Picket lines
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - May 2, 2019 - 12:00am

One of my first assignments as a rookie reporter more than a decade ago was to cover a workers’ strike. It was scorching hot and crowded. The pickets were in front of a giant mall along Metro Manila’s busiest highway and it was a potentially dangerous assignment as previous dispersals had turned violent.

I didn’t care. I wanted to save the world and I wanted to slay dragons. I wanted to tell the workers’ story. Nothing was going to stop me, so off I went to the picket lines.

I met them. Some were not the militant type who could easily agitate a crowd. Some were just ordinary workers who weren’t even used to speaking out their outrage.

They were mostly women who needed to wear pink lipstick and stand for hours with their high heels and worn-out stockings. They were asking for better working conditions.

Not long after I arrived men with guns came to disperse the striking workers. A shot was fired and then another. The workers dispersed in every direction as they scrambled for safety.

I wrote about their story and to this day, I’ve kept a copy of it in my files of dusty newspaper clippings.

Today, as we commemorate Labor Day 2019, I remember those workers and wonder where they are now.

They won that day with all the media support and public sympathy, but whatever happened to them long after the strike and the violent dispersal, I never had the chance to know.

The sprawling mall still exists, but the picket lines have disappeared.

Here’s what I know for sure. Every little victory the working class is enjoying now is a result of the struggle of those who came before them.

In fact, the origins of International Labor Day itself can be traced to American workers’ struggle for eight hour work day.

In the 19th century, workers were falling like flies as they were working 10 to 16 hours a day, some in unsafe conditions.

Death and injury were common in many work places. As early as the 1860s, workers have been calling for a shorter workday, but without a cut in pay.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1880s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the eight-hour workday, according to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The first Labor Day

It was on May 1, 1886 in Chicago when it began.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

The group warned the year before that the proclamation would be supported by strikes and demonstrations.

On May 1, 1886, indeed, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history, the IWW said.

Thus, we may not know it, but people shed blood, sweat and tears in the olden times just so we could have the eight hour work day that we enjoy today.

Over 100 years have passed since that first May day. There have been many other victories all over the world.

Nike, the American multinational footwear giant, took strides to fix its sweatshop image. In the late ’90s, it raised minimum wages, improved working conditions in its factories and became more conscious in its outsourcing practices.

Some giant companies in the Philippines have also put an end to job contractualization because of those who bravely stood in the picket lines to protest the practice which our labor laws have allowed; wages have increased although still not enough; our domestic helpers are now required to be given social security and health insurance coverage, and rightly so.

But there is still so much that can be done to improve working conditions in the country.

I heard, for instance, that a local company whose operations were recently disrupted is experiencing an exodus of workers. Some insiders said they can no longer stand the working hours. This, sources said, is the real reason why the company had to cancel some of its services.

Against this whole backdrop, there is a need to strike a balance between providing a conducive environment for investors who help create the jobs and improving the plight of workers. This is the government’s role and it should be able to work with the private sector to achieve this balance. It’s not impossible.

True enough, there is still a lot more that we need to do even as the forefathers of the working class have fought for the rights that we enjoy now.

Let us remember and honor their sacrifices. Let us remember that while free love is good, free labor is not. May we never get tired of fighting for better working conditions for one and all. It’s the reason we commemorate Labor Day.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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