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A most unedifying arm-wrestle

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I had hoped never to have to write about an issue such as this episode between the Bermuda Industrial Union and the Government — in reality, about Chris Furbert and David Burt, the leaders of both groups. The stated issue of disagreement over the trade union legislation regarding decertification, while real, is only a proxy war over a concern that lies far deeper.

Before we ponder over what is at hand, and in order to have a clearer perspective of all the moving parts that belie the postures of each side, we have to do a bit of housekeeping.

The union over its long history has been both praised and condemned for its actions and behaviours. As the years progressed, seemingly more condemned than praised. Nor has its own structure, to many as a virtue or example, been one that aligns it as an organisation prone to moral transcendence. However, one of its principal strengths, come hell or high water, has been that of solidarity. Added to that is, all its leaders from its inception had the ability to make radical stands.

The underlying issue, as can be observed, is the seemingly runaway leadership style of David Burt, which gets what it wants apparently with absolute control over all mechanisms.

Is this the first time we have had a premier who was as authoritarian? Yes. Ewart Brown was as pointed and directional. But the difference is Dr Brown had an aura of leadership and charisma that gave him tremendous internal support; he had little to no pushback. He eliminated his enemies unceremoniously and, even at his weakest, he still had emotional and popular support within the party.

Mr Burt did not rise to power within the party after a long history as a Black activist during the 1960s and as a campus militant and university athletics star, which on its own almost sealed a spot among the hierarchy of the Progressive Labour Party for Dr Brown.

Mr Burt, on the other hand, came through the ranks and manoeuvred his rise, which took sudden form in the wake of the collapse of Marc Bean. His popularity within the party has been waning for years and the affection in the general community reflects the same. However, as an administrative maverick, he has a firm hand on all the control levers that sustain his position. There is virtually no mechanism within Parliament or the party that he has no control over.

Here is where the rubber meets the road: unlike Dr Brown, whose legacy will be part of Bermuda’s history, and who had no pushback from within, Mr Burt, using the same script and handbook, has stepped on the toes of many to fulfil his agenda — and they are seeking his throat.

The Premier appears poised and defiant while having a firm hand on the reins that control his fate, but is faced with an ever-increasing erosion of base support. The BIU has been the bride of the PLP from its inception. The role of Mr Furbert at this stage as the primary leader of the disaffected is predicated on the single factor and principal of solidarity.

David Burt, the Premier, is being challenged by union leader Chris Furbert (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The moral question is not whether there should be a general strike, but rather whether the island can maintain a government that is in the hands of the people or the hands of an authoritarian leader. That is the moral question beneath this rivalry.

Yes, the economy is important and therefore should be more important to a government that is responsible at the end of the day for where the country ends up. In such case, where a leader has become unpopular inside and out, to what ends do they justify holding on to a position? Let the country face failure and foreclosure because it is so important to hold the position. Is there no humility or thought of doing what is best for the overall good? Here, the matter of the labour law amendment is small in comparison to what is at stake.

Chris Furbert, president of the Bermuda Industrial Union (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

It may be that the Premier has done no harm and everything is a matter of perception. The country needs to be enabled to sail on and deal with the Covid crisis and heal the economy. The role of the leader in today's drama is to help heal the nation. If they cannot help the situation, step aside and let the process of healing to occur.

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Published August 26, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated August 25, 2021 at 5:40 pm)

A most unedifying arm-wrestle

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