Fortunately, few Bermudians take Robert Stewart seriously — and his column on Wednesday certainly provided some of us with comic relief. 

But most of us in the labour movement saw the article as an insult to all hard working Bermudians, especially those “sheroes” and heroes who gave their blood, sweat and tears so their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whether black or white, would benefit from organized labour in Bermuda.

But rather than dwell upon Mr. Stewart’s foolish utterances, I will use this column to remind Bermudians, and others, of the benefits gained from the sacrifices made by people such as Dr. E.F. Gordon, Austin Wilson, Dr. Eustace Cann, Gerald Brangman, Martin T. Wilson, Doris Cholmondoley, Ann Pindar and Dr. Barbara Ball.

Thanks to them — and others of bygone eras too numerous to name —workers in Bermuda now enjoy vacation pay, overtime pay, maternity and paternity leave, compassionate leave and other benefits that were unimaginable in Bermuda before 1945.

In his book The History Of The Bermuda Industrial Union, author Ira Philip writes: “So oppressive were conditions in Bermuda that during the first 115 years after Emancipation, workers were able to mount only three major demonstrations against exploitation of their labour in 1853, 1902, and 1945.

Petition

“The 1945 protests resulted in the dispatch of Dr. Gordon to London with the now historic BWA Petition, urging the British government to send a Royal Commission to investigate social, economic and political conditions in Bermuda and to make recommendations for alleviation and adjustment of the several handicaps under which the great majority of the population laboured.”

Few would expect Mr. Stewart to comment on the horrors of slavery or how the Africans transported to the ‘New World’ were exploited by the men and women who employed and paid wages to the overseers during slavery and after Emancipation. 

Bermudians should know the 1853 protest by black workers came about because the government of the day — a very popular term these days — preferred to import white Portuguese labourers to undercut wage rates demanded by black workers. 

Interestingly enough, just a few weeks ago the BIU met with a Portuguese contractor who wanted to import Portuguese masons. 

When told by the Ministry of Labour that he would have to hire Bermudians first, he said that he would close his business. 

I wonder if that employer would be one that Mr. Stewart admires.

According to Mr. Stewart: “Unions are simply cartels with compulsory membership that exist to institutionalise envy, impede efficiency and restrict competition in labour markets — all to the detriment of the general public.”

What an inane statement for anyone to make, let alone a man who dubs himself an economist.

A real economist would know that there is no such thing as compulsory membership for trade unions, certainly not those in Bermuda. 

A real economist would know that trade unions facilitate efficiency and encourage competition in the labour markets.

A real economist would know there is no way trade unions could be described as “cartels”. 

According to Wikipedia, a cartel is “a formal (explicit) agreement among competing firms”. 

Mr. Stewart would have been closer to the mark if he had described the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce and the Bermuda Employers Council as “cartels”. These organizations consist of business leaders and advisors who join together to promote their joint interests. 

Arguably, the most important of these interests is to charge the highest prices the market can bear and to keep wages low.

This objective becomes easier to achieve when firms with similar interests are members of the same umbrella organizations.

Bermuda’s businesses find they can more easily achieve their goals when they join forces. 

It follows that the ordinary worker, who on average is so much weaker than even the weakest businesses, surely must also join together with other workers if he is to have any hope of offsetting the combined efforts of the business for whom he works.

Sacrifices

Mr. Stewart’s opening statement is far from the truth in 2010 or at any time in the past. 

Labour Day no longer means “big crowds in Barnard Park”.  

Unfortunately, because of the unquestioned courage and sacrifices of the union leaders past and present, too many Bermudians agree with Mr. Stewart.

They no longer think of themselves as beneficiaries of the labour movement, started by those courageous men and women listed above. 

Many blue and white collar workers of the last decade believe they have made it as a result of their own hard work. 

But those of us who know the labour history of Bermuda know this to be far from the truth. 

Those of us who are involved in the trade union movement today would love to see crowds of Bermudians celebrating Labour Day by listening to leaders in the labour movement — men and women who continue in their quest to make Bermuda a fair and just place for all workers.