Erik Rechnitz (right) jokingly tests the metal of his union Gold Badge, presented by Ron Todd, the then T&G General Secretary.
Known mainly as a leading member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Rechnitz was a long time member of the Communist Party. A Smithfield meat porter, he had once been a professional wrestler. Rechnitz was a dogged debater, often shrouded in clouds of smoke from the pipe typically clenched between his teeth.
Born on February 4th 1915 in Highbury, north London, Rechnitz was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire who arrived in England just two years before the outbreak of the first world war. His father went on to practice as a dentist in the East End. Erik, meanwhile, was educated at local schools in Stoke Newington and, as an 11-year-old, was fund-raising for workers during the 1926 General Strike.
After leaving school, he began training as a metallurgist. However, after the factory where he worked closed, he entered, in 1930, the industry that was to be his life – meat haulage at Smithfield, where he entered as an `offal boy’. Two years later he was in the TGWU. After a time in the Independent Labour Party, he joined the CPGB in 1932 and remained committed throughout his life, joining the CPB. He volunteered for the International Brigade but was not allowed to go as he was the sole family breadwinner.
In the 1930s he dabbled in amateur wrestling as a light-heavyweight and made the Olympic trials. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the `Battling Hungarian’ made professional wrestling appearances. In the second world war, Rechnitz served in the South Wales Borderers, and later with the Parachute Regiment, training as a driver and mechanic. He served in Europe and the Far East.
Back in Smithfield he became a "puller-back" and later a driver. He was active in the TGWU through the years that its general secretary was the vicious right-winger ,Arthur Deakin (1946-55). Although, in common with all Communist Party members, he was unable to hold official office Rechnitz was a key behind the scenes figure both in Smithfield and in the wider union. For example, he was closely involved in the 1958 nine-week strike at Smithfield markets, which involved 58,000 workers.
After the bans on Communists holding office were lifted, he was became a senior lay representative in the T&G. He was at the centre of the 1972 `Pentonville Five’ affair, Chairman of the T&G’s Region 1 (London and the South East) Regional Road Transport Commercial (RTC) trade group committee and the national RTC representative to the TGWU’s general executive council from 1968.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Rechnitz was Chair of the influential ‘Transport Advisory’ of the CPGB, its T&G fraction. In the 1980s, he was presented with the T&G’s gold medal, its highest award, by the then General Secretary, Ron Todd. Rechnitz promptly bit on it – he was checking the gold content, he said! He was a long-standing member of Hackney Trades Council, receiving honorary life-membership in 1994. He was its President for along time until the year before he died, on March 16th 2001, aged 86.
Sources: Morning Star 20th March 2001, Guardian 24th May 2001