Culture

Dare To Defy: Understanding the timeless relevance of trade unionism

Words by Ninotchka Noelle Brasuela

Every year on May 1 since 1908, we commemorate Labor Day, or the International Workers’ Day. And on the same date in the year 1974, former president Ferdinand E. Marcos signed the Labor Code of the Philippines, wherein it highlighted the employees and the employers both having essential roles in society, even with different functions, united by a common goal of efficient production and provision of the citizens’ needs. In its most ethical sense, labor and capital should not oppose each other, but rather should cooperate to provide maintenance for everybody.

However, history can attest on how oppressive the system is, hence the establishment of  trade unions who are organized by unionists and progressive activists because of the lack of a just and sensible partnership between the employers and the employees, even with the implementation of laws that advocate for justice and equity in workplaces. Moreover, it is supposedly the duty of the government to protect wage earners from the exploitative ruling class, yet we are faced with the same mistreatment and oppression from both institutions. And for what reasons do they abuse the underprivileged majority? Greed and power.

By restricting the working class’ fully deserved fair wages and benefits, the majority of the earnings of the capitalist goes inequitably to the people on top of the chain, including their powerful enablers, particularly the government. Capital should be a key resource for the common good but becomes a cultural capital instead in a globally capitalist economy. In other words, the capital, which is the financial wealth used to start and maintain a business to ideally serve the common good, becomes a social asset that endows people their privilege, status, and power in society according to their economic class. Thus, this led people to selfishly amass large profits for themselves to achieve dominance and greater privilege in the society. Hence, we’re faced with the reality that the poorer you are, the more wealth capitalists produce, and thus the more powerful capitalists become. And the lower you go in terms of economic class, the more marginalized you are in social contexts. Instead of using money as a tool for everybody’s survival and sustainment, it is utilized to create hierarchy and advance selfish motives. What should be an essential, fair, and mutually beneficial partnership became an adversarial relationship between the abusive shareholders or capitalists and the mistreated laborers.

On May 1, as we commemorate Labor Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the cruel and unfair working conditions and wages our laborers have under the ruling of the exploitative people in power, and be reminded of how unionists and workers struggle amidst the oppression and belittlement of the government and capitalists.

Poverty, Marginalization and Human Rights Violations

In 2018, being paid only 380 pesos a day, outsourced workers at NutriAsia finally decided to be on strike. NutriAsia is the manufacturer of popular condiments, like Datu Puti vinegar, Mang Tomas sauce, and UFC ketchup. Throughout the years, NutriAsia workers were forced to work for more than 12 hours a day to earn enough salary just to make ends meet. Furthermore, workers were even forced to pay for their uniforms and protective gears without any reimbursement from NutriAsia. And on top of that, after working for many years in the same corporation, workers received no salary adjustments.

The strike was held on June 4 led by a unionist leader, Jessie Gerola, the president of Nagkakaisang Manggagawa ng NutriAsia Inc, which successfully forced NutriAsia to suspend its operations that day, by holding a picket line across the factory. All they wanted was to be hired as regular workers.

Ang gusto lang namin, pakinggan nila kami. Bina-balewala ‘yung sakripisyo namin, ‘di nila kinikilala na kami ang gumagawa ng produkto nila,” Jornell Quiza, a NutriAsia worker since 2010, said in an interview with Rappler.

But instead of heeding their calls, NutriAsia decided to seek for a temporary restraining order (TRO) from a regional trial court in Bulacan and was handed not only one but two TROs consequently. As a result, on June 14, policemen heavily guarded the gate of NutriAsia. A woman tried to record this on her phone, but was prevented by a policeman. Violence followed.

Hindi sila tumitigil. Hanggang sa may tao doon na nakahiga, papaluin nila ‘yun nang papaluin,” Junel Padaylap, Quiza’s co-worker, said, “Nagpapatay patayan [na lang] kami. Kapag ‘di kami umalis doon, dadalhin kami sa presinto tapos kakasuhan pa kami.”

