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Renewed call for Simmons arbitration centre

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Ottiwell Simmons, the former president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, has called on the Government to follow through on its pledge for an arbitration centre in his name.

The labour icon and past Progressive Labour Party MP recalled the standing ovation six months ago when the plan was announced in the Throne Speech of November 9.

Mr Simmons recalled: “I was showered with applause; I was surprised at the reaction of people.

“I have thought little of it since, except for when I am congratulated.”

He added: “The Government should show their real appreciation for my contribution by completing the building. That's the best way I can put it.

“But at the end of the day I am pleased that the Government has recognised my contribution and my years with the BIU and representing the workers of Bermuda.”

The Throne Speech promised an arbitration centre in the old Hamilton Police Station on Parliament Street, honouring Mr Simmons's “unrivalled sacrifice in the service of the labour movement”.

The disused building, which closed in 2011, had been condemned decades earlier. Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, told The Royal Gazette on Friday: “We are still a couple of years away from its actual opening, but we are moving forward with the project.”

The minister confirmed that the building had been assessed by surveyors, and that its “integrity is sound”.

The station interior has been gutted, with the removal of its old cast-iron cells the next “major project”, he said.

Colonel Burch said initial designs had been drawn up for the arbitration centre, including extending floor space, and adding an elevator.

But the building overall, was intact, he said, adding: “It's not a tall order to fix it up. If that was the case, I would have knocked it down.”

Mr Simmons said that arbitration had proven its worth many times during his tenure as BIU president from 1974 to 1996. He also served as MP for Pembroke East from 1976 to 2007.

Mr Simmons said: “I have had an almost exhaustive amount of compliments about the BIU's ability to arbitrate situations.

“We had more arbitration settlements during the period of the 1960s through to the 1990s than we have had since. We learnt the skills.”

He added: “People have to know about the skill of argument.

“Trade unionism is a professional undertaking, and arbitration is a skill that people do not use every day, but have to be taught or learn — to get to a settlement, rather than extending disputes.”

He said that teachers and prison officers today faced longstanding and “crazy” standoffs over their gripes.

He added: “The Government, union and employers have got to get together and discuss what is best to settle a dispute, rather than it just lingering on.”

Mr Simmons's term as BIU president covered some of the most tumultuous episodes in Bermuda's modern history, including the General Strike of 1981.

Thirty-eight years ago this month, the industrial dispute built into a national crisis before the Government capitulated and offered a pay increase to workers.

Mr Simmons, who turns 86 next month, told The Royal Gazette that arbitration could have averted the standoff. He said: “I was told over the phone by a member of the Cabinet, who I will leave unnamed, ‘don't worry; we will agree to arbitration'.

“And there was none. He either would not or could not keep his word. That was disappointing.”

The 1981 impasse built over demands for “phenomenal” wage increases that were fuelled by rampant inflation, he said.

“The wage increase that the union was shooting for was close to 25 per cent,” Mr Simmons said.

Sir David Gibbons, the finance minister of the day, had envisaged a figure not exceeding 15 per cent.

Again declining to give a name, Mr Simmons said that he had not felt that “the Government's negotiator was very truthful”.

He added: “We simply held out. And before you knew it, we got the unsolicited support of hotel workers, from the Bermuda Telephone workers — it has been reported that we had no less than 5,000 workers on strike.”

On May 7, 1981, a deal was struck, with the union winning wage increases averaging 20 per cent. Mr Simmons said: “The difficulty is to get a settlement that is pleasing to the parties — but granting no one party everything.”

Former BIU president Ottiwell Simmons (File photograph)
Ottiwell Simmons, the former president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, during the island's epic strike of 1981 (File photograph)
Condemned, not forgotten: the old Hamilton Police Station on Parliament Street, now being repurposed for conversion to an arbitration centre (File photograph)

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Published May 20, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated May 20, 2019 at 2:27 pm)

Renewed call for Simmons arbitration centre

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