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Bermuda mourns passing of ‘father of the modern labour movement’

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Ottiwell Simmons (1933-2023)

Tributes were paid yesterday and over the weekend to former Bermuda Industrial Union leader Ottiwell Simmons, who was described as “the lion of the labour movement”.

Mr Simmons, the president of the BIU from 1974 to 1996, was one of the island’s iconic figures in the fight for workers’ rights.

The longtime former Pembroke East MP, who formed a formidable partnership in the constituency with the late Nelson Bascome, served in the House of Assembly for the Progressive Labour Party for more than 30 years.

David Burt, in announcing Mr Simmons’s passing a week shy of his 90th birthday, said on Friday: “No odds were too great, no cause too small and no negotiation too complex for Ottie. Today, all Bermuda mourns the father of the modern labour movement.”

The Premier added: “Ottie’s fearless pursuit of social justice and rights for Bermuda’s workers laid the foundation for the employment protections which today we often take for granted.

“With the support of so many others, Ottiwell Simmons’s name is synonymous with transforming Bermuda into a more just and equitable society.

Ottiwell Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“His legacy is defined by the strength of the union to which he devoted his life and the core ideals that inspired his leadership during a key period of Bermuda’s history.

“To his family and the members and friends of the Bermuda Industrial Union, sincere condolences on the passing of this lion of the labour movement.”

Ottiwell Simmons, the former president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, during the island’s epic strike of 1981 (File photograph)

Rolfe Commissiong, a former PLP MP, said of Mr Simmons: “From 1974 to 1996, as president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, he achieved more benefits for workers than anyone else in the history of the labour movement in Bermuda — health insurance in the form of major medical and vacation pay, sick pay, bereavement leave, to name but a few.

“Dr E.F. Gordon, the key pioneer of the labour movement in Bermuda, laid the foundation for what became the BIU. But it was his worthy successor, Ottiwell Simmons, who built the house we now call the Bermuda Industrial Union.

“Through it all he stood firm with quiet assurance and steadfast leadership. Black labour trusted Ottie; they knew that he was a man of integrity. But his successes, backed in social solidarity by his members, ensured that all workers would benefit — local, foreign, Black and White.

BIU president Chris Furbert, left, with Ottiwell Simmons on the occasion of having the union headquarters renamed the Ottiwell A. Simmons Building on September 2, 2019 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“If you want to look to someone who literally yanked Bermuda into the modern world, certainly Ottie is one of them, as was his devoted friend and fellow PLP member and MP Arthur Hodgson, who predeceased him only by months.”

Former Bermuda Industrial Union president Ottiwell Simmons

Sir John Swan, the island’s longest-serving premier, recalled how he and Mr Simmons grew up in the same neighbourhood and were students at Howard Academy, formerly Skinner’s School.

The pair would cross paths later in their political and union lives, including during talks to break the deadlock of the island-wide general strike of 1981.

Sir John said yesterday: “He and I had a very special relationship.

“It was not letting party politics interfere with labour relations — it was a separate issue altogether.”

The former United Bermuda Party premier added that Mr Simmons believed “his job was for the purpose of the workers”.

He said: “His legacy is a soundness of mind, a very strong character, a very fair and fearless individual and one who really felt as though somehow, as long as he had a relationship with God and the people he served, and did it the right way, things would come out right.”

Ewart Brown, another former premier, said: “Bermuda has lost an iconic man.

“Ottie Simmons was not just a fellow politician and legendary union leader.

“He was a father whose children were gifted by their father to witness his leadership and strength against all odds.

“They observed him standing up when others around him were bending to the tune of those in power.

“Ottie was a beacon of courage who opened the doors through which we walk so casually today.”

A PLP spokeswoman said that generations of Bermudian workers continued to benefit from the work of the BIU under Mr Simmons’s presidency.

She added: “Ottie was a fearless leader and a force to be reckoned with.”

The party spokeswoman said: “He stands with our party's past giants who have gone to their glory.

“Ottie was a champion of the voiceless, challenger to the powerful and a shepherd to the workers in realising their rights.

“The Bermuda Progressive Labour Party salutes Brother Ottiwell Simmons for his courage, commitment and leadership to the people of Bermuda.”

Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, said on Saturday: “On the eve of Bermuda's National Heroes Day, we find it deeply meaningful to honour the memory of Ottiwell Simmons, whose passing leaves a void that resonates with the sentiment of the occasion.

“Fondly known as Ottie, he was not only a prominent figure in public life, but he was also a father, a grandfather, a leader, a friend, a confidant and a mentor.

“Above all, Ottiwell Simmons was a giant of a man, a son of the soil and a genuine Bermudian hero.”

He added: “For over four decades, Ottie selflessly devoted his life to advocating for the rights of Bermuda’s working-class people and beyond.

“As the leader of the Bermuda Industrial Union, he brought unparalleled passion to his role.

“Whether at the bargaining table or in arbitration hearings, Ottie demonstrated unwavering determination, relentless persistence and remarkable skill.

“He fearlessly led marches, boycotts and demonstrations, emerging as a powerful force advocating for workers locally and internationally.

“He was not only a man of words, but a man of action.”

Mr Simons said: “While Ottie fiercely defended the rights of Bermuda’s workers, he embodied the qualities of a true gentleman.

“There was nothing thuggish about him. His strength was rooted in compassion, empathy and respect for others.

“Today, we, the One Bermuda Alliance, extend our deepest condolences to Ottiwell Simmons’s family, friends and all who had the privilege of knowing and cherishing him. Bermuda owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to this extraordinary man.

“Ottie’s legacy will endure, serving as a beacon of inspiration for generations to come.”

A government spokeswoman said last week: “In the coming days, an announcement will be made regarding a book of condolence for the public to record messages of thanks and sympathy.”

UPDATE: this article has been amended to include comment from the Progressive Labour Party

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Published June 20, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated June 20, 2023 at 9:23 am)

Bermuda mourns passing of ‘father of the modern labour movement’

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