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Protest march against Government could have been avoided Thomas

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Armell Thomas didn't exactly give Government an easy ride in his six years as Bermuda Public Services Union president.

Mr Thomas argues the Country's leader for the bulk of his term didn't go out of his way to make his life straightforward either.

Stepping down to be replaced by Kevin Grant, Mr Thomas spoke to

The Royal Gazette to reflect on one of the BPSU's most significant periods in which some in the Progressive Labour Party have come to regard unions as their only serious opposition.

But despite the rows of the past few years and the threat of overtime cuts and wage freezes hanging over civil servants, he believes the future of the union's relationship with Government is bright.

He puts this down to Premier Paula Cox's willingness to communicate; he believes it was the very absence of that trait in her predecessor Ewart Brown that allowed a dispute over pay to escalate into a march on Parliament by civil servants, police officers, teachers and supporting members of Bermuda Industrial Union.

“I was at home in my office. I was ticked off,” said Mr Thomas of the moment in June 2008 he coined the idea of a joint protest.

“All we wanted to do was meet with Government to discuss some things about the percentage increase. They didn't want to meet.

“They said we had to ‘maximise our procedures' by going to arbitration and going through the Labour Department.

“I said, fine, they don't want to talk, so I started calling round some of the other leaders. The police at the same time were going through their issues with Government, so were teachers.

“It was a boiling point among leaders. We decided this is what we were going to do.

“My first call was to Raymond Bean at Belco. I was so ticked, I called him up and said, ‘Ray, shut the lights of the Country down. Even I will get a candle.'”

That blackout never happened, but within days thousands of angry members from all Bermuda's unions combined to march on the House of Assembly, some of whom, including the police, for the first time ever.

“All we wanted was respect,” recalled Mr Thomas. “Had we had respect, meetings and all that, that would not have happened.”

In the end, Government's resistance counted for little as, amid all the fuss, the union ended up getting more than they even expected in an arbitration award.

Throughout his tenure, Dr Brown described himself as accessible, but Mr Thomas argued: “They said he was, but no. You didn't have enough time if you got with him. He would get up to rush and everything else.

“It was always a last minute type of thing. You can't do business like that.

“I can definitely say my dealings with Paula Cox have been much better. You don't appear to be rushed. In order for us to continue on a good relationship, that is what you have to do.”

The new Premier has repeatedly pointed to her intention for Government to abide by the correct process, setting up a procurement office under her personal watch to ensure contracts are handed out fairly.

Mr Thomas said: “Dr Brown was a person that was straight to the point. He didn't really give two damns about the process. I think he's a very smart man. Whatever he wanted to do was fast. He couldn't wait for that process.

“I think that's the difference between the Dr Brown leadership and anybody else.”

He cited the awarding of a $28 million tourism contract to GlobalHue without it being tendered and the firing of Bermudians from the Island's New York office without union consultation as two consequences of Dr Brown's hurried approach.

“Dr Brown kept me very busy,” he said.

Mr Thomas is a PLP supporter, but at one stage his relationship with Government got so rocky he ended up making an unreserved apology after he called for the entire Cabinet to resign over the New York saga.

“That was the thing I probably don't appreciate the most in my term,” he said.

“You learn on the job. If I was on the Island at the time, I probably wouldn't have apologised but I was in Dominica on business and I got my general secretary to say I apologise for the words I used.

“The mistake was that I came back to apologise. I said it. It's like being drunk. You can say you apologise for whatever you said, but you still meant what you said.”

Explaining how his comments struck a nerve, he said: “Derrick [Burgess] was the first to call at six in the morning. His reaction was, ‘What's wrong with you boys over there?'

“Derrick's position is to make sure we communicate across the table. But not everyone wants to do that all the time.

“Zane [DeSilva] and me would go head to head on issues. Zane is a little fireier than Derrick. Zane rolls up his sleeves and says, ‘Let's have it, let's get down to business.'

“I can appreciate what these guys are doing, because they are representing their Premier.”

BPSU members stage a prorest rally.
Photo by Tamell Simons BPSU incoming president Kevin Grant (left) and outgoing President Armell Thomas .

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Published March 14, 2011 at 10:02 am (Updated March 14, 2011 at 10:02 am)

Protest march against Government could have been avoided Thomas

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