The news read “Strike ongoing.” You are almost unsurprised and unbothered, as most readers are. It is the Philippines, after all. Days like this come and go. For you, as for most of us, the day’s going to be the routine you stick with. But for the laborer on strike, no question, it’s a day of battle—and possibly, much hopefully, of victory—against the injustices in the workplace.

The laborer. We know him. In a day like this, we more than know him. We ignore him, we blame him, or at best, we support him, depending on how much he disrupts our day and how much we believe in his cause. Today, he represents his labor for the worst of reasons—his rights as a laborer are being compromised.

An official of a labor group condemns how the present minimum wage can only buy sardines and noodles. If the banana plantation strike and the President sacking Labor Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod are anything to go by, something is amiss in the labor sector.

As the laborer fights for his rights on a day like this, he is not alone in gambling for a win. He stands with his union. The union that amplifies the voice of a lone crying laborer through thousands behind him. The labor union that mobilizes the reformative social movement.

Be that as it may, labor unions exist beyond the labor strikes they have become synonymous to. They endeavor all year round for one clear purpose among others: to uphold workers’ rights and advocate for better working conditions. A purpose that entails much action in today’s economic climate. Most of the time, that action translates quietly in paper. But in days like this, that action is manifested through public demonstration. Disruptive, some would say. A laborer would argue: it has to be. In a country where unions are yet to possess potency in noiseless assembly to influence policy, they would have to resort to this kind of public collective bargaining.

Strike’s not for show

While a strike is a type of protest, it goes beyond that. The strategy of a strike is to call attention by paralyzing production. This causes society to malfunction and the point is realized that laborers are such a vital part of everyone’s lives. We simply would not be able to survive without them.

In a discussion with one of the organizers of the recent Pacific Plaza Towers hunger strike, I found out that there has been an approximately 300% increase in strikes this year. That tells us two things: workers’ rights are not being upheld and the union movement purpose is stronger than ever.

It is said that it is foolish to continue doing the same thing and expect a different result. Perhaps this is why an inconvenienced outsider would think union movement has become borderline pointless. What movement? Corporations stay put while government becomes increasingly authoritarian—it’s nothing but disturbance. This perception renders apathy, or worse, opposition. The outsider then misses the point.

Labor unions do not exist to put on a show. Disruptive protest is and always has been the last weapon to be employed in a labor union’s arsenal. In fact, unions in the Philippines would be glad to eliminate this option entirely only if there was another way to be heard as loudly, clearly, and intently. At the end of the day, an uprising will not feed their families. Strikes cost energy, money, and a certain degree of dignity—and the chances of positive return are low.

Foolish? The corporations are, and the unions not.

Unions in history

Our long and brave history of unionism relied largely on a labor movement calling for reform with strikes, walkouts, and public protests. In 1872, the first-recorded organized strike involved government printing press workers in San Fernando, Pampanga. The workers walked out in protest of the abuse and maltreatment they experienced under their Spanish foremen. They demanded for safer working conditions and reasonable wages. And it worked. The foremen were eventually suspended and the workers were granted their demands.  

The next highly successful strike took place in 1902 when different groups consolidated into a single national union federation, the Unión Obrera Democrática de Filipinas (UODF), led by Isabelo De Los Reyes during the American period. Tensions were high between the union and the American colonial government and some of the leaders were soon arrested for sedition. But the following year, on Labor Day, the union managed to march a hundred thousand workers from Plaza Moriones in Tondo to Malacañang, asking the Governor General to grant their just demands.

Surviving labor unions were eventually recognized by the American government when the Bureau of Trade was established in 1908, marking a step in a different direction in unionism. That step is political recognition of a unions’ impact on labor markets. But a quick divergence from that path arose when sections of the labor sector began to radicalize in the 1920s with the integration of communist elements. When Manuel Quezon came to power in 1935 under the Philippine Commonwealth, he attempted to neutralize those radical wings by institutionalizing labor reforms, such as an eight-hour work time, minimum wage, social insurance, and legal protection of workers and by establishing a Court of Industrial Relations (CIR).

After the Second World War, the labor sector that emerged was disunited due to crackdowns on labor groups, especially those with communist affiliations. The unions’ candidates for positions of power in the government were defeated during elections by the entrenched elite. Labor congresses that were formed to attempt uniting these groups came to naught. This localization and division within labor groups would be detrimental to their effectiveness as a political force.

The unrest of the early 1970s and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law led to perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the Philippine labor sector. The upsurge of unrest inevitably resulted to more crackdowns that caused a resurgence of communist elements. Initial attempts by the Marcos administration to neutralize this resurgence were brought to nothing because of the economic and government debt crisis in the 1980s that led to widespread unemployment and ballooning inflation rates.

Globalization and neoliberalism brought new challenges to a weakened labor sector. Its activities were limited to cooperation, consultation, negotiation, and compromise with the business sector and the State, institutionalizing tripartism—a larger and more complex version of labor relations. While not immediately a threat, technological developments leading to automation of some jobs and services, limit available opportunities for laborers who have not been given the chance to upgrade their skills and retrain to fulfill other roles. In the interest of cost reduction and efficiency, companies may choose to let go of their employees in favor of automation.  This relentless pursuit of the financial bottomline drives the companies to implement short-term labor practices, such as contractualization.

Manifestly, that’s what it has come down to. Only a handful of companies pursue the triple bottomline of profits, planet and people.  

All U.P. Workers Union President Clodualdo “Buboy” Cabrera, thought that these strikes “might occur more often… because of worsening conditions being faced by workers.”

“This involves low wages, and of course, contractualization,” he said in an interview.

Companies fail to recognize that investing in measures to improve employee development and welfare would ultimately improve corporate returns, something that business leaders should have learned from Robert Solow in their basic economics class.

Relevant but not restrictive

Our history tells us that measures taken by labor groups in the Philippines are largely dependent on the prevailing political and socio-economic landscape. The smart thing to do now is embrace this history as relevant but not restrictive. Unions can keep doing the same thing—assembling the workforce and campaigning for reform—but slightly differently.

The beauty of our times is that we don’t have to be an official part of a union to take part in its movement. Social media makes us all allies. From underwear to corned beef to sugar, reports of unrest have floated on our screens. Tensions have stirred even in the business process outsourcing industry, a crucial and young part of our services sector.

Right when the voice of the union has lost its command on the streets, social media revives it. Social media has proved to be a powerful tool in raising awareness about unjust working conditions and abusive corporations, especially those compelled by the Department of Labor and Employment to regularize their employees. Product boycotts hit businesses right where it hurts, with one reporting revenue loss of about P200 million.

As more and more participate, dissenting voices are being heard.

Cabrera said that “through explaining on our behalf, the struggle that workers face, and how these might be resolved through various means,” we students can help realize unions’ goals.

Strike comes to an end

Social media, however, is not the answer. The answer is to gain a greater momentum than we ever had—great enough to give unionism a permanent seat at the table, not a one-day stage outside the gate. We need to keep at our newfound solidarity among and beyond sectors until unionism is given not only attention but due recognition, by private corporations, public institutions, and the government.

The news reads “Strike comes to an end.” But the injustices have not. The laborer carries on, deprived of a better life that a better workplace can bring. As we have seen in the past, collective action is monumental to bring about change. But if it is essential to recognizing laborers as a potent social force as they are key elements of production, there is a bigger battle to fight. Another strike has come to an end but the work to gain a voice that resounds in noiselessness is still very much ongoing. ■ 

(Illustration by Ran Martinez.)

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