On the march: Union members were out in numbers on Monday, for the Labour Day celebrations. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
On the march: Union members were out in numbers on Monday, for the Labour Day celebrations. *Photo by Kageaki Smith

In 1981 the powerful Bermuda Industrial Union, then led by Mr. Ottiwell Simmons, flexed its muscles and brought Government and Bermuda to a standstill in the General Strike of 1981.

Listening to the Premier’s Labour Day remarks, I got to thinking: “What really has happened? What do I see?”

In 1981, Bermuda unions had a total membership of 8,735; that was out of a total Bermuda workforce of 30,000 of which 24,000 were Bermudian. So the unions had 36 per cent of the Bermudian workforce and 28 percent of the overall national workforce.

The BIU had a hugely powerful and militant Hotel division and powerful Health, Construction, Longshoremans, Airport Workers, and Transport divisions. It was the power of these divisions that quickly and absolutely brought Bermuda to its 1981 standstill.

Fast forward 27 years to 2008 and beyond. The BIU has lost its Construction division, its Hotel and Longshoremans’ divisions have shrunk and lost much of their power, and BIU membership is now about three-quarters of what it was in 1981.

But this BIU membership decline is against a backdrop of an economy that has boomed.

From 31,042 in 1981, national employment boomed 30 per cent upwards to 40,213 by 2008. But this 30 per cent increase in the workforce happened alongside a 25 per cent decrease in BIU membership. That was contrary change.

In 1996/97, ESSO Bermuda funded the construction of a brand-new BIU-owned gas station on Dundonald Street. But ESSO used non-union labour to construct this facility that was to be owned and operated by the BIU. This was an odd move. But it illustrated how much the BIU had changed - and that some changes were fundamental.

White-collar union

Some of the people who might have gone into the BIU labour union — essentially a blue-collar union —opted to start a different, white-collar union. This other union became today’s Bermuda Public Service Union (BPSU). 

In 2010, the BPSU, representing all Civil Servants and hundreds of white-collar workers in the private sector, is about the same size as the BIU.

In 2010, the BIU has the bulk of its 3,600 membership concentrated in government services (W&E, Parks, Marine, Buses, Health). The Hotel division is a mere shadow of its 1981 self, and the Construction division is a ghostly memory.

The BPSU also represents some retail and technology and other workers in small segments of the private sector.

Taken together, the greatest mass of unionized workers in Bermuda today, actually works for Government.  This is vastly different from 1981 when the greatest mass of BIU organized workers actually worked for the private sector.

There has been a switch.

Today, few unions are likely to go head-to-head with any significant private sector employers. Instead, most unions go head-to-head with Government. Here’s the 2010 union make-up:

  • BIU: Parks, W&E, Marine & Ports, Public Transport, Health, Education, Post Office;
  • BPSU: All Civil Servants, BTC employees;
  • FSU [Fire Services Union] All Bermuda Fire and Rescue personnel;
  • BPA [Bermuda Police Association] All policemen (below a certain rank);
  • BUT [Bermuda Union of Teachers] All Government teachers (and  a few private);
  • ASP [Association of School Principals] All Principals of all Government schools;
  • ESTU [Electricity Supply Trade Union] BELCO workers;
  • POA [Prison Officer’s Association] All Corrections staff (below a certain rank).

If you consider the membership make-up of all these unions, you get a very clear picture that in 2010, the overwhelming majority of all the unionized workers in Bermuda are in Government employ. That is the big switch-about from 1981.

It’s not only odd, it’s indicative of the huge and largely unnoticed kind and quality of change that has taken place in Bermuda.

The vast majority of unionized workers work for Government. Every five years, they have a vote. That’s double power and double influence.

I’ve always said that Bermuda is a complex, sophisticated, and delicately balanced economy. This is one of those unique situations that helps shape the complexity and creates the delicate balance.

It’s an odd balance, especially when compared to some other countries and economies.