The General Workers' Union (GWU) was officially founded on 5 October 1943. It is the largest trade union in Malta and its foundation date is celebrated until today as Union Day. The GWU's strength lies in its diverse membership coming from all the sectors of the Maltese economy. It organises in its folds more than 54 per cent of the organised labour force levelling 35 per cent of the gainfully occupied. This makes the GWU the powerful force it is today in the domestic industrial relations arena.
The GWU was born during the devastation of World War II at a time when Malta was a colony in the centre of the Mediterranean sea. For its goe-strategic position Malta served a useful military base for the British naval and airforce thus earning itself the title of 'island-fortress'.
The Second World War, naturally brought a relatively high level of employment mainly in the ship repair sector and other acillary sectors directly linked to the needs of the western military powers in the Mediterranean region.
This reality conditioned the Maltese workers to prosper in times of war and get poorer in times of peace. Such an odd and contrasting reality led the majority of the maltese workers to mobilize and to form a strong trade union to protect their jobs, improve their working and living conditions and to struggle for social justice.
Originally, the GWU found its roots towards the end of 1942 amongst the workers of the then British Admiralty Dockyard. Reggie Miller, a civilian clerks in the Drydocks, successfully convinced a small group of workers to set up a strong general union that would in the future leave its mark on the country’s recent history.
Reggie Miller's impact on them was immediate. Then after, Miller led the march towards the setting up of the GWU, thus making him the GWU's founding father. The first public meeting was held in March 1943 where a huge mass of workers presented themselves. From then on, an interim committee was appointed with the responsibility of drafting the Union's constitution (the Statute). Subsequently the draft constitution was read and elucidated to the workers in another mass activity held a few days later
At the same meeting Reggie Miller enthusiastically accepted the workers call to serve as the Union's first General Secretary. Upon establishing itself the newly GWU appointed leaders embarked on intensive campaign for membership. Therefore many more public meetings and conferences were organized around the Island. Naturally, similar activities were held also at various places of work fearing the hostility and antagonism of the employers. The first GWU members were initially enrolled on 1 July, 1943.
While still in an embryonic stage, on the 6 July 1943, the GWU combined its efforts with other organizations - mostly small groupings created for benevolent purposes - to submit to the British Government a memorandum encapsulating a number of long-standing demands, including a claim for an adequate rise in the workers’ wages and salaries.
The first unofficial strike took place on 24 August 1943, due to the stubborness of the Drydocks authorities to give in to the workers demands. In late September a wage increase was announced, however, short of the original demands the offer was immediately rejected by the workers' and their representatives. that was consequently followed by another strike action on 28 September of the same year.
The days following were characterised by the laying down of tools also by many other workers from the several British Defense establishments, in solidarity with their follow workers. The few existing unions, at that point in time abandoned their solidarity with the striking workers fearing the retaliation of the British military authorities on the Island, thus leave the GWU to carry the alone the brunt of the struggle till the end of the dispute.
At that time, when Britain was fiercly engaged at war with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, it was very obvious for the British to diplomatically and subtly control what comes out of the press, particularly those published in the English language. During that industrial relations instability, Miller and his colleagues were labelled as saboteurs and accused of agitating the workers for violence by their behaviour. However, such accusations proved futile and thus, on Tuesday 5 October 1943, the GWU was formally and officially baptised.
Since its inception in the war years the strove hard to improve and guarantee the working condition of the Maltese. For several decades through, the GWU not only to encouraged trade unionism in Malta, but also to fulfilled its responsibility for leading workers into the best future and quality of life. On the workers part, their unity within the folds of the GWU led to achieved a remarkable economic and social progress in all areas of employment and their socio-economic well-being.