Thoughts on unionism and the labor movement

Published by rudy Date posted on May 3, 2011

SO many of those who write about the labor movement have such a limited understanding of what it is. Marlen Ronquillo is not one of them. His column which appeared in this section yesterday was an excellent piece on the decline of unionism in the country.

I would respectfully disagree though on one point, that being the number of card-carrying union members would be around 230,000 workers based on the number of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) registered in the country.

The number of CBAs is not the only appropriate measure of labor movement strength. Not all CBAs are registered with the Labor department to begin with, although they should be.

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines’ claim of having 1.2 million members isn’t, in Marlen’s word, “bunk.” We already have 450,000 TUCP members registered with The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), our global affiliate, so that is already more than the 230,000 card-carrying union workers he spoke of as per CBAs, not including the other unions’ membership.

We would have liked to register the entire 1.2 million TUCP membership but it would be too expensive as membership dues in the ITUC are paid in Euros per member.

While I would grant Marlen’s point that labor unions are not as politically strong today as in the time of President Marcos when Ka Blas Ople was Labor minister, there are still some sectors where unionism is very strong, particularly in the banking and seafaring industries.

Filipino seafarers comprise 30-percent of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers. TUCP’s affiliate in the seafaring industry is the Philippine Seafarers’ Union (PSU), a growing federation of more than 30,000 overseas merchant seafarers on board ships trading worldwide.

The PSU bargains with the shipowners and their agents on behalf of its members. PSU’s collective bargaining agreements conform to the standards established by the International Transport Workers’ federation (ITF) and the International Labor Organisation (ILO), and they are recognized by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Due to the union’s proven capability to protect its members, more and more seafarers are reenlisting as PSU members every year.

Through its affiliation with the TUCP, the PSU is assured of a voice in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the confederation of 174 affiliates from 124 countries representing more than 120 million workers worldwide.

The banking sector also has a strong workers federation in the National Union of Bank Employees, whose CBAs serve as the benchmark in the industry.

More and more workers from the informal sector are also joining TUCP as well as other unions to avail themselves of services and benefits like welfare fund, medical, dental and health insurance, legal services and skills training. These workers of course would be excluded in the count on union membership if such were based only on CBAs.

But Marlen is quite right in saying that the number of unions in the country is also not a complete measure of labor movement vitality. As he said, there are 10 national labor centers and close to 130 labor federations and more than 17,000 labor unions in the country.

Too many, indeed, but not enough members. My intelligent estimate is that around 12 percent of the country’s total number of employed workers, which is around 36 million, belong to organized labor.

Of course, politically, any administration would prefer dealing with a united movement rather than a fractured one with many competing voices. An undisputed voice for labor indeed would have the ear of the President.

Realistically, it would be quite difficult if not impossible though to create a unified labor movement that can speak and act nationally on the critical issues, at least not every time. To bring that about the many individual unions representing organized labor would not only have to agree on common objectives but also on the method of how to accomplish these objectives, something that admittedly would be quite a challenge between the left-leaning and moderate groups.

So, yes, too many unions and not enough unity captures perfectly the current scenario, although labor groups now seem to be quite united in demanding minimum wage hikes all over the country.

Marlen is also right that old-fashioned union organizing has led to a decline in membership.

The TUCP as well as other unions are preparing new recruitment drives in an effort to reach out to new workers, especially in the BPO sector, and also to stem the decline in trade union density.

These recruitment drives must be tailored to meet the needs of key target groups and should involve a variety of ways including the use of new media like social networking and other online sites. True, we should complement our existing recruitment strategies which may no longer work on younger workers, especially those in sectors like the BPO where there is no trade union presence. (The BPO in particular is tough to penetrate for union organizing because of its high attrition rate. Workers keep resigning or jumping from one company to another.)

I would say though that the biggest challenge in recruiting new members is still the hostile environment towards union organization. This, aside from the fact that because of our economic situation many people who are working feel lucky just to have a job and would not want to jeopardize it by joining a union. –ERNESTO F. HERRERA, Manila Times

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