Bill Gilbey was born in Winnipeg to middle-class, conservative parents who taught him from an early age that hard work, honesty and perseverance were the means to success. However, the family was hit hard by the coming of the Great Depression, and a search for answers led to Bill becoming a lifelong Communist. He was later to comment, “I knew that all the things happening to people during the thirties, the hunger, the unemployment, the arrests and deportations were not an accident of history; they were the consequence of the deliberate actions of a small group of people.”
Bill's first union-related job was also during the early Depression years. He worked with the Workers' Unity League organizing a number of trade unions, and was also instrumental in the formation of the Relief Camp Workers' Union (RCWU). The relief camps had been created by the Bennett government as a means of controlling an estimated 70,000 young unemployed men in Canada. Conditions within the camps were very bad, and it was the intent of the RCWU to improve them.
In 1939 Gilbey returned to Winnipeg and became involved with organizing the needle trades (sometimes known as the garment industry) in that city. He joined the Canadian military in World War II, but after the war he returned to Winnipeg, taking on a temporary job as representative and organizer for a small local of retail clerks. A year later, he returned to the needle trades. As was frequently the case with union activists during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bill and his wife Anne became targets for the prevailing anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. In Gilbey's words, they survived the period “bloodied but unbroken.” Unfortunately, the public fear during the McCarthy era severely limited the ability of union activists to do any serious organizing. Gilbey therefore had to be content with doing his job as a cutter in the needle trades. However, in 1958, a chance meeting with two friends who were employed by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) led to Bill's appointment to the position of executive secretary for the largest local of the OCAW in Saskatchewan.
Gilbey remained with the OCAW for nine years. During this time he was also elected president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and held the position of vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress. He later moved to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. In 1967, he joined the Grain Services Union, holding the position of secretary-general manager until his retirement in 1973. One of Gilbey's principal areas of interest was occupational health and safety. He was successful in having the Workers' Compensation Board recognize the dangers of grain dust to worker's lungs as a compensable industrial disease. His position on the issue of grain dust is described in his book Grain Handling: Dollars versus Health and Safety.