As normally happens in situations like this, time is going in one of those weird moments where it’s both too slow and too fast at the same time, events are developing, and people are learning more about politics and labour rights in hours than they did in days, and more in a day than they did in years.
Having made the mistake of flying out on Friday the 23rd to attend to some business in Scotland, I’m frustratingly missing out on direct participation in the events on the ground.
The Government has instituted section 11 of the Labour Disputes Act 1992, which declares the current situation to be a labour dispute and refers it to a Labour Disputes Tribunal. As noted in an earlier post, this allows section 19 of the same Act to come into play, rendering continued industrial action illegal.
The unions seem to be calling the Government’s bluff on this and have announced a General Meeting (not technically a strike, as have been the actions of the last 48 hours).
Importantly, this General Meeting tomorrow is not restricted solely to public sector workers – the unions have explicitly called on all their members – this includes the hotels, and other unionised private sector workplaces (such as the docks).
To quote BIU President Chris Furbert:
“Now we only have government workers, but we are calling on the rest of our members to be at BIU headquarters to support their brothers and sisters.”
While still not a strike, in a technical sense, this is essentially moving the action from what I termed a ‘mass strike’ into a ‘general strike’.
There have been criticisms that there’s been a failure to ballot members over the last 48hrs. Not being on the ground I can’t speak to that, but encourage those who have concerns about that to search out their shop stewards and get an explanation. The members are the unions and democracy is critical to unionism. I would expect that tomorrow will see a ballot for General Strike however – so I think that makes it all the more important for all members to attend and argue the pros and cons of such, and participate actively in the decision.
BPSU President does however say this:
“The council has given me the authority for further action. However, we are not prepared to push that button yet. We are asking our members to meet us here at 9am.”
Bermuda has seen mass strikes before, including under the PLP.
However, Bermuda has not experienced a General Strike since 1981.
Although I was alive in 1981, I was but a toddler. I don’t recall Bermuda ever reaching this level of industrial strife since I was able to be aware of such events.
This is new territory for all of is. We even have a full-on occupation of Cabinet Lawn with union leaders and members camping out overnight and standing strong despite the rain.
Government is going to try and intimidate the workers – it’s threatening both the use of section 19 to scare away workers and also to deduct their pay. This might work for some workers, but I think a critical mass is going to come out tomorrow. I think the Government has miscalculated here, at least in the short-term. Whether they’ve got a longer-term plan we should be aware of is something that should, however, be kept in mind.
I think it’s also important not to get carried away by this action either.
This is not (I highly doubt) the start of a revolution. It is however a monumental moment in our labour and political history.
In the BPSU position paper on the Public Sector Reform Act made it clear that from the unions perspective (well, technically just the BPSU, but I think it’s a shared position) that they see the OBA’s actions as:
“It is evident that the Government is forcefully driving its agenda of neo-liberalism, an agenda that can be described as shifting control of economic factors from the public sector to the private sector.”
This is more than just the matter of furlough days; this is a build up of the friction the ideological agenda of the OBA has created, facilitated by its disrespect towards organised labour; and it is, ultimately, an ideological clash, one which is increasingly becoming crystallised and, in some ways, mirrors the ideological oppositions expressed between the anti-austerity Syriza in Greece and the ‘fiscal waterboarding’ and structural adjustment approach of neo-liberal orthodoxy.
Some Immediate Practical Thoughts
Already, the mass strike has taken action on some of the aspects I mentioned. Specifically, shelter is being erected in the form of tents, facilitating the ability of a 24/7 occupation of Cabinet Lawn. Food has also been organised, and there’s even a music band in place. These are all vital for keeping up the spirits of those leading the movement on the ground.
I had also raised the issue of developing some sort of shift system to ensure constant occupation of the grounds. I don’t know if that’s being organised, but I would imagine it is.
With the invoking of the Labour Disputes Act 1992, and the very obvious threat of using that Act’s section 19, I think it’s also time to now consider more seriously the issue of security.
I still think it is unlikely that we’ll see any police attempts to disperse the workers or arrest the leaders. Nonetheless, the potential for that is much greater now, with the escalation by Minister Fahy.
If I were there I would be looking to set up sentries at the entrances and at the junctions (Reid and Court; Reid and Parliament; Front Street – I’d also set up a few other sentries, say at Spurling Hill, Court and Victoria, Reid and Burnaby as an early warning system). I’d also set up a regular patrol. The objective here isn’t to engage the police in confrontation; rather it’s to ensure that all those occupying the area are alert and not caught off-guard.
I’d also ensure that the Union Leaders are well-protected. There’s a possibility that the State will seek to try and decapitate the movement. While this is unlikely to work due to the cell structure of the movement, it would still stun the movement and this moment of indecision could undermine the whole movement. Targeted arrests are difficult to do if the target is well surrounded by supporters though.
Conceivably, in a worst case scenario, it may be necessary to consider some sort of barricades. I doubt that will be necessary, but it’s good to prepare for the worst, to at least have a plan.
I want to stress here that there is no need for violence.
If the police come it’s better to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. It’s even better to engage the police and win them over to your side! In other jurisdictions police will often attempt to provoke a violent reaction, be it through outright provocation or the use of strategic stressors. Our police have very little experience in those techniques though, although that can also mean that they’ll be presented with a situation they don’t know how to handle, and thus engage in counter-productive tactics.
I would encourage lawyers to be present 24/7, in a shift system, to ensure that the rights of those demonstrating are respected. The police sometimes take advantage of civilian ignorance of the law in these situations. Lawyers being present reduce that possibility and ensure that non-violent conflict resolution is used instead.
Again, I don’t see any mass police action as being realistic – it’s not my intention to scare anyone. I’ve just experienced police actions against demonstrators in different countries and so I guess I think about it during these situations. Consider it a reflex!
Much more important and pressing than worst-case scenario precautions though will be ensuring a well organised occupation. The public toilets there will need to be stocked with soap and toilet paper. A rota for ensuring their cleanliness will need to be devised.
It will also be important to ensure litter is picked up and disposed of properly. In some jurisdictions police have used litter and hygiene laws to justify clearing occupations. Don’t give any excuse for such actions. Besides, a well-run occupation sends a message of the commitment of the movement and strengthens the movement.
I also noted previously that it will be important to ensure the wider community is not alienated. There are alternatives to downing tools when it comes to industrial actions. Bus drivers can refuse fares but ensure transport runs. Teachers can do teach-ins. There’s potential for new tactics to be developed and employed here.