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What is a union?


A trade union is an organisation with members who are usually workers or employees. It looks after their interests at work by doing things like:

  • negotiating agreements with employers on pay and conditions

  • discussing big changes like large scale redundancy

  • discussing members’ concerns with employers

  • going with members to disciplinary and grievance meetings

Cheering Crowd

Unions make sure that workplaces are safe and that people’s health is not being put at risk through their jobs. It also means legal protection – trade unions usually employ lawyers to make sure that companies and organisations treat their staff in accordance with the law.

If a single member of staff approaches management because they feel they should be paid more, they are much less likely to be successful than if every member of staff speaks as one through their trade union.


Trade unions collectively negotiate better pay and conditions on behalf of their members and, statistically, union members earn more than non-union members.

A history of Unite the union

The history of the union movement has been punctuated by mergers in which smaller and more specialised unions come together to combine their resources and increase their bargaining power and collective strength. The merger between the AEEU and MSF created Amicus, which was followed by mergers with Unifi and the GPMU. In 2007, Amicus merged with the Transport and Workers Union to form Unite the Union. 


History of Amicus 

Amicus, from the Latin meaning friend or comrade, was created by the merger of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) union and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) in 2001.

The first Joint General Secretaries were Ken Jackson from the AEEU and Roger Lyons from MSF. Ken Jackson was replaced by Derek Simpson in 2003 and Derek Simpson became the General Secretary of Amicus following the departure of Roger Lyons.

In 2004 both the Union for the Finance Industry (UNIFI) and Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) merged with Amicus.

In May 2007, Amicus merged with the Transport and General Workers Union to form Unite the Union.


History of T&GWU 

The Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) was founded in 1922 but its roots go back to the earliest days of trade unionism in Britain. It was formed by 14 small trade unions in the dock, road transport and inland waterway industries coming together to create one big union to serve 350,000 workers.

History of AEEU 

The AEEU was formed in 1992 from the merger of the EETPU and the AEU.

The EETPU itself was the result of a merger of two unions the ETU (electricians) and the PTU (plumbers). The PTU was originally formed in 1865. This was followed soon after by the formation of the ETU in 1868, after the Amalgamated Society of Engineers refused membership to electricians.

The inter-war years saw both unions making important industrial relations inroads, including the signing of the first national agreement on electrical contracting and the strengthening of ties with other building unions through the national wages and conditions council.

The merger of the ETU and the PTU was officially agreed in 1968. Important changes were made before this went ahead to prevent the kind of abuses and ballot rigging of which the ETU Communists were found guilty in 1961 and to ensure that the unions were truly democratic.

In 1971, the Electrical and Engineering Staff Association (EESA) was created as the white-collar section of the union. By 1989 a number of other professional associations had joined the union. They reorganised themselves under an umbrella organisation known as the Federation of Professional Associations. 

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was formed in 1852. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had nearly 90,000 members. A head office was established in Peckham, South London and these premises remained the headquarters of the ASE until the merger with the EETPU in 1992. 

In July 1920 the ASE and nine other unions merged to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). The demand for armaments during the Second World War led to a rapid expansion of the engineering industry. This involved the widespread employment of women, who were finally admitted to the Union in 1943. 

Foundry workers joined the AEU in 1967, followed by draughtsmen and construction engineers. In 1971 the federation became known as the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

History of MSF 

The MSF was formed in 1988 from the merger of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) and the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs (TASS). 

The membership of the two unions complemented each other. TASS's members were skilled and professional staff employed mainly in the engineering industry, while ASTMS had developed into a white-collar union with members in all sectors of industry and services. 

TASS had its origins in the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen, founded in 1913. It later became the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Union (DATA). 

In the 1970s TASS operated within a federal structure as the white-collar section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW). A plan to form one engineering union based upon the AUEW did not succeed, and TASS discontinued its links with the other AEUW unions.

During the 1980s five craft unions merged with TASS. These unions are the basis of MSF's craft sector. Two of these unions were among the oldest established unions in Britain. One, the Tobacco Workers Union, had been founded in 1834. The National Union of Sheetmetal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers traced its history back to the medieval guilds of coppersmiths and braziers and the seventeenth-century tin plate workers organisations.


The ASTMS was created by a merger in 1969. The larger of the two unions involved was the Association of Supervisory Staff, Executives and Technicians (ASSET). ASSET began as the National Foremen's Association and mainly represented supervisory staff in the metalworking and transport industries. 

The other union involved in the merger was the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW). Their members included technicians and laboratory staff, not only in metalworking industries but also in chemicals, universities and the health service. AScW's public sector membership was the origin of Amicus MSF's important membership in the health service.

ASTMS grew phenomenally, expanding rapidly into new areas of industry and services. A particularly significant development began with the merger of the Prudential Assurance Staff Associations. This was followed by other staff organisations in the insurance industry including the Union of Insurance Staffs. During its existence, over thirty different organisations merged with ASTMS. 


History of GPMU 

There has been over 200 years of union organisation in the printing and papermaking industries, since the days when bookbinders (who eventually formed Society of Graphical and Allied Trades) and compositors (later, key members of the National Graphical Association), first began their campaigns for justice in the printing industry in the 18 century.

Two officials of the Manchester-based compositors union, the Typographical Association were instrumental in forming the TUC. Acting in their roles as President and Secretary of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, Mr. H. Wood and Mr. S. Nicholson initiated the holding of the first Trades Union Congress in 1868. Print workers were also involved in the establishment of the Labour Party. In addition, print workers were in the vanguard of industrial action in the newspaper industry during the 1926 General Strike.

Print and paper workers were the first group of manual workers to achieve the 40-hour working week, after a six-week strike in 1959. they went on to secure the 37.5-hour week across a whole printing industry in 1980 and five weeks of annual holiday in 1986. The printing and paper industries are one of the few sectors in manufacturing where members are covered by national pay and conditions agreements with employers organisations across the UK, Scotland and Ireland.

There were many skilled and specialist unions in the print and paper industries, most merging with the NGA and Sogat in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1991 the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU), was formed by the merger of Sogat and NGA, representing workers in print, paper and the media throughout the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The GPMU represented and negotiated wages and employment conditions for employees in all the industries connected with printing, packaging, newspapers paper and board manufacture, publishing and media services:

  • Graphic design

  • Electronic pre-press and reproduction

  • Printing in all sectors

  • Bookbinding

  • Print finishing

  • Ink and roller manufacture

  • Warehousing and newspaper distribution

  • Advertising and sales

  • Electronic communications and media services


The GPMU represented workers in all employment situations in production, clerical, sales, technical and supervisory areas. Students in full-time education on graphical, media or communication studies were also able to join the GPMU.

Even during the dark and difficult industrial relations climate of the Tory governments of the last two decades, which included some notable industrial disputes, with the collective strength and fortitude of the GPMU had notable achievements including maintaining national agreements, playing prominent role in the TUC, Labour Party, in Europe and the wider international trade union movement.

During 2004, GPMU members voted to merge with Amicus becoming the Amicus GPM Sector and helping to create the biggest private sector union in the UK.

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