If you have not yet read the book ‘Labour on the March: The Story of Labour Day’, you are depriving yourself insight into an important time of Bermuda’s labour history.
Written by Leleath Bailey, a former President of the Bermuda Public Services Association, and Alvin Williams, a columnist and long-serving member of the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU), this book is a must-read for anyone interested in developing a better understanding of our shared history. ‘Labour on the March: The Story of Labour Day’ describes the history behind the official recognition of Labour Day.
It describes how the historic 1981 strike was the catalyst for Bermuda’s official recognition Labour Day. The book describes how in the last days of April 1981, the BIU President Ottiwell Simmons called for an island-wide strike as a result of wage disputes in both the public and private sector.
To counter this, Premier Sir David Gibbons appeared on television to plea with the public not to join the strike. In
response, Bro. Ottiwell Simmons warned Premier Gibbons that if his government did not move to settle the strike, he might find himself without a country.
The next day, thousands of people from all sectors of the workforce congregated at Union Square (now officially named the Dr EF Gordon Square) to begin a massive march through the streets of Hamilton. In support for trade union movement, many workers from other Unions joined the strike including:
  • the Bermuda Fire Services Association
  • the Bermuda Public Services Association (currently known as the Bermuda Public Services Union)
  • the Bermuda Union of Teachers
  • the Electrical Supply Trade Union (from the Bermuda Electric Light Company) and
  • many other workers from other sectors of Bermuda’s workforce
That very day, the Bermuda Hospitals Board decided to settle with the Union despite attempts by United Bermuda Party (UBP) MP Harry Viera and others to disrupt talks.
In an unprecedented move, the President of the Chamber of Commerce made an appeal on television to end to the strike and stated that the Chamber would consider the plight of the workers. The next day, May 5, 1981, the Government settled for a pay increase that was much higher than what was originally demanded by the workers.
History had been made.
The Fight for Labour Day
During Labour Advisory Council meetings, the BIU initiated discussions for a Labour Day holiday. Subsequently, at the request the BIU, Lawyer Richard Hector drafted the Bill to establish a Labour Day holiday and in 1982, Mr Eugene Cox, the then Shadow Minister for Labour and Home Affairs, placed a motion before Parliament.
While the Government did not object to the principles of the Bill, the point of contention was the BIU and PLP’s insistence that the holiday be held on May 1st which is the date globally recognised to acknowledge both workers’ contributions and the sacrifice of lives during a peaceful demonstration held at Haymarket in Chicago in 1884.
The UBP, however, strongly opposed recognising Labour Day on May 1st because of its association with the Eastern European countries in the Communist bloc. As a result, the UBP Government amended the Bill to have Labour Day on the first Monday in September, in line with the observance in the United States and Canada, arguing that it would be more beneficial for tourism.
The Opposition PLP ultimately supported this proposal and the Bill was passed in Parliament on March 29, 1982. The first Labour Day was observed Monday, 6 September 1982.
It is important to note that Bermuda’s labour Unions are still fighting for the recognition of May 1st as the official Labour Day.
The Bermuda Trade Union Congress encourages everyone to come out and join in the Labour Day March and Rally at Union Square on Monday, September 3rd, starting at 11am as we ‘Progress to a Fairer Bermuda’.
We are asking all to wear red which is the official colour of labour.
Labour Day is not just for unionised workers, it is for ALL WORKERS!