1981 General Strike: Ottiwell Simmons has no regrets
Human societies undergo shifts from time to time; for the better or the worse. The sources of those shifts are never fully understood — shrouded in some mystery. In the spring of 1981, during a dispute that mushroomed into a general strike, there was arguably a shift in Bermuda society. It undoubtedly is a milestone for our less than perfect society, as since which we have been able to remain on a path of non-violently resolving significant community matters. The data is clear when we compare our island's record for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s with the four decades since 1981. Over the next few days, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1981 General Strike culminating in the fateful day on May 5, we reflect on this shared Bermuda story, highlighting some of the people, who accessed their out-of-the-box potential and played a monumental part in fostering that shift
Ottiwell Simmons (Bermuda Industrial Union president)
Ottiwell Simmons says looking back on the 1981 strike that he thought it was the greatest challenge the Bermuda Industrial Union ever had in terms of responses from its membership and the other trade unions.
The challenge was trying to manage the BIU membership, which was central to the dispute between the hospital and the United Bermuda Party government, and the trade unions who gave support. We welcomed the membership of other trade unions to support the union’s strike for proper wages.
Mr Simmons said that when he saw the Belco union, led by its president, Chuck Renaud, arrive on Union Square, that was the most encouraging event that we had because Belco and the BIU were not the best of friends after February 2, 1965.
Mr Simmons was not on the negotiating teams. The team negotiating with the Government was headed up by Barbara Ball and Eldridge Brimmer, and the team negotiating with the hospital was led by Dr Ball and Molly Burgess. Simmons says the culprit of the strike was the Government, not the hospital. Even though the 21-day notice of a strike was given, he was always hopeful there would be a settlement. He consulted with Kenneth Richardson, who was the Labour Relations Officer, and he was getting regular reports from the BIU negotiating team.
They learnt that the Government had brought in a negotiator from Britain. The reports that were given were that he was not the most reliable person. Eventually, it was discovered they were getting false reports; he was reporting that the Government would settle. These were good buzzwords because the BIU did not want a strike; we wanted a settlement. The reports he was getting were that the Government wanted to settle on 16 per cent. We were at 25 per cent but they found out that was not true, and that is where the negotiations fell apart. He demanded Dr Ball not negotiate any further with them, which brought the official negotiations to a halt.
The 21-day strike notice was up and the strike began, but as the president of the BIU along with the negotiating team, they were still making efforts to bring the dispute to an end by writing to the Government. The hospital management team did want to settle, but it was blocked by certain UBP MPs.
After confidential talks between Mr Richardson and the hospital administrator in Mr Simmons’s office on a Saturday afternoon, they had a tentative agreement — it was understood that Mr Richardson would return to his executives and they would return to their executives, and they eventually settled on 21.5 per cent increase for the first year.
Mr Simmons says, looking back on 1981, that the BIU won the strike and that set of negotiations only because the union was determined to stand on its principles because the cost of living had gone up. Where the Government could have gotten a settlement, it chose not to. He was of the impression during the peak crisis period that the Government was incapable of managing a dispute of that magnitude.
It was the biggest crisis of any time between the BIU and the Government, which was using propaganda to discourage working-class solidarity. He has no regrets about 1981 and insists there was nothing the union could have done differently.
The workers won, but only after a marginal compromise in the wage settlement. He is very proud of his role in that strike and he has no regrets whatsoever.
• Ronaldine Burgess is the recording secretary of the Bermuda Industrial Union