1981 General Strike: Chuck Renaud, from the Belco canteen to Union Square
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
My name is Charles Renaud; better known as “Chuck”. As fate would have it, while employed at Belco, I was involved in two dramatic chapters of Bermuda’s history: the tragedy of February 1965 and a role of redemption in May 1981.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on May 16, 1924, I grew up during the Great Depression; coming of age at the beginning of the Second World War. At 18, I answered the call by volunteering for military service, completing training in 1944 at the age of 20.
When shipped out of Canada in 1944, we expected to go to the European war front, but were landed in Bermuda, assigned to the Canadian base in Somerset.
We enjoyed some relaxation time in the community and I began dating a Bermudian; Olive Cassidy. We were eventually married on January 31, 1946 and subsequently blessed with three boys — Francis, Charles Jr and Gary.
That same year, I returned to Canada with my new wife for my discharge. Olive and I remained in Canada before returning to Bermuda in 1948, joining the Bermuda Police Force for four years.
During that tenure, I became better acquainted with the island’s culture. Racial barriers divided schools, employment, social activities and even churches. Voting rights were limited to owners of land at a certain value, along with other regressive policies.
There was only a minor level of crime at the time. However, I witnessed the tensions that grew out of segregation and other regressive social practices. The Bermuda Industrial Union had gained traction in representing the island’s dock-workers. I recall helping to calm the waters when tensions erupted during a dispute.
I had long had a passion for boxing and knew of the potential for helping young people through sport. I partnered with W.F. “Chummy” Hayward and turned a barn in Happy Valley, Pembroke, into a gym; a breakthrough for young people — Black and White. Circumstance led us to move the programme to Cox’s Hill, Pembroke.
I left the police in 1952, taking a job as paymaster for a stevedoring company at the docks, where I witnessed social tensions up close. I could clearly witness the antiquated employment system: the staff of mostly Black men were contractors without job security, working only if picked for that day.
In 1955, I took the opportunity to join the pay office at Belco. The company culture reflected the segregated society. The vast majority of the out-of-plant workers, such as linemen, were Black. The vast majority of those working within the power plant were White.
During the late 1950s, momentum built towards social justice. In June 1959, the Theatre Boycott proved to be a watershed in ending segregation. This momentum leveraged efforts for economic justice, and the Bermuda Industrial Union expanded its campaigning in that regard.
That the inside workforce was larger than the outside proved to be the source of tension when the BIU campaigned to be the bargaining agent at Belco. The legacy of segregation created difficult circumstances, resulting in tragic consequences in February 1965. I can still recall the tensions and the smell of teargas.
That dust only really settled by the out of-the-box intervention by Hugh Richardson; Lord Martonmere; then the Governor, Dame Lois Browne-Evans and the Reverend Vernon Byrd. The BIU had lost the battle, but had won the hearts and minds on the ride to unionisation.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, I was directly involved in the establishment of the Electrical Supply Trade Union. A delicate process was required to heal the wounds of 1965. It took some time, but progress was made.
I assumed the presidency of the ESTU in 1968 and did my part to move forward. During the weeks of April 1981, I closely observed the struggle involving the BIU and the Government, which I understood was linked to the impact of inflation. On the morning of May 5, we held a meeting in the canteen at Belco to consider answering the call of Ottiwell Simmons to join them for a one-day strike of solidarity.
We needed no reminder that Belco was an essential service, and the law required a 21-day strike notice. That notwithstanding, once the members voted for solidarity, I met with the chief executive, Lew Vorley, confirming our intention, with the caveat that circumstances would not affect community electricity supply.
When we marched into Union Square that day, we couldn’t hold back the tears of joy. I assured those gathered that we would make a contribution towards the BIU’s funds.
For me, a circle had been completed, fostering the spirit of redemption.
• Gary Renaud is the son of the late Charles “Chuck” Renaud and Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda