Hundreds mark 50th anniversary of Belco strike
The Belco strike of 1965 was to change Bermuda forever — and last night 200 people gathered at the Bermuda Industrial Union’s headquarters to recall the turmoil that broke out on February 2, 1965.
Voices were heard from both sides of the clash between Police and demonstrators on a day when hundreds of picketers gathered outside the Serpentine Road premises of the Bermuda Electric Light Company.
Seventeen officers ended up in hospital, and any number of union supporters were injured, after weeks of industrial action, combined with racial and social tensions, erupted into violence.
“Fifty years and one week ago we were also here, on another business,” said former BIU general secretary Eugene Woods. “Last week there were adversaries, and this week we are celebrating.”
The strike of January, 1965, began after the BIU and Belco management disagreed over the right of electrical workers to hold a secret ballot on the question of union representation.
“The amount of racism that went on in Belco was unbelievable,” recalled union stalwart John Stovell, who at the time worked in the Belco garage.
“I was listening to it every day. When they had the theatre boycotts, all I heard was you couldn’t open up the restaurants and theatres because the tourists would stop coming.”
Mr Stovell, who began working for the power company at the age of 14, recalled joining the BIU on April 4, 1964, outraged that Barbara Ball — a white physician who had swiftly become the secretary general of the BIU — had been blocked from seeing her patients at the hospital.
Bermuda has come far since the “stone age conditions” endured by workers in the early 1960s, former BIU president Ottiwell Simmons told the crowd.
Workers from overseas enjoyed unfair advantages, while mainly black Bermudian workers were denied proper pensions, vacations, maternity leave and other benefits now taken for granted.
“I would say this strike was, in a sense, very, very, very unnecessary,” he said. “The Front Street boys did not want to give in to Dr Ball and friends. That’s the truth, and that cannot be denied.”
Faced with the entrenched resistance of the Island’s oligarchy, however, “on that day, the union made up its mind”.
Congeniality had predominated in the build-up to February 2. Mr Simmons said: “Our members were well schooled in non-violence; we were peacefully and lawfully picketing.”
Belco workers at the time had been divided between “inside” and “outside”, with some 97 “outsider” industrial workers. The BIU had begun to organise the outsider workers in late 1964, Mr Simmons said — workers who had to climb poles and dig trenches in notoriously dangerous conditions.
“In the final analysis, the company chose to resist the strike in the expectation and hope to bust the BIU, rather than accept the well established legal procedure known as the secret ballot.”
The strike was officially declared on January 19, 1965. It turned out to be one of Bermuda’s most serious and sustained disputes.
Scuffles broke out on February 2 as the lines of picketers slowed. Frustrations began to boil as Police told demonstrators to allow white-collar staff through.
Police began pushing picketers, Mr Simmons said, and he had been informed that Police had planned the day before to send a riot squad.
As picketers and Police clashed, Mr Simmons recalled riot police arriving at the plant’s western gate, firing tear gas canisters. In the ensuing chaos, union members rallied to retreat to the Devonshire Recreation Club.
“The so-called Front Street boys, the 40 Thieves, the Establishment — these are the people who refused the Belco workers the right to join an independent union of their choice,” Mr Simmons said, adding that the innocent were sent to jail while the guilty “set themselves free”. Four members of the BIU were imprisoned.
Andrew Bermingham, then a 23-year-old PC, told the meeting he was still haunted by the clash whenever he passed the junction of Rosemont Avenue and Serpentine Road. He had been trying to help a car get past picketers when “a couple of hangers-on decided to get involved”. Golf clubs and other weapons were produced. “I was on my own, frightened to death,” Mr Bermingham said.
Knocked unconscious, he struggled back to his police vehicle, and realised another officer, PC Ian Davies, had been beaten to the ground and had serious head injuries.
Police retreated to their Prospect headquarters, and initially feared demonstrators would try to storm the facility.
Another officer from that day, Wentworth Christopher, told of the political oppression prevalent at the time: “If you did not behave, your mortgage could be called back.
“You could lose your job and you had no prospect of advancement. It was a horrible situation.”
He called for criminal records to be cleared for those imprisoned after the strike.
Retired Police Inspector Roger Sherratt said he had been a young and green PC new to Bermuda, but recalled with pride that his father had been a unionised coal miner.Arriving at the scene on February 2, he recalled that some in the crowd were armed with golf clubs and sticks, “These were not the picketers,” he said.
When the forum opened to the audience, former carpenter Myron Woolridge drew laughter when he recalled being pressed into the throng at Belco instead of going to work.
He appeared at the scene with his tools, and set to work on the oleander hedge nearby.
“Some of you guys may want to know where those clubs came from,” he said. “I helped supply them.”
Sheridan Ming recalled how his father, Vivian Ming, had been reluctant to speak about his imprisonment with other BIU members, and had to change his name to escape job discrimination. Mr Ming remembered Police stopping a passing mason in his car after the strike, and intimidating him to tears, leaving his tools strewn on the ground.
Another officer, also called Eugene Woods, had “helter-skelter” memories of the chaos after being struck on the head by a mayonnaise jar.
“We are in another transition in Bermuda now,” Mr Woods said. “Where it’s going to take us, I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s going to take us 50 years.”
CedarBridge Academy S1 drama students Chennin Fray-Waldron, Ashley Smith, Sebastian Knox, Camryan Marsh and Rayann Burrows, led by teacher Patricia Pogson-Nesbitt, closed the event with re-enactments from February 2, bringing the audience to their feet with a rendition of We Shall Overcome.