Unhappy: Protestors make their point during the TELCO Strike in 1972, which entailed around-the-clock picketing. *Photo courtesy of the BIU

There have been worker strikes, a court injunction forcing employees back to work, legislation to prevent strikes and a protest to the aforementioned proposal.


It’s been an eventful few weeks for organized labour and government alike.

Last month bus and ferry workers went on strike in support of a handful of sacked hotel workers. Later in the month, Marine and Ports, which includes ferry operators, downed tools again, prompting the government to obtain a court injunction to force the striking employees back to work. 

Additionally, the OBA-led government has announced plans to consider a significant restructuring of the way a slew of government services are delivered to the public. 

Privatization, mutualization and outsourcing of various public departments and entities are all on the table, something that could ruffle union feathers in the year to come.

With that as a backdrop, a piece of legislation pushed by Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy proposes adding public transportation to the list of the island’s “essential services”.

That move would mean ferry workers, bus drivers and tug and line boat operators who deal with cruise ships when such vessels come into port, would have to give 21 days’ notice before going on strike. 

So-called wildcat strikes by public transit employees would become illegal under the proposal.

Earlier this week, large crowds of union workers marched on Parliament in protest of the plan. Bermuda Industrial Union President Chris Furbert said that under international labour laws, public transport was not considered an essential service. 

He said his membership was concerned about the proposal.

Bermuda is not the only jurisdiction wrangling with the question of how to deal with public transit strikes. In the U.K.,last month Prime Minister David Cameron considered classing the London Underground “an essential service” after tube workers went on strike for two days in reaction to job losses.

Here in Bermuda, striking unions clashing with the powers that be is nothing new. 

We take a look back at the labour developments that have shaped the island over the past 150 years and how we ended up here.

150 years of labour relations: the key moments

August 10, 1863 The island’s first strike lasts one day. Dockworkers at St. George’s strike for higher wages. 

1919 The island’s first union — the Bermuda Union of Teachers — is formed

January 1941 Bermuda Workers Association — the forerunner to the BIU — is founded. 

1946 Dr. E.F. Gordon, president of the Bermuda Workers Association and father of the modern labour movement in Bermuda, travels to London, with a petition asking the British government to investigate economic and racial inequalities on the island.

September 3, 1946 The Trade Union & Dispute Act introduces the legal framework of the labour relations, including those between workers and employers.

April 1947 The Bermuda Workers Association creates a trade union arm. It’s called the Bermuda Industrial Union.

1955 Labour leadership is in a state of disarray and union membership is down after the death of Dr. Gordon.

1959 Dockworkers strike, saying they are paid pittance and treated harshly by the foremen. The frustration erupts into violence on September 16.

1963 Employment of  Children & Young Person’s Act puts age limitations on workers in the work place.

1965 BELCO strike. A strike for union recognition at BELCO (Bermuda Electric Light Company Ltd) is marred by violence. Police and picketers are injured. 

1965 Trade Union Act 1965 details what a group of workers must do to unionize. It also outlines the rules that govern the conduct of unions and allows unions to purchase and own land.

1968 Dockworkers and bus drivers strike in January. Bermuda Aviation Service Employees strike in August. A month later Bermuda Bakery employees down their tools for two weeks,  while 400 teachers also go on strike.

March 1971 Stevedores and bus drivers launch a sympathy strike with pilots, who have been on strike since January 9. Cruise ships and cargo vessels are affected. The strike is settled by a British labour adviser who was flown in with the specific task of working something out.

March 1972 A Shell employee is dismissed and a sympathy strike begins. It includes garbage collectors, bus drivers, pilots, dockworkers and ferry captains.

1975 Labour Relations Act 1975 gives general provisions for the inquiry into the settlement of labour disputes, including conciliation, mediation, arbitration, special provisions relating to essential services, provisions relating to the permanent arbitration tribunal. It also establishes picketing rules.

April 1981 A long-standing pay dispute causes a strike of non-medical staff at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. Government workers join them in a show of solidarity. The strike spreads to the hotels. Crowds block access to the causeway and the airport. Tourists leave Bermuda; the island effectively closes down as the government struggles to deal with Bermuda’s first real General Strike.

May 7 1981 the strike ends and all workers return to their jobs.

1991 Labour Relations Amendment Act Amends the 1975 legislation; provides effective machinery for fairly and peacefully resolving disputes. 

2001 Employment Act of 2000 details a number of employee entitlements, including notice of termination rights and various benefits such as vacation, sick leave and maternity. It also mandates a written contract setting out fundamental terms of an employment relationship and provides that employees can only be dismissed for a valid reason, like ability, or conduct. 

Sources: Bermuda Industrial Union documents; “Labour on the March” by Alvin Williams and Leleath Bailey.