Eric Hobsbawm and other labour historians identified many limitations in the writing of trade-union histories. One was the concentration on single unions, when most operated in a multi-union environment. Others included a tendency to write a chronicle, not a history, and reluctance to criticize recent or current union leaders (particularly in a commissioned history).
Steve Williams and Bob Fryer admit that their (1928–93) account of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) relies on union archives and is a ‘somewhat “top-down” history’. They highlight the role of Bryn Roberts (1934–62) as general secretary in building the union, creating a ‘popular bossdom’ before a ‘sponsored democratization’ took place in the 1970s. The authors’ view of NUPE as a ‘family’ and their narrative of progressive national leadership from 1968 sit uneasily with the serious democratic deficit in the under-representation of women in this majority-female union. Their mainly chronological focus does not develop the critical role of (usually male) branch secretaries’ vested interests or the significance of generally appointing full-time officers externally in this overwhelmingly manual union.