This infamous violent dispersal of NutriAsia workers in 2018 gathered attention and sympathy from people, as pictures and videos taken from the scene were uploaded on social media. Labor groups and ordinary citizens express their support to the marginalized workers by boycotting NutriAsia.

Jollibee was also reported to have labor issues in 2018 when they nonchalantly fired hundreds of workers as the corporation terminated their agency service contracts, which then resulted in their workers protesting and Filipinos calling to boycott Jollibee.

These are just few of the many forms of abuse capitalists and government inflict upon the working class, and these are just some of the famous and documented cases of mistreatment of the laborers in workplaces and during protests. There are a lot of incidents that are undocumented and didn’t gather enough attention from people, but these injustices, be it documented or not, should not be ignored and forgotten, and should definitely not prevail.

In trade union, there’s strength

We’ve seen how the proactive stance and the collective effort of militant trade unions provide a means for the exploited workers to voice out their concerns and to call for fairer, more humane reforms in their jobs.

One notable achievement of trade unions happened back in 2012 when more than 40 biggest labor federations formed the Nagkaisa labor coalition to push for reforms in government policies on wages and contractualization. Furthermore, in 2017, Nagkaisa formed an alliance with the prominent militant federation Kilusang Mayo Uno. With this unified and organized coalition of multiple labor unions, labor groups became more vocal not only in their protests on streets, but also at the negotiation table with employers.

In fact, trade unions have the essential and democratic role of promoting the rights and welfare of the Filipino workers amidst the continuous exploitation of the capitalists through their impositions of low wages, contractualization, inhumane work hours, and lack of benefits, among others. Trade unions not only bring economic justice to the workplace, but also social justice to our impoverished nation.

However, the country’s trade unions may have been more impactful than ever in recent years, but their numbers are still a mere fraction of the country’s estimated 43.9 million economically active Filipinos (i.e., Filipinos who are 15 years old and over that are either working or actively looking for work) in the labor force in the year 2020 according to the annual preliminary estimates of labor force survey (LFS) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). 

This significantly small number of unionists is the result of the past regimes that has been repressing labor activists ever since. In particular, during the martial law, strikes were forbidden and, thus, severely limited. That’s why, in 1986, under Corazon Aquino’s liberal approach to labor, even if some of the problematic structures from Marcos’ regime still remained, organized labor groups have thrived yet have been relatively weak. Initially, Aquino was backed up by those affiliated with labor unions, but not for long as conflicts would start to rise. State forces would not only harass and intimidate unionists, but also kill them. One notable event is the Mendiola Massacre in 1987 wherein the police opened fire on a march led by the Kilusang Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (KMP), along with other supporters, who were protesting for the government’s lack of action on land reform. In the end, survivors and relatives of the fallen victims of the Mendiola Massacre didn’t receive any compensation, and, worse, no one was even punished for the death of the farmers. And in 1990, both the government and the state forces decided to ban the Kilusang Mayo Uno by red-tagging them as a communist-front organization, after the labor groups’ persistent fight and protests against the tyrannical and anti-labor Aquino’s administration. And these past occurrences — the red-tagging, the marginalization, the unjust killings, the anti-labor policies, etc. — can still be seen in contemporary context. With that being said, unionists have been repressed from assembling more members and protesting due to these atrocities that have been threatening and harassing them. 

Nonetheless, although small in numbers, their voices, along with their tireless and courageous calls for reforms, are deemed as threats by the capitalists and the government, a proof that these institutions, although big and powerful, are intimidated by the collective effort of the unionists to the point that state forces begin to intervene in strikes and protests.

No unionist is safe under this draconian regime

Aside from anti-labor policies, trade unions are faced with multiple threats by the employers and even the government.

“Probationary workers have an option to join the union, but, in reality, management fires, or do not regularize workers, if they show signs of wanting to join a union, asking about employee benefits, or point out to management abuse,” Federation of Free Workers Vice President Julius Cainglet explained.

