FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

It’s Mayday, celebrated everywhere except in the US as Labor Day. This is because this day commemorates a massacre of striking workers in the US.

The narrative of Labor Day, meant to celebrate all who contribute to wealth creation, has long been under the grip of trade unions. As such it has been a mainly “blue collar” narrative, celebrating manual work in an industrial setting. This is a narrative increasingly at odds with the reality of the new knowledge-driven economy we must try to flourish in.

As a matter of tradition, Labor Day is an occasion for the trade unions (or what remains of them) to pressure government to raise the minimum wage. But this has become an increasingly exclusive tradition. Only about 1.5 percent of our labor force is unionized. A larger number may be counted as part of the gig economy, where work is less regimented and also less permanent. The traditional discourse of Labor Day excludes the concerns of the mass of workers thriving in the gig economy.

Workers in the gig economy are less concerned with the minimum wage or security of tenure (the traditional concerns of “blue collar” trade unionism). They are more concerned with portability of social security, protection of their intellectual property rights and the rigidity of existing labor “protection” laws.

Once upon a time, the political Left exercised hegemony over the trade union movement in this country. So strong was that hegemony that the leftwing labor federation KMU imperiously called for “welgang bayan” whenever it wished. These were general strikes called for entirely political goals.

These politically motivated strikes created much uncertainty for investors in industry. Many manufacturing entities chose to move their production from the country to other places where energy costs were not only lower but industrial peace was guaranteed.

The mass migration of manufacturing entities resulted in the loss of millions of jobs and the spike in the poverty rates. The most significant manufacturing sector, where militant unionism was high, was garments. From being a garments powerhouse, the Philippines saw this sector hollow out over the space of only a few years. The militant trade union movement bears responsibility for the massive loss of jobs not only in the garments sector but in all the labor-intensive manufacturing sectors infiltrated by leftwing unionism.

In 1987, a democratic movement led by students and intellectuals culminated in massive demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Communist party hardliners decided to forcefully crush the movement. Hundreds were killed in the violent suppression, many of them rolled over by tanks of the oddly named People’s Liberation Army.

The KMU was the only trade union center in the whole world to praise the violent suppression of unarmed pro-democracy protesters. This was a measure not only of the Filipino Maoists’ obedience to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party. It was also a measure of their callous adherence to orthodoxy.

This was not the reason the leftist trade unions lost influence over the past few years. With our manufacturing hollowing out and our labor-intensive industries migrating elsewhere, the militant trade unions lost their recruiting ground – and hence, their political power to paralyze the domestic economy on a whim.

What we have today is a mainly service industry economy. It is composed of small enterprises largely immune to trade union organizing. Far from becoming a powerful medium for the power of the Filipino working class, the militant trade union movement has become a pitiful residue of the old economy. This old economy of labor-intensive manufacturing was killed precisely by the parasite that depended on it: the militant trade union movement.

Today, what is left of the militant trade unions will try to muster a show of force. Reports have it that some of them, in defiance of the pandemic, will attempt to mass up for a demonstration – as was usual in their old glory days. Otherwise, they will hold pathetic rallies via Zoom. They will look like zombies from another age, echoing demands that have lost any real constituency.

The only available constituencies of militant unionism left are the jeepney drivers’ associations. Once they were able to threaten all of us with paralyzing transport strikes. Quarantine restrictions have largely kept the jeepney drivers off the road, however.

There is no proletariat congealing in the new economy, no disciplined ranks of industrial workers linking arms and propelling the local communist movement to power. There are no real working class heroes giving face to a throbbing movement inspired by a reconstructed future.

All the local Maoists have left are a bunch of party-list congressmen, using the perks of legislative office to advance an obsolete agenda. They may be relied upon to advance such inane demands as the nationalization of the oil industry.

Even the “peasantry” that the local Maoists had hoped would be cannon fodder for “surrounding the cities from the countryside” has evaporated. The land reform program caused farmers to morph into desperate small landowners struggling with the sheer uneconomic nature of family-sized plots, speculating on their idle land.

Because of this, the local Maoists are left only with the remote indigenous tribal communities as possible bases for their revolution. Very often, the communist guerrillas try to win the allegiance of tribal communities by force. Pulled into the nexus of insurgency and counter-insurgency, the past few years brought only tragedy to these cultural communities.

The militant trade unionists will still try to make their presence felt on Labor Day. But they have lost their roots and their context.


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