Graph the life and times of former Senator Ernesto “Boy” Herrera from a young man struggling to get a decent education at a university in Cebu to his labor organizing days. Then his rise in the labor movement, his prominent role as secretary-general of the labor center TUCP, the pivotal part in the Agrava Commission and his election to the Senate.
There were clear threads to his life and times, a binding story line, a great and inspiring narrative. A young man from nowhere, from one of those small Central Visayan islands (was it Sibonga island ?) that traps you and wastes your life, beat all odds including a physical handicap to be a Senator of the realm.
It was the platform that was the most liberating – a route to the Senate via his trade union work. But then you have to ask two questions. First, Is this still a great story today? The second has to be more specific. Can a trade union leader climb to the top of the political realm without forsaking his life’s work and a change of his day job?
Where we are today, in a phase called AlDub Nation and under an uninspiring political leadership, the answer to the first question is No. The answer to the second question is a very emphatic No Way. Before the full explanation for the two “No’s” a brief backgrounder on what were the social and economic forces that made the late Ernesto “ Boy” Herrera senator.
The few years before the 1987 legislative elections (elections for congressmen and senators was held in 1987 and the local elections was held the following year) that elected Boy Herrera were years that witnessed a great upheaval. Marcos fled in 1986, Mrs. Aquino assumed power right after via a Revolutionary Government, then a new constitution was drafted and ratified.
And the labor unions were not passive actors in the run to the climax in 1986, the exit of Marcos and the return of the democratic institutions. The trade unions were main actors as they provided the warm bodies to the street protests against Mr. Marcos. The Makati elite, including those in the Ayala-Zobel axis, got outsized attention for their mere presence at the Makati rallies but it was really the blue-collar workers and their collective rage that kept the fires of the massive protests burning.
Boy Herrera, due to his leadership role in the conservative and pro-Marcos TUCP, did not take part in the protests but was recognized as the sane, secretly anti-Marcos voice in that giant labor center. When he was tapped to be part of the Agrava Commission, that job unraveled his independent bent. He showed that he was more interested in getting the facts behind the assassination, than covering up for the Marcos men who were generally believed to have assassinated Ninoy Aquino.
The Agrava Commission members, due to the sensitivity of their mandate, got into the national spotlight and that was where the physically handicapped trade union leader from Cebu with the sometimes garbled phonetics got national attention for his refusal to cover up.
Can there be another grand story such as Boy Herrera’s inspiring rise from trade union organizing to the Philippine Senate? Again, the ALDub Nation makes it impossible and improbable.
Except for Europe, where egalitarianism is still a cherished word in the national conversation, the words that describe trade unions in most nations today are two – shrunken and shriveled. Even in the world’s most powerful economy, “right-to-work” policies in mostly conservative states have diminished the once awesome power of the trade unions. The AFL-CIO still plods along but with much of its clout over Washington gone.
The Clinton/Sanders push for more trade union rights and fair wages does not exist in a vacuum. The terrifying context of static wages for the low-income workers in a society where the economic elite sucks up 50 percent of more of the income gains is behind that push for a fairer deal for the working men and women.
It is more tragic in the Philippines. Which is more fun for the moneyed class.
Philippine trade union membership is down to a single digit, more on the low single-digit side than nine or eight percent. If we say that 500,000 workers have decent collective bargaining agreements, that figure would likely be an embellishment rather than a statement of fact.
The single most promising source of employment, the BPO sector, is not even governed by a set of labor rules. Employees from ages 18 to 30, have never heard of the acronym “CBA” much less the words “non-economic benefits.”
Worse, the current leadership led by Mr. Aquino, is a set of unapologetic Randians who adore Social Darwinism.
The combination of anti-worker policies from the state and the Philippine social, cultural and economic forces that is represented by the AlDub Nation, inexorably marching to full Kardashisan status, is the worst environment ever for the working class and trade union leaders.
We can’t turn out the inspiring story of Boy Herrera anymore. Ours is a sad sack of a nation with regressive force that traps the working class, including its most ambitious men and women, into either permanent stagnation or servitude.