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Bermuda’s house of cards

Exercise in brinkmanship: Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert used his Labour Day speech to draw new battle lines

For some trade union leaders Labour Day was less an occasion to reflect on the past successes of the Bermuda workers’ movement than it was to draw new battle lines.

With one trade unionist invoking the Biblical End of Days to describe the current state of industrial relations, the atmosphere was literally apocalyptic at times.

Only the sulphurous whiff of brimstone was needed to complete the hellish vision of working-class suffering his fanciful word-picture painted.

A few rhetorical flourishes and even some excursions into outright fantasy are, of course, to be expected in Labour Day speeches.

They are part and parcel of the celebratory sounds heard on an occasion when organised labour rallies to fête its achievements and contributions to Bermuda.

However, some of this year’s admonitions differed from the standard Labour Day bravado in terms of both the strident tone adopted and some highly specific content.

Picking up the doom-laden theme of the earlier speaker, the Bermuda Industrial Union president abruptly deviated from some general remarks on the divisions that income inequality creates within Bermudian society and the strain it places on workers and their families.

He proceeded to hurl down a gauntlet of defiance to not just Government but the entire island, fulminating about the likely consequences of failing to renew the work permit of a UK-born clergyman and social activist who is now a close ally.

“If the Government thinks they can play games with this one, then the house of cards will come tumbling down,” he said. “We will do everything in our power to make sure that this will not happen. Make no mistake about it, this is a very serious matter.”

To ensure no one mistook this exercise in brinkmanship for anything other than what it was, he repeated this same warning in even starker language at a press conference two days later. The Immigration Minister, perhaps the nearest this Cabinet has to having an exemplar of patience, self-discipline and moral courage in its ranks, responded diplomatically and effectively.

She refused to be drawn on some specifics of the ongoing matter because she did not have the authorisation of either the work permit applicant or the permit holder to do. Neither, she inferred, did the BIU president.

Nevertheless she dismissed “incorrect and misleading” comments made by the BIU president to the effect the cleric was a victim of a high-level Cabinet conspiracy.

This sort of fevered conspiracy theorising is, of course, particularly implausible. It would require a government to be at once so very conniving and ruthless and yet so very detached from day-to-day reality it would entirely discount the all-too-predictable reaction of the likes of the BIU president in order to pursue such a high-handed course of action.

It beggars belief any government possessing the most rudimentary self-preservation instinct would even entertain the idea of such a deliberate provocation, let alone proceed with it.

After all, it’s one that might indeed bring the “whole house of cards tumbling down” at this juncture following months of civil and industrial unrest stemming from clumsy and far smaller-scaled Cabinet missteps. The Government is all too well aware of the volatile public mood which exists in Bermuda.

It is now doing most everything it can to encourage a sense of communal solidarity in the face of ongoing economic adversity and areas of social distress.

It’s fair to say Government responded belatedly to some of these socio-economic concerns, concerns that helped to fuel the rallies and marches that paralysed the island throughout the spring. But there is a welcome and growing sense of urgency in the Cabinet Office now that wasn’t always in evidence even earlier this year.

There’s also a growing recognition any such sense of solidarity in the face of a common threat and in pursuit of a common future needs to be sustained and fortified.

There’s a growing acceptance on Cabinet’s part that we cannot afford to slip back into the conventional old adversarial relationships that so often exist between Bermuda governments and organised labour as well as grass-roots pressure groups.

The alternative, given the fragility of our economic recovery and the underlying strains in our social fabric, really would be the kind of apocalyptic stand-offs conjured up on Labour Day.

The BIU president has since conceded he used sharp and perhaps inflammatory language to express his frustration with the work permit situation.

While he did not retreat from his position, he at least implied that he might move forward in a less fraught and overtly confrontational manner.

This would be a welcome development because the type of solidarity this government seeks — not all of us marching together in lockstep on every issue but a community-wide recognition of what should be a number of shared interests and goals of overriding importance — can only come about through dialogue and mutual trust.

Such consensus is essential if Bermuda is to resolve its not-intractable problems through common sense and mutual compromise rather than by the type of catastrophic confrontations that would tear down social stability and living standards for everyone rather than preserve or enhance them.

For this is a time when we should all be mulling how best to install some steel beams into Bermuda’s socio-economic house of cards. We need to be reinforcing it and shoring it up, not doing or saying anything in haste that might threaten to collapse this oh-so fragile structure.