1981 General Strike: Campbell Simons, the calm arm of the law
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. Today we conclude commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1981 General Strike, reflecting on this shared Bermuda story and highlighting some of the people, who accessed their out-of-the-box potential, playing a monumental part in fostering that shift
I was born in Bermuda on January 31, 1943 in Somerset. I enjoyed early schooling at West End Primary and Southampton Glebe, and my secondary education at the Bermuda Technical Institute. Tech, an innovative boys’ school, combined practical with the academic, and was a prototype in eliminating racial barriers.
The transformation of the legacy of segregation had shaped our island as I was reaching adulthood. My career path was impacted by significant milestones of Bermuda society over the latter part of the 20th century — not the least of which was the general strike of 1981.
That journey began in June 1959 — at age 15. Everyone underwent a transformational experience with the Theatre Boycott, which began the end of segregation. People such as Clifford Maxwell, a favourite Tech maths teacher, was among those who secretly played a role in that grassroots success.
The boycott required no police involvement. However, September 1959, was drastically different. Bermuda Industrial Union activists leveraged the boycott’s momentum, leading to a docks strike that addressed longstanding grievances. The strikers considered the employers’ response to be foul play and circumstances turned potentially violent. Fortunately, things were calmed by community mediation.
I enrolled in the relatively new police cadet programme in 1960, at 16. That year also saw the peacefully effective Voting Rights Campaign by the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage.
I became a constable in 1963, just settling into the role when the crisis at Belco took place in February 1965. That well-known tragedy exposed segregation’s legacy. The demographic of a large proportion of overseas police undermined community relations with the police relations.
The global changes of the 1960s also impacted those same relations. Antiquated laws and policies multiplied the challenge — especially with young people, in general; and Blacks, in particular.
The serious riot of April 22, 1968 was sparked by a grievance at a fair. However, its ferocity was linked to the aftermath of the global reaction to the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr on April 4.
Throughout that time, I maintained community connections. My lifelong passion for cricket paid off when selected for the Somerset Cup Match team from 1966 to 1977. I had to contend with the likes of “Bummy” (St George’s captain Cal Symonds) and “Tuppence” (star bowler Clarence Parfitt). I had the honour of serving as Somerset captain in 1976 and 1977.
The hurdles, maintained in place by the powers that be, undermined social progress. As a result, organisations such as the Black Beret cadre emerged. The resultant dynamics with the status quo led to heightened tensions with the police.
The subsequent assassinations of the police commissioner, the Governor, Sir Richard Sharples, his aide-de-camp, Captain Hugh Sayers, and the Great Dane Horsa, and the Shopping Centre murders of Victor Rego and Mark Doe are blamed by some on individuals who were arguably radicalised during that period.
That traumatic chapter concluded with the hangings of Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. The violent riots of the weekend of December 2, 1977, ended a five-year period that resulted in the violent deaths of ten people.
The Pitt Commission provided an autopsy assessing the underlying societal causes.
In April 1981, global inflation led to a strike by 1,100 hospital and government employees, who were represented by the BIU. The dispute mushroomed when those among the 6,000 BIU members in other sectors subsequently joined in solidarity with those strikers. During the last week of April 1981, a picket of the airport ballooned, eventually closing traffic access. The precarious situation sparked activists to propose a plan B.
That included staging a march through Hamilton to mark May Day — May 1, International Workers’ Day. The Bermuda Union of Teachers held a membership meeting on April 30 to consider the proposal, but it failed. Avoiding any discouragement, activists engaged BIU-Telco members mid-morning on May 1 and a spontaneous march began to proceed from Union Square up to King Street.
In the right place, I positioned myself at the front of the procession to limit the disruption that would be caused by the “illegal” procession.
The marchers, accompanied by a drummer, moved down King Street and west on Front Street in what a reporter described a “carnival-like” spirit. The procession went through the city streets for more than an hour. By the conclusion of this peaceful march, it was evident to me that there had been a significant reduction in community tension.
It's arguable that the march was the watershed, shifting the general mood towards a peaceful resolution. That Monday, May 4, the teachers met again and agreed for a strike in solidarity, opening the opportunity for BIU president Ottiwell Simmons to call a general strike for the next day, May 5, 1981.
The rest is history.
• Campbell Simons is a retired former member of the Bermuda Police Service and Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda