1981 General Strike: Betty Kawaley, never afraid to speak out
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
I was born in 1922, spending my childhood living on Long Island, the current base lands. I have lived through many changes in my lifetime in reaching my 100th year. Some have been wonderful, some not so wonderful — but I have learnt that when we all pull together for good, goodness will prevail!
I left Bermuda amid the Second World War to attend Queen’s University in Canada. I was the only “Coloured” student at the school — and I knew of only one other Coloured family in Kingston, Ontario, itself. People would point and whisper in astonishment and my peers would want to touch my skin — as if it would feel in some way different to their own!
It was increasingly evident that my actions, words and how I carried myself represented not just me, but my homeland Bermuda — and my race as well! At Queen’s, I also made some of my closest friends, two of whom played a vital role in the Bermuda Theatre Boycott of 1959!
My experiences in Canada taught me to speak out logically and succinctly about things I believed in. So, despite warnings not to speak out, I wrote Letters to the Editor expressing my strong feelings about the need for Bermuda to abolish the outdated, segregated seating rules in our theatres — and boldly signed my name.
By then I was a teacher and a mother with a husband and two young children. In that same year, when my two dear college friends came to visit from Canada, they were secretly asked to purchase essential items needed to organise the boycott — but were sworn to secrecy!
It was true, many Coloureds who were too outspoken had their mortgages raised to unaffordable rates! Understanding the stakes were high, this was a secret they kept from me for more than 40 years!
On my return to Bermuda, as a proud graduate of the Berkeley Institute, I was honoured to return there to teach and immediately became an active member of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, serving as secretary during the late 1940s. Years later, although this role was usually held by a man, I had the opportunity to serve as president of the BUT.
During my last year teaching before my retirement, in 1981, the Bermuda Industrial Union was in a wage dispute with the government of the day, the United Bermuda Party; even blue-collar workers at the hospital were receiving below minimum wage! I recall discussing this matter with the younger teachers at Warwick Secondary. Although this didn’t directly affect us as teachers, how could we stand by idly when Bermudian families were struggling? This injustice had to stop!
On May 5, 1981, I proudly joined a group of fellow elder educators — Lorraine Fubler, Eva Hodgson, PhD, and Veronica Ross — in marching with a large group of fellow teachers. I was pleased to join in carrying the banner of the ABUT. I and a determined fellowship of teachers joined thousands of members of the BIU, and its many supporters from the community, in a march — the largest and most successful peaceful protest our country had ever seen!
• Kathy Kawaley, the daughter of Betty Kawaley, is also the mother of four creative and talented young adults, whom she has raised with husband Rich Lathan. She followed her mother and father's footsteps into the teaching profession and has been teaching herself for more than 40 years