The dying throes of organized labor Harper's Magazine - Illustrations by Richard Mia

The dying throes of organized labor Featured

IN my youth, circa the mid-1960s, while working with Raul Manglapus in the Christian Social Movement (CSM), the precursor of PDP Laban, CDP and the Centrist Movements, I had the privilege of meeting some of the prominent names of the labor movement, the peasants and the fisherfolk — Juan (Johnny) Tan of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) and Jeremias (Jerry) Montemayor of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF). These founders were driven by their desire to better the lives of their members — workers and farmers. With Manglapus, they articulated the Centrist (Christian) democratic principles. These were men inspired by the papal encyclicals of Pope Leo 13th (1891), Rerum Novarum, Graves de Communi Re; Pope Pius 11th (1931), Quadragesimo Anno; Pope John 23rd (1961) Mater et Magistra; and Pope John Paul 2nd (1991), Centesimus Annus. For a hundred years, these encyclicals promoted concepts of social justice, preferential option for the poor, and the value of human dignity, which is the core of Centrist (Christian) Democracy. (This columnist’s The Fellowship of the 300, a book on Centrist Democracy, came out in 2014.)

These were the guiding principles that propelled labor into the mainstream of the national political conversation and championed the growth of organized labor during those decades.

But previous to this was also the rebirth of the truly leftist militant labor that later transformed the movement differently from that envisioned by the moderate groups of FFW and CSM — the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) founded by the breakaway group of Felixberto ‘Ka Bert” Olalia Sr. from the TUCP. Whereas the moderates deemed capital to be the full partner of labor towards the development of man and society, the militants viewed this relationship as confrontational in the classic dictum of Karl Marx, “…you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

The labor force was divided along ideological lines with the militants suspicious and accusing the moderates of having a more than cushy relationship with capitalists and the government. The state with its axiomatic concern for keeping industrial peace heightened its suppression of labor’s method of organizing — along the lines of the European and American tradition. This approach did not wash with the state, particularly during the martial law years of the Marcos regime.

The Industrial Peace Act of 1953 (Republic Act 875), which promoted the collective bargaining agreement, was the initial instrument to regulate workers’ resistance against the inevitable onslaught of capitalism and also as a response to the incipient communist labor movement in the 1950s. This was later amended during the Marcos regime through the enactment of the Philippine Labor Code under PD 442 in 1974. It aimed to streamline and guarantee the right of labor to organize unions, on a one-union-one industry system, but enforced mediation and conciliation as methods of dispute settlements. The intention of the regime was to strengthen the dictator’s hand by entangling the workers’ class actions in a web of legal restrictions; in effect also redefining the workers’ right to strike as a first option, making it an “illegal act.”

The unexpected consequence was the predominance of union bureaucracies and intense rivalries between union federations in organizing CBA rights with private companies, resulting in an ideologically polarized working class. Thus, the more the unions were organized under the lucrative CBA, the more the workers were fragmented. Rolando “Ka Lando” Olalia, the son of KMU founder “Ka Bert,” declared before he was murdered in 1986 that “about 85 percent of today’s supposed leaders of the working class are engaged in racketeering.”

This is the current state of organized labor. The ideologically divided workers through their organized unions are easy prey for the political exigencies of traditional politics. A lucrative partnership has evolved between the powerful union bosses manipulating and using their members to extend their influence into the political arena — or at the very least a promise of a seat at the table with the winning senatorial or presidential hopeful.

At the turn of this century, there was still a strong and noisy labor vote that propelled political survivors like “Ka Blas” Ople, who parlayed his 19 years as secretary/minister of labor and employment under Marcos and later Cory, into a Senate seat and the Senate presidency.

The same labor political clout at the polls thrust Ernesto “Boy” Herrera, general secretary of the Trade Unions of the Philippines (TUCP/KMP) to the Senate despite the accusations of the not-so-hidden strings of American funding of the trade union through the CIA front National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

No more. This past election cycle sadly saw the castration of the once vaunted labor vote. This simply reflected the observation of columnists Marlen Ronquillo of the Manila Times that during the “Labor Day of 2019, we saw none of the potency and power of the labor protests of the past,” and harkening back to the glory days: “During those dangerous times, one thing stood out. Organized labor, probably because of its pure, unselfish dedication to the causes of the working man, was respected. The leaders of the major labor centers and federations were nationally recognized names.”

This columnist’s nostalgic reckoning could be construed as the silencing of the labor voice, exposing the myth of a labor vote (much like that of a Catholic vote), and cruelly by inference, the dying throes of organized labor.

I watched carefully the monochromatic campaign of labor candidates lawyer Sonny Matula, president of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) and the second senatorial run of his confederate, labor lawyer Allan Montaño, erstwhile FFW president. The dismal election results belie the assumptions of pro-labor candidates that their interests are in consonance with the perception of the voters or even this government’s agenda; unless of course these nonentities and wannabees are not exactly the personalities that represent and inspire organized labor.

On another level, one can’t help conclude also that the messaging didn’t resonate with the voters in general and labor votes in particular; or worse, it simply insinuates that labor’s general welfare is subordinate and may not disturb the mutual interests of this tripartite collusion — the union bosses, the oligarchy which owns and controls the means of production, and an irresolute state. Thus, even during the first half of the reign of the Deegong, his campaign promise to end contractualization and regularization of “endo” never did happen.

The militant labor on the other hand under the united leftist front seems to have held their own through the various permutations brought about by the proliferation of the “party-lists.” These perverted vehicles through which these fringe groups have managed to insert themselves, together with the influx of traditional and newly minted political dynasts, will continue to pervert the body politic or what is left of the remnants of our democracy.

And a corollary. Will the Deegong, with this recent political cosmetics still pursue his advocacies that in the first place propelled him to the presidency — real systemic changes through constitutional revisions? Or will he succumb to his inner traditional political demons, protect his skin and insure the perpetuation of his political seed.000
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