A May 1st Spring

Published by rudy Date posted on May 3, 2011

THIS question is by now ancient but it is not for one with 5th grade smarts. You need context to get this one right. Whose phone call did the late strongman Marcos always return even if this particular caller was far, far detached from the political, military and business circles of Marcos? And was neither friend nor kin?

The answer: the late Roberto Oca Sr., the head of the labor center Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, or TUCP.

Who was the man without a gun, without goons and without gold that Marcos feared most during the time Ninoy Aquino was in exile? And, who, like Ninoy, had nothing but fiery oratory. (The only difference was that this man had not gotten rid of his Pam-pango accent while firing up the multitudes. Ninoy had successfully gotten rid of his.)
The answer: the late Felixberto Olalia, main organizer of the Kilusang Mayo Uno.

The facts are these: Marcos always wanted the support of the late Oca Sr., who presided over the affairs of his national labor center from his waterfront office. Marcos was always perplexed over what the late Bert Olalia and the KMU which he led would do next to challenge his regime. Both cases are, however, instructive. Marcos, even during the peak of his authoritarian powers, had a healthy respect, if not outsized wariness, of organized labor.

Of course. Of course. These are all memories. And they are not even distant hoof beats right now—what with the near-evisceration of the labor movement. For many in my generation who never joined anything but trade unions and peasant groups—and whose idea of mobility is rising up to be a union leader or peasant leader—the ticking of the clock for the labor movement is one of the saddest development in our lives. All our lives we never dreamed to be Jaycees or Lions or Rotarians. Or respected men in the community.

Just peasant movement members or trade unionists. People who clench their fists and raise their voices. People who are not ascetics, but are totally uncomfortable with wealth and power and conventions Now this.

I have to give specifics to “now this” even if Ka Boy Herrera would protest. The labor movement is turning out into a lonely caricature.

For those well-versed with the trade union movement, there is a general sense that this formerly great institution right now has more national trade union centers and labor federations than actual card-carrying, dues-paying trade unionists.
Sad, but almost true.

The updated list is this: there are ten national labor centers and close to 130 labor federations and more than 17,000 labor unions. The grand figures suggest several million dues-paying trade unionists. A figure sizable enough to bring down the powers that be by the Pasig to its knees, once organized labor gets miffed. This is not so. The real body count is less than 230,000 unionists covered by collective bargaining agreements or CBAs. And, who, impliedly pay their regular dues. That’s about the total strength of the trade union movement despite the grand number of 17,000 registered unions.

If a national labor center claims it has one million members, that is bunk. That was the figure during the time of Oca Sr., the late Bert Olalia and the late Boni Tupaz. Not now. Not maybe in the next ten years. Unless, of course, the labor leaders can mount their version of the Arab Spring—the May 1st Spring for the Philippine trade union movement.

But the springtime for the labor movement can only come if the recruiting and organizing playbooks are changed to suit the times and the particular context in which work and employment are actually done. What are these?

The smokestacks that Ka Bert’s KMU organized are mostly gone. You go to Valenzuela City now and you will see mall and mini-malls, not factories. Those making actual products, from chemicals to textiles to lighting fixtures and valves, are a thing of the past. Even those assembling garments, if they are still viable, have moved into the export processing zones.

The young men and women of CAMANAVA, once they enter the labor force, go to Makati, Man-daluyong, Pasig or Quezon City to work in the various BPO sites. Or work at the malls as cashiers, baggers, stockmen, waiters and baristas. Cooking—they are now called chefs—is a glamorous job in this day and age.

If there are factory workers at all from the CAMANAVA area, they work in Taiwan and in South Korea.

The service industry is king. And unless labor leaders come to grip with this reality and adjust their organizing practices to break through the barriers of organizing in work areas living off technology, retail and tourism, the organizing efforts would be futile.

The failure or organized labor to respond to the shifting labor paradigms is exposed—wantonly and brazenly—by the realities in the new work places themselves.

The labor code does not cover BPO workers, those working 24/7 and during unholy hours. It does not have the tools and the rules to cover the realities of management-labor relationship in the age of ICT.

While the rules and the laws partly cover cyber crime, there is nothing about organized labor in a cyber age. While revolutions and upheavals have been linked to technology and social networking sites in many areas across the globe, we have yet to hear of a Philippine labor strike that gained ground and momentum because of Twitter.

Our trade unionists have never Twitted their way out of a successful strike or CBA bargaining.

There are two very tragic things about organized labor now. Its status is prostrate. And it is not in lock step with the times, a Neanderthal untouched by labor-management relationship turned upside down by technology.

There is probably a third. There is neither respect nor regard for this once great and powerful institution at the highest level of government . Between two phone calls to President Aquino—one from former Senator Herrera, the esteemed sec-gen of TUCP, and one from the contractor who built the Home Along the Riles—whose call do you think would be returned by the President pronto?

There is no need to answer the obvious. It will just break the hearts of 37 million Filipino workers.–Marlen V. Ronquillo, Manila Times


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