Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dr Barbara Ball: Labour Leader

Bermuda lost a hero this week. The passing of Dr Barbara Ball trade union leader, parliamentarian is the loss of another leader in our long, collective quest for social justice. Those who knew Dr Ball understood well that behind her quiet demeanour stood a firm resolve. She steered trade unionism though its deepest challenge and helped set it on the course to legitimacy. Dr Ball’s selfless commitment to working women and men is instructive and we can all benefit by better understanding her contribution to Bermuda.

Although formed in 1947, the Bermuda Industrial Union was still a weak union struggling for members and recognition as late as the mid-1960s. The single most important battle for recognition was at Belco in January 1965. On the one hand there was the Belco board comprised of the old elite; on the other hand there was the BIU led by Secretary General Ball. Hundreds of working men and women came out to support Belco employees in their struggle for union recognition and the tension with the police soon broke out into scuffles. Legend has it that Dr Ball tamed an overly aggressive police officer with her martial arts skills. Ball led the union into this battle against the dominant elite because trade union recognition was a fundamental right in a democracy. The BIU lost this battle since Belco created their own union and got this one validated. But the BIU would win the war. Under Secretary General Ball, the BIU had made the case for trade union recognition in 1965 and all subsequent efforts to win recognition were conflict-free. Indeed, when Dr Ball led the union to seek recognition in hotels and construction companies the following year, the owners agreed to the BIU without even requesting a ballot. This is what brought about trade union legitimacy. Every collective agreement since then was only made possible by the critical groundwork set in the 1960s by Dr Ball and the BIU.

Sometimes referred to as the “quiet lady of labour”, Barbara Ball made a principled-based decision to make her life’s mission the cause of workers’ rights, even though she knew it would come at great personal sacrifice. As a white woman and medical doctor in segregated Bermuda, Ball could easily have been seduced into the world of privilege, materialism and separation that was high, white society. She was not. Instead, she endured ostracism from the white community for being both a union activist and later joining and representing the PLP as a Member of Parliament. In a telling letter to Ottiwell Simmons, her union colleague studying overseas, Dr Ball was commenting on how she was treated by Governor Gasgoine at the Garden Party at Government House: “When the Governor shook his hands with me he didn’t even look at me or say anything. The same thing happened last year.” This ostracism would remain, long after she left public life, in a sad comment on modern Bermuda.

When Dr Ball addressed issues there was measured delivery. She was no firebrand leader; she attacked no individual. The success she achieved in winning union rights was through the strength of the union position and the active support of union members.

It seems clear that her actions were motivated by her desire to rid Bermuda of its injustices, in both civil and political society. In a world where it is so easy to question the motives of those who seek to represent us, Dr Ball stands out as someone whose commitment and integrity to the cause of the people provokes no question. She was exactly as she appeared. And we should celebrate her contribution.

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