The History of GMB

1889: The Birth of a Union

Asked why he had dedicated his life to the labour and trade union movement GMB founder Will Thorne explained, "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." These principles guide GMB today.


The union began as the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, which was formed in March 1889 in East London by one of the greatest pioneers of the Labour movement, Will Thorne.

A resolution was passed in favour of a gas workers' union being formed, with the 8 hour day as one of its objects… Sunday morning March 31st 1889- a lovely sunny morning - was the birthday of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers.

GMB as it is today is the result of mergers and amalgamations of unions throughout the last century but mainly in the last 30 years.Its first battle in spring 1889 ended with the birth of the 8 hour working day. This set the goal for all working people who until then toiled for 12 hours a day.

Founder Will Thorne was born in Birmingham in 1857. He lived in great poverty and began his working life in a brickworks at the age of 6.

"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.

Building a better world

GMB has its origins in the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union which was formed in 1889 by Will Thorne. Following the success of the Union's first battle in the campaign on working hours, workers flocked to join the new union and by 1911 its members numbered 77,000.

Also in 1889, on Tyneside, the National Amalgamated Union of Labour was formed and organised in the shipbuilding industry.

Together with the Municipal Employees Association and the National Federation of Women Workers, the four unions came together in 1924 to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. At that stage there were 359,000 members and although this figure dropped in the 1930s it picked up again in the war and during the years of full employment consensus.

In 1982 the philosophies of general unionism and skilled craft unionism were brought together when the Amalgamated Society of BoilermakersShipwrights, Blacksmiths and Structural Workers (ASBSBSW) joined the General and Municipal Workers' Union to form the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union, (GMBATU).

APEX the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff was founded in 1890 when about a dozen men met in an office in the Strand and decided to form the Clerk's Union. As membership increased and spread across the country, the name was changed to The National Union of Clerks. In 1920, after rapid growth and the absorption of a number of other unions, the membership figure was around 40,000 and the name was again changed to The National Union of Clerks and Administrative Workers (NUCAW).

In 1940, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries transferred to NUCAW and a new title was agreed: The Clerical and Administrative Workers Union. Then, in 1972, arising from the spread of the union's influence, changes in office skills and the growing ability of the union to represent staff at all levels, it changed its title to the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff (APEX) and they joined GMB in 1989.

APEX accepted the Transfer of Engagements of the Automobile Association Staff and the General Accident Staff. Since the amalgamation, the Greater London Staff Association, who earlier transferred to GMB, joined the APEX Partnership and the National Union of Labour Organisers and Legal Aid Staff Association also transferred to APEX.

NUTGW the National Union of Tailors & Garment Workers joined the GMB in 1991.It is known that a union existed amongst London tailors as long ago as 1417 but records only date back to the 19th Century.

At the time of the merger in 1991, the NUTGW had over 70,000 members and was itself the result of many amalgamations.

These unions formed the United Garment Workers' Union in 1912. 

In 1931 the unions formed the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers and were joined by the United Ladies Tailors (London) and Waterproof Garment Workers' Union.

FTAT the Furniture, Timber, and Allied Trades Union merged with the GMB in 1993. FTAT can trace its origin back to 1747 and the formation of the National Society of Brushmakers and General Workers. The Union can therefore lay claim to being the oldest in the world.

At the end of the 19th century, three major unions existed in the furniture and upholstery trades: the Alliance Cabinet Makers, the United Operative Cabinet and Chairmakers' Society of Scotland and the Amalgamated Union of Upholsterers (AUU). A series of mergers culminated in the formation of the National Union of Furniture Trade Operatives (NUFTO) in 1947.

In 1971 NUFTO merged with the Amalgamated Society of Woodcutting Machinists to form FTAT.

The latest union to join the fold is the Managerial and Professional Officers a Local Government union comprising 8,000 principal officers and second tier officers. Altogether over 100 smaller unions have joined together to form the modern GMB - Britain's General Union.

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

A Union for equality and justice 

Eleanor Marx, co-founder of our union



At the heart of building our union was our co-founder Eleanor Marx, a socialist trade union activist and daughter of Karl Marx.

Eleanor was at the forefront of the campaign for the eight hour working day which created the union and was unanimously elected to the union’s Executive in 1889, attending every meeting without fail and speaking to members and public meetings up and down the country. She was responsible for writing the union’s first rule book as well as forming the first Women’s Branch of the union.

A significant industrial and political figure in her own right, Eleanor consistently fought for both economic and gender equality in both her own activities and as a highly effective activist and administrator in the early years of the union.

With a lifelong friendship based upon shared ideals and practical common goals, Eleanor Marx would not only teach Will Thorne to read and write but also become his most significant political mentor - cementing the union’s commitment to transforming society so that it runs in the interests of working people.

Eleanor Marx was the first of many women whose beliefs and achievements in bettering the lives of working people run through GMB's history, a union that today proudly has a membership of which over 50% of are women. GMB celebrates the acheivements of Eleanor Marx with events in January each year.


GMB General Secretaries

Will Thorne
1889 - 1933
Charles Dukes
1934 - 1946
Tom Williamson
1946 - 1961
Jack Cooper
1962 - 1973
David Basnett
1973 - 1985
John Edmonds
1986 - 2003
Kevin Curran
2004 - 2005
Paul Kenny
2005 - 2015
Tim Roache
2015 - 2020
Gary Smith
2021 - Present

GMB, 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.

2019 will bring many challenges, there always have been for our movement. 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. When you’re a member of GMB, you’re part of a family that will always stand up for you.

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 organsiers’ (like the sound of that and want to get more involved? Click here.)

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



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