Trade unionism called at an early age
There was an invisible line dividing Collin Simmons’s Pembroke neighbourhood in the 1950s.
White people lived on one side of Happy Valley Road, and blacks on the other. Socially, their paths did not cross.
Despite that, it was not until he was a teenager, working in the mailroom at AIG, that he really noticed Bermuda’s inequalities.
“At that time, they only hired black women to serve coffee,” he said. “I used to see a lot of young, intelligent black women coming from college looking to get into the commercial world. I don’t think they hired them until I was about 15.
“What they were seeing was the development of a young black male, and I was questioning different things that we were not supposed to question.”
He thinks it is because he started asking questions that the global insurance company cut ties with him at 16, saying they had no more to teach him.
Mr Simmons went to work in construction, where he stayed for a number of years until a back injury made him quit.
“I wasn’t working smart,” the 71-year-old said.
A job with the Bermuda Industrial Union changed his life.
Hired to maintain its building on Union Square, he found himself doing much more.
“It was 1974, a time of tremendous change in Bermuda in terms of industrial relations and culture,” Mr Simmons said.
“I was working amid strikes and industrial actions. During the 1981 general strike, there were thousands of people on strike.
“I was still a maintenance man at that point, and was the first person in in the morning.
“The union had to be ready to run. Coffee had to be on. Containers had to be filled with water for picket lines. Picket posters had to be organised and ready for people to come in and grab as they went out on the picket lines.”
He watched things unfold beside BIU leaders, including president Ottiwell Simmons, and Molly Burgess and Dr Barbara Ball, both who had served as general secretary.
“That was a real learning experience,” he said. “All those people helped me to understand what trade unionism was about and what collective bargaining was about. If you were paying attention, you got to understand and learn from those people who were much more effective than a textbook.”
Things were changing for him on a personal level as well, following a divorce in 1974.
“After that, I was looking at taking time away from women — it would have been a wise move. Then one day I saw this woman and my attention was shifted. It was a good shift. I met someone who really had a good understanding of herself. She was nine years younger than me. She liked me and I liked her. Her name is Shirlene Raynor. We dated for about two years. Then in 1977, she had my older son, Abdul. One Saturday my whole life changed.
“That was an eye-opener.”
Their second son, Ajani, was born three days after they married on April 2, 1978.
“That wasn’t planned, but it was a major challenge,” he said. “I went from a single person staying in an apartment by myself to a married person with three people that I had to look after. That was a nice challenge.”
He took some time off to be with his wife and children but after a few days was called back to work.
Having encouraged staff from Provident Bank Ltd to sign with the BIU, he was asked to come in and oversee as they officially voted to join.
In 1983, he was made an officer with the BIU. Three years later he and his wife welcomed a third son, Akil.
Today, Mr Simmons is the union’s education officer.
One of his tasks is organising activities for the seniors’ club, which meets to watch a film on the second Tuesday of every month.
He was 47 when he was given the job. Twenty-five years later he jokes that he can finally compare aches and pains with its members.
“I hadn’t had any experience working with seniors,” Mr Simmons said. “But people are people.”
Roughly 50 people showed up for the first meeting.
The club has since grown to about 90 members, many encouraged by the free meal provided at the end of the movie. To keep up with demand, the BIU was eventually forced to charge $5 for the meal and $5 for the movie.
According to Mr Simmons, people who aren’t members of the BIU will sometimes ask to attend.
His response is always the same: “Of course. It’s not a closed-door meeting.”
Today, he says he feels proud looking back at what he has done with his life and family.
“I ain’t jumped over the moon, but life is good,” he laughed.
• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them
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