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Frank Haxell was General Secretary of the 200,000 strong Electrical Trade Union in the 1950s. He was born in 1912 and joined the ETU in 1929.
A Communist Party member from 1935, he was banned from holding office in the union for five years in 1939 for supporting an unofficial strike of electricians in
With other Party members he had played a leading role in turning the ETU to the left, smashing a 1950-1951 wages freeze and building successful guerrilla strikes across the contracting industry in 1953-4. This made him a special hate figure for the media which mounted a vicious campaign against him personally.
From 1945, all three leading officials were Communists. The President was Frank Foulkes (born c1905). As Assistant Secretary in the early 1950s, Frank Haxell was a key force. By the latter part of the decade, he was ETU General Secretary and also a member of the Communist Party’s Executive.
Haxell played a leading role in turning the ETU to the left, and was instrumental in smashing a 1950-1951 wages freeze. The combination of Haxell and Foulkes was too much for some. The huge British Electricity Authority employed the vast majority of the electricians in
Foulkes also led a major dispute in the contracting industry in 1954 that brought him to international attention. For two weeks a guerrilla campaign ensued; then 35,000 employees of private contractors were brought out for a one-day strike, halting some construction work (among other things) at six of Britain's eight atomic establishments. Employers retaliated by giving every striker a "one-day unpaid unholiday" the following day, effectively locking them out. In return, Foulkes called out 7.000 electricians in the
By the time Haxell was General Secretary, the ETU had grown to 240,000 members. The aftermath of the events in 1956 saw a leading member of the Communist Party, Les Cannon (1920-1970), leave and turn into a rabid anti-communist. As a Communist activist he had been elected a member of the ETU Executive Council, representing North Lancashire and Merseyside, from 1948-1954.
The debarring of Cannon for breach of internal procedures as a delegate to the TUC congress in 1958 led to an unseemly row. A Labour MP, Walter Padley [then President of USDAW and later a Foreign Office minister], jumped to the rostrum to demand a debate on this internal matter of the ETU, causing uproar. Cannon had been placed in the visitors' gallery, Foulkes explained that this was not a matter for congress but the ETU, which could accredited whoever it wished or did not wish: "I don't like Walter Padley, but I don't try to stop his union sending him here."
left: Haxell in 1959
The TUC President, Tom Yates, tacitly endorsed Foulkes's position and moved the business on but, Padley having placed the issue in a public place, the media fanned debate about the supposedly iron control of Communists in the ETU. The supposedly liberal newspaper the Guardian even suggested a tightening of the rules banning Communists from office so that no affiliate could send delegates who were members to Congress. It wondered why union should be “expected to put up with Communists as a matter of political course?"
Cannon now claimed to have uncovered a ballot rigging scandal in the ETU and he and Frank Chapple, also an ex-Party member now moved into a full-scale campaign to capture the union, using anti-communism as their unique selling proposition and gaining a great deal of mainstream media backing in the process. Both men teamed up with Jock Byrne (who had the total backing of Catholic Action) and another former Communist, Mark Young. Each was able to travel up and down the country on this `work’ due to financial aid from a group of Catholic businessmen and from the Moral Rearmament Movement. Les Cannon was even given a year's leave of absence on full pay by his employer.
Woodrow Wyatt MP, who had already been much to the fore in anti-communist crusades made allegations of corruption in an article in a magazine and the rest of the media pack followed. Wyatt took part in a series of BBC Panorama programmes on the ETU, and this was followed by further allegation in the New Statesman.
The TUC was drawn into the controversy, and demanded an explanation from the ETU leaders. An internal ETU enquiry exonerated the union from allegations of malpractice. However, Byrne and Chapple issued writs against the union for alleged fraud and the case was heard by Lord Justice Winn.
In June 1961, the Courts found that a group of ETU leaders, including Frank Foulkes and Frank Haxell, had acted to prevent Byrne's election by "fraudulent and unlawful" means. The judge pronounced Byrne duly elected general secretary of the ETU with immediate effect and Haxell was removed from office and expelled from the union. Even so, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to satisfactorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible. To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party.
Arising from the legal judgement, the TUC obliged the ETU to debar its existing officer-holders for five years. A refusal to do so resulted in the ETU being expelled from the TUC and then the Labour Party. In the ensuing witch-hunt, most of the Communists and any supporters were soon removed from the leadership in the union executive elections. These were conducted under new procedures and with massive media support, which saw the hard right win nine out of eleven places on the executive.
Byrne became general secretary and Cannon became President (from 1963 to 1970). Chapple became a member of the EC (he later became General Secretary) and Young was given a full-time position. The rules of the ETU were then changed, banning Communists from holding office. From here on the ETU became a by-word for right-wing manipulation and control, edging ever closer to employers, engaging in activity that undermined other trade unions for the next three decades and effectively abolishing lay member control.
Even so, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to satisfactorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible. To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party.
As for Frank Haxell, he finished his working life as he had started it, as an electrician and continued to support progressive activities within his union, despite the increasingly authoritarian grip of the right wing. He died at the age of 77 in 1988, protesting his innocence to the last.
[Sources: Time Magazine February 1st 1954; September 15th 1958; Morning Star 27th May 1988]