We seem to be at an impasse the likes of which we have not seen since 1981 – indeed, the memory of the 1981 General Strike was invoked earlier today, I believe by the BIU President Chris Furbet at the morning rally outside the BIU.
The Unions have made it clear that, from their perspective, the Government has operated in bad faith and they (the unions) no longer trust the Government’s word. In the words of the BPSU President Jason Hayward:
“Yesterday we made a huge mistake. We sent you back to work and they betrayed us. We’re not going to make that mistake again.”
Ultimately, the unions, angered by the disrespect from the Government (from the abrupt end of the Budget Reduction Working Group, the failure of Government to participate in those constructively, and the failure to make the meetings they promised yesterday to resolve the issue), have effectively had enough and:
“Until furlough days are gone, we are not going back to the table – and that’s final” – Chris Furbert.
It should be noted that the unions have also stated that the removal of the furlough days doesn’t have to be a permanent commitment, but that Government had to drop the insistence that they be automatically continued, and Government should explore alternative budget cut options.
Unfortunately Government would appear to be refusing to budge on this. I don’t yet have the full statement from the press conference held by the Premier, flanked by his Cabinet, however I understand he has effectively refused to take the extension of furlough days off the table.
At the same time the Unions are insisting that not only will they not return to discussions until the furlough days issue is off the table – they also will not leave Cabinet grounds.
“The BTUC agreed to work with the Government to ensure that budget cuts were reached. We applauded this partnership, and entered into it with an open heart, open mind, determined feet and strong hands; because we truly believe that the people’s interest must be held as sacred.”
“We had faith that the Government meant the people well and we truly believed from the bottom of our hearts that they held our people’s interest in high regard.”
“We were willing to make the sacrifices and to negotiate reasonably so that the ship of state could get into safe harbour. While we were operating in good faith at the table, the Government was operating under the table in bad faith. We are now fully convinced that this Government’s currency is eloquent words along with mistrustful deeds.”
“At this point, our only response is – the People first, the People second, and the People third! We will fight to defend the People’s rights, the People’s desires, the People’s aspirations, and the People’s determination for a better today and a sustainable tomorrow!”
“We will fight for justice, equity, transparency, and good governance! We want to see public morality implemented in the way in which the Government operates in Bermuda. You cannot say one thing and operate otherwise!”
“We put the Government on warning – we are on the right side of history and we shall not be moved! Just like a tree planted by the waters – WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED!”
Fighting words indeed – the trust relationship between the two sides is pretty much completely gone now.
The question is what this means.
The Government has vowed not to remove furlough days from consideration is essentially threatening a lock-out and/or unilateral salary reductions or even redundancies for public sector workers.
The Unions have vowed not to return to the table, or leave Cabinet grounds until furlough days are taken off the table.
Who’ll back down first?
Government Strategy & Tactics
I would expect the Government will rely on a mix of scare tactics (lock-out, unilateral salary reductions, job cuts) against the workers, and try to pit workers against themselves. I mean here particularly the private sector workers, but also segments within the striking workers and their support base itself.
A key target there will be pushing the angle of children missing school.
Other tactics will be directed against ‘residents’ in the sense of wearing down public support for the workers. Already Government is issuing warnings about disruption to transport and waste collection.
The other main strategy of Government will be to simply out-last the will of the workers – see if the unions and their members will simply grow tired of the impasse and leave, forcing the unions to back down.
On the Union Side
The Unions will have to move to counter the above strategy and tactics of Government while also maintaining their de facto occupation.
- What’s needed to sustain the occupation of Cabinet grounds?
- I don’t think it’s wise or practical for the entire membership to be present 24/7. A much better system would be to develop some sort of shift-work to ensure that there is a presence 24/7. How this will be worked out, I’m not sure, but I’d like to think each division of workers would organise a worker’s council and assign shift rotas for that purpose.
- Basic food and medical services will be required. This would require, at a minimum, a table providing basic food (peas and rice are cheap and nutritious) and another table (or tent) with basic medical support.
- Toilets – There are public toilets by the Cabinet Lawn – whether these are sufficient for the numbers present is a different question. I believe there’s also some toilets in the Opposition Leaders office, and these may also be made available to the workers. Failing that, there’s also toilets at Pier Six, and it might be useful to expand the occupation of the Cabinet Lawn to include Pier Six (a public building, I believe owned by the CoH). Doing this would dramatically raise the stakes however, for both good and bad.
