board, Report No.120, Pay and Conditions in the Electrical Contracting Industry, p.8.
2. Ibid., p.13.
3. Ibid., p.45.
Last updated on 25.12.2007