Certain corporations and managements would go to extreme lengths just to continue their ill-practices, and, at times, would even have the audacity to file for criminal complaints against their workers on strikes. This just also proves how crooked and corrupted our judicial system is if the judges particularly sided with the apparent oppressors, who are undeniably the employers that exploit their employees. Moreover, there are also instances wherein court decisions are in favor of the working class, but the exploitative corporations themselves, nevertheless, won’t comply, thus furthering the abuse by practicing the culture of impunity.

Moreover, under Duterte’s administration, unionists are restricted of their freedom of association and the right to organize unions, as activism is now unreasonably and biasedly labeled as terrorism. Our government continues to arrest union leaders and condones attacks against labor groups during and even after protests.

On what was known as Bloody Sunday, on March 7, two days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his state forces to “kill” and “finish off” communist rebels in encounters, 9 union leaders and organizers were killed and 6 were arrested in Southern Tagalog. These slain and arrested people are part of activist and labor groups that, as opposed to being red-tagged as terrorists and communist rebels, are just protesting for their rights and welfare under a tyrannical and unfair ruling, not only in their workplaces, but also in the country.

Hindi po terorismo ang aming ginagawa, hindi terorismo ang pagtulong sa kapwa manggagawa at mamamayan na inaapi at pinagsasamantalahan ng mga mayayaman,” Dandy Miguel, the vice chairperson of Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan – Kilusang Mayo Uno, said in an interview with Rappler on March 9 before he died on March 28 as part of the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre.

But even with the lack of support and protection from, or more particularly the tyrannical ruling of, the government itself, unionists continue to courageously and tirelessly call out the unjust practices and policies of the capitalists and the government and hold them accountable for it, and to continuously demand fairer reforms even amid the threats and killings nowadays.

The fight is far from over

Sahod, trabaho, karapatan, ipaglaban” — that was the text on the shirt Pang Dandy wore the night he was slain. State forces may kill activists, but their advocacies and activism will live on. Murdering and silencing critics will not hide the government and capitalists’ atrocities and vile corruptions. When law becomes lawless and progressive individuals are deemed as threats, we shall seek strength and protection from each other. Because, collectively, we, as the oppressed masses, could and should rule out corruption, injustice, and repression from the exploitative ruling minority and hold them accountable for their crimes.

As we celebrate Labor Day, let’s not just passively commemorate the achievements of labor movements throughout history, but let’s be reminded of the significance of trade unions in our country, as they bravely face threats head on just to fight for workers’ rights. Furthermore, let’s support and be in solidarity with the workers who are victims of the unjust working conditions and wages, among others, by amplifying their calls of having fairer and humane reforms in their workplaces. And, lastly, let’s not forget to continuously call for justice for the unjust killings of the slain activists and leaders. 

This murderous war on activists should be condemned and stopped. Activism is not the enemy, nor a waste of time. It is empowering and transformative, which we need in times of distress and tyranny. The true enemy that we must abolish is the tyrannical regime and the abusive slavery of workers employed by the institutions to collect a large sum of money and to maintain their position in power. 

It is never the masses’ fault for being poor, submissive, and, once enlightened of these facts, for protesting for whatever’s rightfully ours. We are all just victims of the propaganda, policies and practices of the ruling class, mainly the capitalists, that are intentionally made to benefit them, and not us, the working class. That’s why we must never stay silent when there are injustices. 

Daring to struggle with the plights of workers remains timelessly essential. While the lives of unionists and progressive activists who are striving for better working conditions are at stake due to constant state crackdowns and red-tagging, collective action through community organizing, mobilizing, and arousing is a tireless responsibility. As the fight is far from over, trade unionists have nothing to lose but their chains, and as citizens, we are urged to proactively stand with their resistance against oppression, especially at a time where fascism prevalently exists in a pandemic. [P]

Graphics by Jase Michael Manatad

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