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Towards general unions

General unions sought to organise and represent the unskilled and semi-skilled workers and only came into being at the end of the 19th century with Will Thorne’s Gasworkers and General Labourers Union, founded in 1889.  Following the success of that union's first battle in the campaign on working hours, workers were keen to join and by 1911 its members numbered 77,000.  The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) was founded in 1922.

National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers emblemHistorically there was a big difference in terms of impact and influence between general unions and ‘craft’ unions - between the likes of the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) and the TGWU on the one hand, and craft unions like the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and the Boilermakers on the other.  It is significant that today the craft unions have been absorbed into the body of the general unions such as GMB and Unite.

The time-served skilled workers jealously guarded their privileged status both in terms of pay differentials and in terms of what jobs could only be done by skilled workers. There was also a gender dimension to that privilege. Women were only admitted into the AEU in 1943 - a decision taken during wartime, known as 'dilution' and seen as a temporary measure but one which was never rescinded. In the GMWU women were admitted in 1906 when the National Federation of Women Workers merged with the GMWU.

In 1927 Margaret Bondfield, trade unionist and later the first female cabinet minister, said: ‘Our union is unique in its special provisions to enable the women members to retain their membership after marriage.’


Resources in the Library relating to general unions:

National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers

  • Minute book of the Amalgamated Association of Gas Workers of the United Kingdom 1887-1888 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Minute book 31 March 1889-March 1892 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Reports and minutes of the Executive Committee 1889-1924 - Shelfmark: C53
  • Barking Branch minute books, 1903-1906, 1912-1913, 1915-16 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Bromley East Branch minute book, 9 Aug 1894-14 Mar 1898 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Nottingham Branch minute books, 1889-1929 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Reading Branch minute book, 5 Jul 1910-22 Jun 1914 - Shelfmark: C59
  • Leeds District minute book, 3 Jul 1893-1 Oct 1931 - Shelfmark: C59


  • National Union of General Workers Journal (Oct 1920-Jun 1924) - Shelfmark: C57
  • National Union of General and Municipal Workers Journal (Jul 1924-Nov/Dec 1926, Jul 1938-Sep 1963, Nov 1963-Jan 1966) - Shelfmark: C57
  • General and Municipal Workers' Union Journal (Jan/Feb 1927-Jun 1938, Feb 1966-Nov 1971) - Shelfmark: C57 and C58
  • GMW Journal (Dec 1971-Nov/Dec 1982) - Shelfmark: C58
  • GMB Journal (Dec 1982/Jan 1983-Mar 1988) - Shelfmark: C58
  • GMB Working Together (1988-1991, incomplete) - Shelfmark AF GMB Periodicals A-Z
  • GMB Direct (Feb 1992-Jul/Aug 1997) - Shelfmark: AF GMB Periodicals A-Z

National Union of General and Municipal Workers, 1889-1949: with the compliments of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers - celebrating its sixtieth anniversary (48 songs) (ca. 1949) - Shelfmark: AG Workers' Music Association Box 1

National Union of General and Municipal Workers, Fifty years of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (1939) - Shelfmark: B34

HA Clegg, General Union: a study of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (1954) - Shelfmark: B30

The Library also holds reports, minutes and balance sheets for the various incarnations of the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) for 1924-1979, along with branch minutes for Birchover, Bolton, Brassington, Buxton and Jarrow and district minutes for Liverpool and North Wales, Midland and East Coast, and Sheffield.

Click here to search the catalogue for more material, including various histories of the GMWU