We must move on from us and them’ to we’
An open letter to labour leaders on International Labour Day:
Dear labour leaders,
Let me offer “Best Wishes” on this International Labour Day, a time which provides our community an opportunity to reflect on our collective responsibility, especially in these most challenging times, both for Bermuda and the planet.
This brings to mind the reflections Martin Luther King shared with his congregation on Christmas Day 1967, only months before his untimely death. His leadership over more than a decade had galvanised a movement from diverse sectors of the US, transforming that most powerful nation. That movement was experiencing a crossroads in the late 1960s, when many questioned the approach championed by King. Those adopting a more polarising perspective — like Stokely Carmichael — led Martin to pause and reflect.
In that seminal sermon MLK summed up his reflections: we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. He had concluded that the interconnected nature of society meant that any transformative effort, must avoid the trap of “us and them”, recognising that it’s all about “we”.
Nelson Mandela’s activism began approaching circumstances from the perspective of “us and them”, but he evolved recognising the power of “we”. During his long imprisonment he was even successful in inviting the solidarity of many prison wardens.
In my early twenties, as a Black Beret, I viewed society through the “us and them” prism. However, my experience attempting to halt the 1977 hangings of Burrows and Tacklyn and unexpectedly gaining the support of many British MPs provided my paradigm shift. So that my contribution in addressing the industrial unrest of Spring 1981 reflected my appreciation of the power of “we”.
During that strike of government industrial workers, I organised a “Family Support Committee” with the support of Canon Nisbett and Reverend Larry Lowe, putting solidarity into action with groceries and lunchtime reflection for strikers at St Paul. Our aim was to invite the wider community to connect with this marginalised sector. As the strike continued, there were some folks deciding to blockade the airport. A few of us, seeing the danger in this tactic inciting the hostility of “us and them”, looked to redirect those energies.
I gained support of the then-president of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, Dale Butler, to invite teachers to take a one-day solidarity strike, understanding the potential of the symbolism of that “relatively conservative” body, supporting blue-colour workers. When that April 30 meeting turned this initial invitation down, I committed to take personal action on May 1 to spark a grassroots effort to stage a march through Hamilton. The intent was to defuse the airport “blockade”, reducing the disempowering impact of hostility and promoting a spirit of inclusion.
I was pleasantly surprised by the supportive response from my school principal, Dr Clifford Maxwell, when I reported my intention to take a one-day, one-man strike that Friday. Unknown to me at the time, he would have understood this premise having been deeply involved in the Theatre Boycott.
It is worth noting that at the time I held no formal position in any union, but with the help of the likes of Gladwin Simmons of KEMH, through much serendipity, we were able to involve several hundred strikers in a peaceful march through Hamilton on Friday, May 1.
With no formal permission for the procession, Police Superintendent Campbell Simons “led” the march for the better part of an hour throughout the city. Upon the march conclusion, it was clear that the community spirit had shifted from heightened polarisation and strikers better recognised that it was about “we”. That watershed event was key in leveraging a resolution of that chapter of our history.
It is important to note that May 1981 was only a few years following the most violent expression of polarisation in Bermuda’s history; the December 1977 hangings and riots after a half-decade of violent civil unrest. In the climate created by grassroots efforts, Police Supt Simons felt invited to join that “network of mutuality” — facilitating the empowerment of protesters and peace in the community. There is some irony that now in 2017, with the events of last December between Police and protesters, those forward steps taken in ’81, seem to have been reversed. However, maybe — just maybe — someone involved might access that “spirit” of inclusion and offer an invitation to the Director of Public Prosecution, to reconcile that impasse, thus nurturing the “network of mutuality”.
Let me take this opportunity to remember the late Maynard Dill for his untiring promotion of the International Labour Day. There is no doubt that Maynard appreciated that “network of mutuality” as demonstrated by his passionate involvement in the International Labour Conferences which we attended together more than a decade ago. He understood the importance of including at least the three sectors — unions, employers and government — in an ongoing dialogue for the minimal maintenance of the welfare of the whole society. Renewing tripartite processes may be a way of honouring Maynard’s legacy and deepening the engagement necessary for Bermuda to move forward.
Of course, we are all subject to the gravity of the temptation to short circuit the “network”, it seems easier. However, we only need to look at the ever-present global media and see the cost of ignoring society’s interrelatedness.
It is my view that while in May 1981, we won the battle, I believe that the evidence shows that in the longer term we lost the war. We may have failed to fully access the societal lessons that chapter offered.
That said, the morning of Friday, May 1, 1981 provided me with a personal lesson, that is: each of us can make a difference in our world. MLK and the many on whose shoulders we stand have demonstrated this on many occasions.
Let’s all look at how we each can play some part in securing our island’s “garment of single destiny” here in the 21st century.
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