GMB Union - About

GMB Union
Proud past, bright future

GMB is a membership-based organisation that campaigns for and protects GMB members rights at work.

Our union was founded to fight for fairness and justice for working people.

130 years on, we're continuing to fight tirelessly to defend our members in a changing world of work, building a 21st Century Union from the workplace up.

Whether its unscrupulous employers putting profit before the workers who make them, or governments that attack workers' rights and our ability to stand together as a union, GMB doesn't shy away from these challenges.

We have tens of thousands of highly trained staff and activists who understand exactly what rights you have and what employers are allowed to do.

We train our people in employment law, health and safety and how to represent people in disciplinary processes so that whenever there is a problem, someone has your back. Those activists are commonly referred to as ‘Reps’ or ‘workplace organisers’.

GMB is also a campaigning union, using every tool we have industrially and politically to advance our members' interests.

There is a world of freedom, beauty and equality to gain, where everyone will have an opportunity to express the best that is in them for the benefit of all, making the world a place more to our heart's desire and the better to dwell in.

Will Thorne

Founder of GMB.

The History of GMB Union

GMB Union has a proud history going back over 130 years. Learn more about the key points in our history.


The Beginning

Our union originated in the self-organising groups of workers toiling to feed the furnaces in the Beckton Gas Works, in East London. Founded in March 1889, it grew rapidly under the inspirational leadership of Will Thorne (1857-1946), to become a national union, winning a series of disputes in 1889 and gaining concessions on pay, conditions, and the introduction of the Eight Hour Day for its members.

The union succeeded, where earlier attempts at working-class organisation had failed, because it was conceived as a general union: open to all grades, trades, and professions, and to women on an equal basis as men. As a result, it was an agile, militant, and highly successful force in industrial politics.

Will Thorne, founder of GMB

The Battle of Wortley Bridge

However, it was not long before the employers launched a major counterattack. Using lock-outs, strike-breakers, the black list, and a politicised police force, they smashed the union’s organisation in Vauxhall, Woolwich, and Manchester. With the union’s resources depleted through the cost of strike-pay, everything hung upon the dispute that had broken out in Leeds, at the beginning of July 1890.

Threatened with the sack if they did not leave the union, the workforce waged an effective campaign against dismissal that culminated in the Battle of Wortley Bridge. Scattering a force of regular soldiers, policemen and strike-breakers; Thorne and the Leeds gasworkers won a stunning victory and, effectively, saved the union.


A Young Union

The young union was like no other. It invested in co-operative businesses, was avowedly political in its support of Socialism, through the Social Democratic Federation and the Labour Party, and internationalist in its outlook, supporting striking workers in Germany and in the USA.

Moreover, thanks to the presence of Eleanor Marx (1855-98) on its executive, from 1890-95, it was also profoundly and progressively Feminist. Eleanor founded the first women’s branch of the union, in October 1889, and helped to organise strikes of predominantly women workers at Northampton and Silvertown. Her early death robbed the union, and the international Socialist movement, of one of its brightest and best figures.

Eleanor Marx, co-founder of our union

Into the Twentieth Century

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, rising unemployment, born of trade depression and Britain’s declining share of world markets, became a real problem for the union. It countered with campaigns for welfare and social security; and through making strategic mergers with small, local, unions. A greater challenge was laid down by the Taff Vale Judgement of the courts, in 1901, which sought to strip away the unions’ political funds and functions.

The response of the trade unions was to seek political representation and power through the ballot box and to affiliate to, and fund, the Labour Party. The breakthrough came at the 1906 General Election, when 29 Labour MPs (including Will Thorne and J.R. Clynes) were elected to Parliament.



The policy of amalgamation, in order to create a single general union, was vigorously pursued from 1905, onwards, and resulted in mergers with the Municipal Employees’ Association and the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, in 1924. However, while this strategy ensured that membership numbers remained buoyant, it served to water-down the union’s militancy and political vision.

At the 1908 and 1910 conferences, J.R. Clynes, as President, broke the union’s grassroots and was able to institute an increasingly hierarchical and bureaucratised administration. From then on, until his retirement in 1934, Will Thorne, as General Secretary, became increasingly isolated and a figurehead. The reorganisation of the union in 1936-38, inspired by Clynes but carried through by the new General Secretary, Charles Dukes, limited democracy and centred power upon the regional secretaries and a newly appointed officer corps.


The Rise of Fascism

The warnings about the rise of Fascism, both at home and abroad, featured in the union’s journal from the start of the 1930s, while Will Thorne wrote one of his best and most impassioned articles about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), in 1935, and the use of poison gas against tribes’ folk.

However, it took a rank-and-file member, Henry Fair (1907-1999) to take direct action against the Fascist terror. He was a key figure in the organisation of the Kindertransport, which sought to rescue children from Jewish, Socialist, and trade union backgrounds, from death at the hands of the authorities in Germany, Austria, and occupied Czechoslovakia. At Liege, in 1939, he hid two Czech children among a party of British youngsters and, avoiding Gestapo agents who had been sent to abduct them, spirited them across the Channel to safety.


The Second World War

Dennis Donnini (1925-1945) was another ordinary, yet thoroughly extraordinary, union member who translated his ideals into action. The son of an Italian immigrant, he left school at 16 and went to work as a junior packer in a cable company, and became an active member of the Birtley Branch, in County Durham.

Called-up for active service, in 1944, he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers. On 18 January 1945, he rescued a wounded a wounded comrade during a firefight with Nazi soldiers entrench in the village of Stein, on the border of Holland and Germany. He then went back into the fight and continued to man his Bren gun until he was killed. At just 19 years old, he was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross. The official citation recorded, ‘the dash, determination, and magnificent courage of Fusilier Donnini [which enabled his companions to overcome an entrenched enemy twice their own strength’.


How We Work

We’ve been around for over 130 years, and one fact that has remained throughout that time is that GMB is run by members for members.

GMB is your union. Our structures, staff and resources are there to support members to organise in your own workplaces - you know best what needs to change and why.

Join us and become a GMB
member today.