The strike is over.
The battle is won.
Victory to labour – to the workers and the unions.
At least for now.
The class war continues.
The Current Situation
It appears that the strike action by the labour movement has won the day, with management at Hamilton Princess acknowledging they handled this whole incident badly and have reinstated some of the workers (at least the unionised ones).
Make no mistake, this was an important event, and was not just important for the particular issue of the workers at Hamilton Princess.
As stated in an earlier post, the capitalist class has been advancing an aggressive move to roll-back workers rights and conditions. Workers throughout the public and private sector seem to be reporting daily assaults on collective working conditions and rights, with the case at Hamilton Princess being perhaps the most brazen and most obvious one.
The workers actions need to be seen in the light of these pin-pricks as the capitalist class has tested the waters of rolling back worker’s rights.
This was a defensive move that has collectively told the capitalist class that labour is ready – and able – to defend itself. It tells those looking to roll back workers conditions and rights that labour will not roll over and allow this.
A Temporary Lull?
For the immediate moment the push to roll back workers rights is likely to be put on hold.
It is doubtful that this will be anything but a temporary lull. There are many battles ahead, and the Minister of Finance effectively threw down the gauntlet to labour in his speech to the Chamber of Commerce on Monday morning.
There will be battles ahead on the issues of privatisation (or ‘mutualisation’ as the Government is trying to re-word it), pension reform and further cuts to the public sector – which may or may not include lay-offs, but are certain to have repercussions going forward. Cuts to Financial Assistance and Legal Aid, for example, are already helping to both reinforce and exacerbate inequalities in our society.
And there are many, primarily in the capitalist class, who would appear to be looking for an excuse or an opportunity to crush the BIU (as the strongest and most militant of our labour unions).
So, the battle is won, but the class war continues.
The recent events has helped to rally organised labour (while it involved just the BIU itself, other unions were monitoring the situation, with the BPSU, at least, giving clear indications that they were supportive of the BIU and could take action in solidarity with them.
This is important. However, the threat to workers conditions and rights remains, and labour would do well to remember the slogan of the Bermuda Workers Association – Be Watchful Always. We know battles are looming, however that doesn’t mean we know exactly when and where the next battle will break out.
The Chamber of Commerce
A rather unexpected incident, in amongst the whole strike, was the role of the Chamber of Commerce’s (CoC) Executive Director taking the opportunity to yell rather unnecessary insults towards the marching workers as they passed the pub she was visiting.
While Ms McPhee has since apologised and subsequently been suspended without pay by the CoC, and was speaking in a private capacity during a day off, her comments, especially due to her position, were both unfortunate and potentially provocative. Quite frankly she should have known better.
I don’t wish any ill will to Ms McPhee.
However, on account of her position, and on account of the perceived close relationship between the CoC and the OBA Government, her intervention is likely to help polarise issues here even further. I hope she takes the time to reflect on this and to work to make amends for her unfortunate action here.
This was a self-inflicted and unexpected incident that has helped strengthen labour and substantially weakened the room to manoeuvre for the capitalists.
Some Critical Comments
While labour ‘won’ this battle, there are some things that have disappointed me:
- While the union acted firstly to defend the interests of the affected workers and, secondly, to defend the interests of all workers (in as much as letting the CBA in question be flouted would have set a precedent for the capitalist class to flout further CBA (and general worker) conditions and rights. That is good. However, the only workers who got their jobs reinstated where the unionised workers. There were four other workers who have not been reinstated. I cannot help but feel that the union could have done more to help the non-unionised workers in questions, although its possible those workers did not express an interest in being reinstated, or this outcome was the best compromise the unions could negotiate under the circumstances.
- I felt that the union could have made more of an effort to link this action from the particular (flouting of the CBA) to the general (attacks on workers and the vulnerable). They did raise the point of ensuring there was proper training pathways for Bermudians to enter further employment (Bar Porters being step to becoming Bar Tenders). However, more could have been done to push for unemployment insurance, a living minimum wage and greater support for the vulnerable (increased Financial Assistance and Legal Aid). I had a similar criticism last year when the collective unions signed a memorandum of understanding with the OBA Government – I felt they had conceded without winning the concessions I believe they could have (including a freeze on rent, repossessions and utilities, for example). The union seems to win small battles but underestimate its ability to win more.
- Public Relations. While this incident was somewhat unusual in that the Hamilton Princess’s mishandling was so clear, and this led to more voices in support of the union’s actions than previous incidents – with even the responsible Minister (Fahy) agreeing with the union that the HamPrincess had messed up – the union does need a more pro-active PR system to communicate what’s happening and why.
- Tactically, the biggest criticism of the union when it takes industrial action is the disruption to public transport as buses and ferries cease operating. I believe it may be possible to develop an alternative to a full shut-down of the public transportation system going forward. While the workers did operate for the school run, there is an option for them to run at a reduced ‘skeleton’ service, much as they do at night, operating only the main routes and at a reduced frequency. Alternatively, they could operate a full fleet but refuse to take fares. These would still make a point, but help ensure greater solidarity with the union. It would certainly reduce the ability for anti-union people to try and drive a wedge between workers solidarity on this issue.