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People power, warning to Government

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Labour Day: Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert(Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Politicians may have been excluded from speaking at Labour Day commemorations, but yesterday’s celebration of workers’ rights came with an unrelenting condemnation of the policies of the One Bermuda Alliance Government.

“The critics are out there,” warned Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert, adding: “But the Government today is going to get bashed by us.”

The 34th annual Labour Day at Union Square marked the achievements of unions in securing basic benefits for workers, acknowledged in the opening prayer of Reverend Nicholas Tweed of the Peoples’ Campaign.

Subsequent speakers called on the Island’s young people to heed the sacrifices of the past, and referred to historic confrontations such as 1965’s Belco riots and the 1981 general strike.

However, there were repeated calls to “stop” the OBA Government, and a pointed warning from Mr Furbert that “the power of the people is greater than the people in power”.

Another refrain was the denouncement of the recent libel case by Bob Richards, the Minister of Finance, against Jason Hayward, the president of the Bermuda Public Services Union, as an attack on free speech and an attempt to stifle unions.

A statement by Mr Richards given on Friday, vowing to cover his own bill for the defamation suit, got a sceptical reception from Mr Furbert, who asked: “How do you know that’s really going to happen?”

Michael Fahy, the Minister of Home Affairs, came under heavy fire for policies condemned as anti-Bermudian.

Remarks made in July by OBA Senator Georgia Marshall on the case of the “accidental birthright” of born Bermudians, compared to those who had moved to the Island by choice, prompted Mr Furbert to suggest that she should have been “put on the next plane out of this country”.

There were echoes of vehement protest marches held in January against furlough days for public service workers, when crowds outside the Cabinet Office adopted the chant “enough is enough”.

Repeating that call, Mr Furbert said the unions had tried over the last 2½ years “to work with this Government — and all they have done was play the people of this country and the trade union movement for fools”.

Invoking the industrial action of 1981, Mr Furbert said the country’s present situation was worse.

“We didn’t have 3,000 unemployed and we didn’t have a government that wasn’t making sure that Bermudians get gainful employment in their own country.”

To cheers, Mr Furbert went on: “The time has come for an action plan to stop the OBA Government from inflicting any more pain on the Bermudian people. Enough is enough.”

Mr Hayward was not among those who addressed the gathering from the steps of the BIU headquarters, but BPSU speakers assured the gathering that the union stood firmly behind him.

“This is a young brother that stepped up and they are trying to put him down — they are trying to break him,” Linda Mienzer of the BPSU said.

Ed Ball, the BPSU general secretary, said he wished he saw the same numbers that had turned out for January’s protests and called on people to educate themselves on the significance of Mr Hayward’s court case.

Speakers castigated the OBA Government for the airport redevelopment deal, hotel concessions and the narrow margin of its slim victory at the polls in 2012.

Shannon James, the president of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, told the assembly that “despite political pressure, despite the economic times and social pain, the unions’ legacy is not of defeat but a victory in the face of hard times”.

Bermuda’s unions are “ready to take to the streets any time”, Mr James said, accusing the Government of offering “a glide path for the rich, and a slide path for the poor”.

Affirming his support for Mr Hayward, he said: “I have heard of tactics like calling your mortgage; this is the new form of that type of thing. It’s the same beast, just in a different form.”

Leroy Simmons, head of the Bermuda Entertainment Union, also suggested that the Government sought to suppress Bermuda’s trade unions.

Like other speakers, Mr Simmons questioned the OBA’s election pledge to create 2,000 jobs, which Mr Furbert said should be 4,000 jobs in the face of continuing unemployment in Bermuda.

“It seems to me that our current Government, perhaps they missed school when unionism was taught, or perhaps they simply possess a defiant attitude and are following a mandate to crush trade unionism in Bermuda,” Mr Simmons said. “But we won’t let it that happen.”

He called on the Bermuda Tourism Authority and donors to withdraw their support for the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts “until Bermudian entertainers are incorporated equally”.

As speeches closed, Mr Simmons told the Government: “You are here to serve the people of Bermuda. If life does not get better for the people of lower and middle income, then you are not doing your jobs.”

After an hour of speeches, a march carried the banners of various unions through the streets of Hamilton.

No politicians were invited to speak this year, but the heads of both parties issued statements marking Labour Day.

“On this Labour Day, the Progressive Labour Party would like to pay tribute to all those who have fought tirelessly for workers’ rights and sacrificed dearly for our benefit,” Opposition leader Marc Bean said. “We thank you and we appreciate you.”

Meanwhile, Michael Dunkley said: “Labour Day is an important holiday for Bermuda, reminding all of us that our progress continues to depend on the sweat and skill of organised working men and women everywhere.”

Trade unionists marched through the streets of Hamilton in celebration of Labour Day (Photograph by Akil Simmons)