COMMENTARY

Ernesto Herrera: A man who lived his truth

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[Eulogy delivered at the necrological rites in honor of former senator Ernesto Herrera on Wednesday morning November 4.]

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OUR nation has lost one of its most authentic heroes in the labor movement. And I have lost a dear friend, an esteemed colleague, and a kindred spirit.

Through 15 years in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, Ernesto “Boy” Herrera and I developed a close friendship and collaboration on many key issues that troubled our country’s political, social and economic landscapes. We continued our warm and engaging friendship up to the time of his sudden departure from this world.

I have many wonderful memories about our association. But perhaps the most memorable was his spontaneous and whole-hearted support for my initiative to impeach a popular, sitting President of the Republic for culpable violation of the Constitution. In early October 2000, in my capacity as secretary-general of the Lakas-NUCD party and as a representative of Isabela Province, I announced my intention to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Joseph Estrada, alleging his direct involvement in nationwide illegal gambling operations.

The House leadership swiftly dismissed my effort, stressing that the chamber will not be used for partisan political purposes. A majority leader rejected outright my plan because it was “mathematically and politically impossible to impeach the President.”

At the beginning, I knew it was an uphill battle, perhaps even mission impossible. The first legislator to encourage me was Congressman Boy Herrera. Congressman Herrera believed, as I did, that impeachment is a test of our democratic resiliency. Herrera was a legislator of great probity and unquestioned integrity. And because of his reputation, he helped me very quickly to gather more support in Congress, among academicians and civil society until we mustered the requisite one-third of the House or 71 votes to bring the impeachment complaint to the plenary. The rest is history.

Boy Herrera was better known as the soul of a strong and responsible labor movement.
Several weeks ago, Boy Herrera invited me to talk at length about the political dimensions of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, which he has been serving as general secretary for the last 32 years. The TUCP has more than a million registered members. So the union members – together with their spouses and adult children – constitute at least three million voters.

That is a formidable bloc of voters, just as large as or even larger than a highly politicized religious group. So it seemed natural for the TUCP to turn its attention much more actively and much more decisively towards a political direction. Boy Herrera did not believe that unions should be primarily reactive and defensive in their political behavior.

Should the TUCP be transformed into a political party? What are the implications of such a move? In the evolving Philippine context, what should be the formal and substantive relationships between political parties and trade unions? Indeed, how can trade unionism upgrade the national political conversation so that we can build a stronger economy, a better society?

Those were probing questions. Trade unions are not merely economic actors: they are necessarily protagonists in the political arena. Boy Herrera was seeking to define the TUCP’s future. He was exploring ideology, a new vision, and perhaps new organizational capacities to make the TUCP more relevant in the contemporary world. And Boy Herrera was challenging the status quo, asking tough questions in order to make hard decisions.
That is what leaders do. And that is what Boy Herrera has been doing most of his life as a legislator and as a labor leader.

I am certain that Boy Herrera knew the answers to these questions better than I did. But he wanted to know if he was doing right. He was always looking to protect or expand the welfare and opportunities for our working class. He wanted honest answers in order to rise to challenges that our working people faced. And to do that, he wanted to have a better understanding of where exactly our country is heading for.

The fate of the Filipino workers is inextricably linked with our quest to build a better society. That is why Boy Herrera was also deeply and passionately concerned about our country’s future. He was profoundly conscious of the power of trade unions; but he was also deeply aware of the basic function of capitalism in a liberal democracy. And Boy Herrera’s success as a labor leader was due to his ability to keep these contending but complementary forces in balance.

Keeping balance is the whole story of Boy Herrera’s life. Struck by polio at an early age, he achieved balance by putting more weight on education than on self-pity. He saw education as salvation, for himself and for his constituents. And so even when he was already a senator he pursued masteral and doctoral degrees at the Lyceum of the Philippines. A good leader should not only be tough-minded, he should also be well educated.
One might say that the philosophical core of Boy Herrera’s liberalism was individualism.

To paraphrase James MacGregor Burns, Boy Herrera’s intellectual method was rationalism; his economics, free enterprise and competition; his politics, moderation and constitutionalism; his theology, the idea of progress. These are the attributes that made Boy Herrera one of the most moderate, thoughtful, and powerful voices of the Philippine labor movement.

Fighting for the underdog in our society is difficult and often dangerous. Boy Herrera spent a lifetime fighting injustice. And so his struggle on behalf of the working man extended into the realms of the working environment – to education, fiscal and economic policies, law and order, and good governance.

I have no doubt that Boy Herrera exceeded his own expectations about life. He succeeded because he lived his truth by example, by setting the bar high for labor leaders and legislators alike. His grace and conduct, his ideals and commitments, his convictions and achievements were testaments to his truth.

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