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1981: when Bermuda went to the precipice

Worth every cent: workers celebrate the pay conditions won as a result of the 1981 General Strike. Today we celebrate its 40th anniversary

Forty years ago today, Bermuda was rocked by what would become the island's first and, to date, only general strike. The ramifications of that strike remain with the island to this day.

Bermuda was a different place in 1981 than it is in 2021. The first General Election held under universal adult suffrage had taken place just 13 years earlier. The 1977 riots had occurred only four years before, laying bare the frustrations of a large segment of the Black Bermudian population.

To some degree, the general strike was a further manifestation of those frustrations, although the impetus in 1981 was arguably more economic than political.

In the past year, Bermuda has experienced the rare and dangerous incidence of deflation — a symbol of the sluggishness of the economy, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In 1981, the opposite was true. Tourism and the economy generally were booming and growing fast, but so were prices — the inflation rate in 1980 was 15 per cent, which seems unimaginable today.

The weight of inflation was felt more by the poorer segments of the population and, therefore, fell disproportionately on Black Bermudians.

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At the same time, the economic policymakers of the day were right to be concerned that demands for wage increases above the rate of inflation — the Bermuda Industrial Union was demanding an increase of more than 20 per cent per year for the hospital workers who started the strike — were fuelling an inflationary spiral as higher wages would lead to higher prices, which would in turn lead to higher wages and so on.

Such increases meant that Bermuda would become less and less competitive just as more countries were entering the tourism market. High inflation also wreaked havoc on the wellbeing of many in the middle class, especially those on fixed incomes.

So the stage was set for a collision, and this is what happened. By May 5, three weeks after hospital workers had begun industrial action, the hotel division of the BIU had come out on strike, bringing the economy to a standstill in a way that is unimaginable today.

As is almost always the case, it could have been avoided. There were elements on both sides who wanted a peaceful settlement, but also those who were ready to fight.

Many, including Ward Young, then the chairman of the Bermuda Hospitals Board, and Kenneth Richardson, the Labour Relations Officer, thought a settlement was eminently achievable. But others, including hardliners in the United Bermuda Party, wanted to draw a line with the increasingly powerful union movement. The question of whether unions or elected governments ruled was live, not only in Bermuda but around the world.

Having come to the precipice, a settlement was reached. But the consequences of the general strike remained with the island for decades.

The late C.V. "Jim" Woolridge always maintained that the general strike, and the images beamed around the world of tourists carrying their bags over the Causeway and through a picket line to the airport after the hotels closed, destroyed what would have been a record tourism year.

Certainly, 1980 remains the high point of Bermuda tourism. Measured from that point, the hotel industry has been in decline ever since.

Arguably, the strike also strengthened the hands of economic policymakers who saw that an economy that was so dependent on the tourism industry was uniquely vulnerable. If the decline of tourism began in 1981, then so did the growth of international business to the point today where Bermuda’s dependence on that sector of the economy is of concern.

The strike also emboldened the labour movement, and through the 1980s, industrial action was far more commonplace than it is today. But it is worth noting that when island-wide strikes were called in later years, sections of the trade unions — including hotel workers — did not answer the call. Having been to the brink, there was a growing recognition that no one wins when labour is withdrawn. “Jaw jaw is better than war war”, as Winston Churchill observed.

At the same time, the confrontation led to a change of approach by the UBP government. Sir David Gibbons decided to step down in the last days of 1981 and in the leadership race that followed, Sir John Swan defeated the more conservative Clarence James for the leadership.

Sir John — then plain John Swan — had received much of the credit for ending the strike.

He brought a different style of leadership to the UBP, placing greater emphasis on social development and especially on housing. This approach and his personal popularity, combined with a ruthless attitude to election timing, revived the UBP, which would go on to rule for another 17 years, 13 of them under his leadership.

In that sense, the general strike represented the peak of the labour movement’s power, but also exposed its weakness. Had Sir David Gibbons remained in office, the labour movement’s political wing, the Progressive Labour Party, might well have won a 1984 election. Instead, it would come close to total defeat in 1985, having split, and would have to wait until 1998 to take the reins of power that had been so tantalisingly close in 1980.

After 1981, the growth of the Black middle class and the development of international business meant more and more Bermudians entered white-collar professions that did not lend themselves to collective bargaining.

That is not to say that the 1981 general strike was entirely a negative thing. Bermuda’s political and economic structures were dominated to a much greater extent than they are today by a minority that was often insensitive to the aspirations of the Black majority. The peaceful transition of Bermuda from segregation to modern democracy was a phenomenal but incomplete achievement.

Today, the work goes on. New challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, arise and must be managed. Governments must continue to be responsive to the desires of the public and must listen to their needs.

Bermuda continues to struggle with inequity, and the pandemic has demonstrated this all too clearly. But today, differences of opinion can be debated and discussed without resorting to strikes or lockouts. That shows a society that, no matter how perfect, is healthier and better for the experience of 1981.

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Published May 05, 2021 at 10:12 am (Updated May 05, 2021 at 10:46 am)

1981: when Bermuda went to the precipice

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