Do you remember when Bermuda’s standard work-week was a five and a half day week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, half-day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Do you remember when ‘annual vacations’ and ‘public holidays’ meant time off without pay? Or a time when employees did not have health insurance? If you do, you know what changed, and you’ll know when change began.
Change Day was February 2nd 1965. Then, in what later came to be called ‘the BELCO riots’, the fledgling BIU confronted an intransigent management backed by a governing establishment that had just begrudgingly begun dismantling Bermuda’s high walls of racial segregation. Until 2nd February 1965, change was excruciatingly slow. From 3rd February 1965, the pace of change accelerated. Not just in workplace relationships, but in every relationship throughout Bermuda’s entire racial, social, political, and economic spectrum.
In 1965, the fledgling BIU, standing almost alone, began a long and bitter series of battles. First for recognition, then for better working conditions and benefits. Though thousands of other workers – and almost all employers – disparaged the BIU, every Bermudian benefited from those early battles fought, and won, by the BIU.
It’s now 2005. Forty years on. Is the BIU – for that matter, all of Bermuda’s major unions – still as relevant and as important now – as then? Have unions, generally, outlived much of their early usefulness?
I believe they have. Pensions, health benefits, safety-at-work issues, quality of life-at-work issues, sexual harassment issues, regulated maximum working hours and payment for over-time, job security, standard agreements between employees and employers, vacation and holiday pay benefits, severance pay, ‘sick’ time, compassionate leave, maternity leave, smoking or non-smoking, and more besides… What isn’t covered by legislation has become enshrined by ‘custom’ or protected by competition.
All western unions have fought their way out of those dark ages when workers could be beaten, starved-out, and locked-out with impunity. Now, in the developed west, workers have encased their rights in national laws. It has happened in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany… and in Bermuda.
Normal pay for a Delta Airlines pilot was over $100,000 a year. These pilots recently concluded a ‘pay cut’ agreement with Delta airline bosses. Delta’s pilots did this in order to help ensure that their ‘jobs’ with Delta Airline would continue. The alternative? Delta’s pilots could keep their high pay. Delta Airlines would then go bankrupt. Delta’s pilots would then be jobless and payless. So? The pilots union agreed to take cuts in pay and benefits.
In the developed west, it seems that Unions are doing more and more bargaining aimed at keeping a business viable and thus protecting continuity of employment. That’s change. Will the same happen here in Bermuda? It will. It must.
On the global scale, Bermudians are top-o-the-heap when it comes to national per capita incomes. This means that Bermuda employers are top-o-the-heap when it comes to wage and salary expenses. This means that the employer/employee combination that makes up the thing called a ‘business’ has top-o-the-heap costs. Bermuda’s top-o-the-heap businesses are now – in 2005 and into the future – in direct competition with other similar businesses elsewhere in the world. Businesses that have much lower costs.
Given the spread of modern technology and the generic commonality of consumer demands, Toyota and General Motors and Renault all make a similar consumer product. In 2005, physical geography still sets workers apart. However the invisible and inexorable realities of global economics, now driven by the interposition of the twenty-year old Internet, forces workers back together again. That’s where wage competition has really gone.
The US car-worker union that wins higher pay for its American worker, simply succeeds in making American-made American cars even more expensive than Japanese-made Japanese cars. In 2005, the reality is that even though he is face-to-face with his US employer, the US worker bargaining for a $25 an hour package is really bargaining against a worker in a foreign country who is bargaining for a $15 an hour package.
If the US worker ‘wins’ a $25 package, US car sales – and thus US car worker jobs – will fall because an American Dodge Saturn can be replaced by a Japanese Toyota Camry or French Renault Megane. Looming in the near future, like the Japanese cars that came in the 1970’s, will be new and inexpensive Chinese cars coming out of a very low wage Chinese economy.
Bermudian workers are now in direct competition with every worker everywhere else in the world. Don’t believe me? Look at the faces around you. Listen to the multitude of accents in our teeny-tiny 35,000 worker environment. Bermudian workers are competing against workers in Ireland and Singapore and Barbados and India and the Philippines and ….
On 2nd February 2005, are Bermuda’s unions still as important as they were forty years ago, on 2nd February 1965? Is their mission still the same?
Like Delta’s pilots, Bermudian workers and Bermuda unions are enmeshed in a new world. In our Bermuda, on 2nd February 2005, the same quality of accelerated change that began forty years ago on 2nd February 1965 is already underway. Changes that have already come are causing the end of some old style wage and benefit bargaining. These changes are driven by the realities of our global economy.
This reality didn’t exist forty years ago on 2nd February 1965.