When the times they were a-changin’

  • Defining moment: The pivotal Bermuda dock strike on September 16, 1959, nears its culmination

    Defining moment: The pivotal Bermuda dock strike on September 16, 1959, nears its culmination
    (Photograph courtesy of Bermuda Police Service)

Not too long ago in historical terms Bermuda really was another world, certainly when it came to its social and cultural development.

The Island’s political and civil arrangements were throwbacks to another era, with its affairs still largely in the hands of a patrician class which governed as a result of heritage, custom, tradition and, as they saw it, unassailable right.

Beginning in the immediate postwar era, though, this situation started to change. Far more rapidly than most had ever imagined possible.

The Island’s labour movement was largely responsible for providing the impetus for this far-reaching and consequential change.

This week marks both the celebration of Labour Day and the anniversary of an event which provided perhaps the decisive push to the course of events which forever changed Bermuda’s social and political realities.

So it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the fact the labour movement has never just been about improving the lot of working men and women in Bermuda; it’s always been about improving things for everyone.

The defeat of organised savagery in the Second World War and the increasing material and moral betterment provided by scientific, technological and cultural progress led to a new Springtime of the Peoples in the late 1940s.

Bermuda could simply no longer remain an outpost of fading Edwardian gentility and conventions — along with petrified socioeconomic conditions — in a period of accelerated, even breakneck, change throughout the Western world.

A handful of visionary individuals, including the transformational leader EF Gordon, inspired, motivated and led a nascent Bermuda labour movement.

By combining direct action on the local industrial and political fronts with appeals to the British sense of fairness and justice, they succeeded in inaugurating an entirely new era in the Island’s affairs.

In 1946, Dr Gordon had hand-delivered a petition organised by his Bermuda Workers Association to the Colonial Secretary in London protesting the Island’s prevailing economic and political conditions precisely to bring British pressure to bear on recalcitrant local officials.

He succeeded, prompting debates in both Parliament and the British national press on what were described as “the dangers of oligarchical government” in Bermuda.

Westminster demanded Bermuda’s legislature give its “earnest consideration” to concerns highlighted by the petition and so a fits-and-starts process of reform belatedly got under way.

Even this initially slow pace of change was satisfactory to Dr Gordon and others in the vanguard of Bermuda’s labour movement. For they realised once reformist passions and energies had been unleashed here, they would eventually gather an irresistible momentum of their own: a momentum the Island’s archaic institutions and practices could not long withstand.

Although commonly described as oligarchic, the Bermuda aristocracy’s obsolete credos actually hearkened back to the even earlier feudal model.

Bermuda’s elite did possess a certain wonky sense of noblesse oblige, a recognition of the social responsibilities entailed by wealth and privilege.

But such a paternalistic system — based on the patrician class performing public service in exchange for a near-monopoly on political and economic power and unquestioning obedience from working Bermudians — was dangerously at odds with the values of an era animated by the spirit of individual liberty, egalitarianism and social justice.

There were those in the patrician class who, of course, recognised the old order was doomed. Some were guided by altruism, others by pragmatism, a few by mercenary self-interest. But by working together they were able to defang and declaw the diehards in their ranks, those so intent on making peaceful evolution impossible in Bermuda they would almost certainly have made violent revolution inevitable at some point. What was perhaps the conclusive encounter between the forces of liberalisation and the forces of reaction took place 56 years ago this month on Front Street.

A dockworkers’ strike culminated in a stand-off between hundreds of striking longshoremen and their supporters and police.

It was a moment heavily freighted with both significance and symbolism as a nervous magistrate read the Riot Act to strikers from the veranda of the Island’s flagship department store, a Hamilton institution synonymous with the power and once unchallengeable primacy of the merchant aristocracy.

Wholesale violence was only narrowly avoided that day due to some hurried backstairs negotiations between strike leaders and reformist elements in the political and business establishment.

Although a serious confrontation was averted, nonetheless an entrenched aristocratic system predicated on paternalism, patronage and racism met its Waterloo that day.

On September 16, 1959, a labour movement as intent on democratising the wider society as the workplace won, largely through non-violent resistance, what history would judge to be not just a pivotal battle but the actual war.

Coming just three months after the equally momentous Theatre Boycott ended officially sanctioned racial segregation in public places, the outcome of the dock strike both reinforced and expanded upon that earlier victory for progress, reason and human dignity. It assured nothing would ever quite be the same in Bermuda again.

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Published Sep 9, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 9, 2015 at 9:55 am)

When the times they were a-changin’

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