- Security – Union stewards will largely fill this role, ensuring order within the demonstrators, as well as keeping an eye out for provocation or even imminent attack (moves to disperse the demonstrators). The unions should also be making it a priority to engage with the Police Association and other police on the ground to ensure cordial relations, reducing the risk of a mis-communication and rapid escalation. I don’t really see any move by the police to disperse the workers, however such an action cannot be ruled out – labour history is replete with examples of such, and it would be foolhardy not to consider the possibility.
- Shelter – Will they need tents put up to shelter from the sun, wind and rain?
- What’s needed to counter Government strategy/tactics?
- Community Support. This is crucial. Without a critical mass of support from the wider community it will be hard for the workers to maintain their actions. This can take different forms. It could be members of the community bringing food and drink to the workers for example. This will help the workers withstand the hardship of occupation.
- Neighbourhood Organisation. Workers are not simply workers – they’re also residents. Going on strike or actions like this is a last resort. It’s already known that the Government has announced garbage collection disruption. Now, I’d like to think the Unions will approach the waste management workers and ask them to provide a basic service here – at the very least collecting from main roads and asking residents to make the extra effort to take the trash to the main roads. Alternatively, the unions might seek to encourage neighbourhood organisation to deal with the trash issue. Someone in the neighbourhood has a truck? See if the owner will make it available, set up a collection system, help cover the petrol cost, provide a labour rota to help load up and unload the trash. This will need, at the very least, a rudimentary neighbourhood council – which in turn might choose to develop into something more robust, perhaps providing neighbourhood watch security, or organising food drives or whatnot to support the workers movement. They may also develop their own car-pooling system to help those who normally rely on public transport.
- Transportation – I touched on this above. Now, it’s possible the workers might elect to operate a basic public transportation system, at the very least covering the main routes at an hourly rate. They could even refuse to take fares, and essentially be ‘occupying’ the buses. This might be a form of ‘strike’ which would curry support with the wider public, undermining tactics to alienate the workers from the people.
- Education – No teacher is happy about disrupting child’s education. If they’re striking it’s because they believe this is the only way to guarantee the future for those children, as well as to ensure the quality of education for the children in the long-run. Now, there’s some options here. During the occupation of the Cabinet Lawn teachers might elect to set up ‘teach-ins’. Maybe this can be rotated, so four days out of five they do return to school, but one day they teach at the Cabinet Lawn. This could be rotated so that at any one day there’s a teach-in (or multiple teach-ins) at Cabinet Lawn. A full-out withdrawal of labour from education is not the only possibility that teachers can adopt in this situation.
- Communication – This will be key. The Unions need to ensure that they’re message is known and not silenced or spun by the Government and/or the media. With the rise of social media communication has been greatly democratised, and so I think the Unions will be okay here – provided they capitalise on the resources available to them. They have their own websites, Facebook pages and even friendly radio stations at their disposal. They should maximise these opportunities to ensure their side of the story is known. I would advocate an aggressive educational campaign on these sites explaining the opposition to an extended furlough system, as well as articulating alternatives they support. By the Union’s own admission they proposed savings of up to $65-85m. Tell us what they were and why you think they’d work. Win the people to your side with reason.
Some of this can be organised from within the Unions themselves. Each division can meet, deliberate and vote on what to do. Or some of it can be spontaneous from the community. There’s nothing stopping neighbours convening a meeting and figuring out what to do to best handle the situation.
These neighbours might not even support the workers at the moment, but by engaging in democratic activities for their neighbourhoods they benefit from an expanded and participatory democracy all the same. Whether they support the workers or not, this in itself is something positive in my opinion.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think there should be any scabs, that is non-workers taking over the workplaces to do those workers jobs. I don’t think that would be helpful at all. There are no essential services that will be impacted by this mass strike – workers in those services anyway would ensure there’s at least basic service there.
Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance…
I recognise that all this might blow over in a matter of hours. However, if it doesn’t, if things continue to escalate, then I think it’s necessary to start asking some practical questions about what this impasse and the de facto mass strike entails.
I’ve put forward some initial practical questions and potential answers above – what else should one be considering here?
No harm in being prepared after all!