The evisceration of trade unions and delusions of industrial peace


Only a few decades back, every May 1 was a time for celebration and angst. The labor groups purely focused on labor issues–and therefore were appreciated by whoever was president of the republic. They would celebrate Labor Day with the president as their guest. He, in turn , would announce incentives to labor granted via executive fiat.

The labor leaders would not disappoint their president-guest, never.

Even if the executive announcements granted a mere pittance to labor, they would react positively, from over-the-top expression of thanks to more guarded statements of appreciation.  But who could blame them?

Many of the labor leaders, this is impossible now, had direct lines to the president of the republic, and were duly represented at the government corporations and  agencies that had to do with workers, compensation and wages .

The radical labor groups, however, showed contempt—not respect—for whoever  was in power.   As the moderate groups celebrated with the president, the radical groups would stage protests and unleash the harshest of rhetoric. The authorities would even break up the protests, oftentimes with force.

Organized labor was a bipolar world and there was no labor center that straddled fences during those years. Either you marched on the streets, chanted  slogans and burned  effigies  or you joined  the  May 1 celebrations with the president.

To men of my age—especially men who never joined anything except trade unions, newspaper guilds and peasant groups—those were part of the heady days of our small, young lives. Whoever was in power reckoned with the sentiment of the working class.  And we were truly proud of that.

President Aquino, the incumbent, does not have time for elaborate May 1 rites, primarily because organized labor is a spent force.  More, a president whose agenda is to build up years of sustained GDP growth through investments and the boosting of every feasible growth sector deeply believes  that a strong and assertive labor force will drag down growth, not enhance it. Wrong, of course, but no president has veered from this orthodoxy.

He can’t even grant a pittance of an increase to state workers. On the real worry that it would upset his preferred budget and spending charts.

President Aquino, to be clear, does  not  have a natural loathing toward labor. He just does not see how labor can help his growth agenda. Labor is not part and parcel of his “daang matuwid” program . He cannot even encourage labor to up the ante on tax payment as most of them earn slave wages. And those with higher wages pay the high, flat up fee of 32 percent.

The part of labor that truly helps, the sector of labor that helps keep the economy afloat, is spread out in diasporas and shipping routes overseas. OFWs have never been part of our May 1 Labor Day rites.

Labor is just not part of Mr. Aquino’s scheme of things . With nothing in common with labor, Mr. Aquino is probably the president least versed on labor and wage issues.   What is the ultimate proof of this?

Recall that his administration’s high profile move on labor involved the grant of the minimum wage to bus crews. He and his people are not even aware of the fact that the much-ridiculed “commission basis” for bus drivers and conductors pays twice as much as the minimum wage scheme. And we have to underscore this: twice as much for the same hours of work. Just the basic work of data-gathering would prove that around 15 to 18 percent  of the daily gross of buses goes to the pay slips of drivers and conductors.

Is Mr. Aquino aware that BPO jobs are not even covered by the Labor Code?

With Mr. Aquino indifferent to labor, the task of paying the token tribute on May 1 has fallen on the employers, the ECOP in particular.

And here was the take of ECOP on labor, via Mr. Ed Lacson, its president: We are grateful to labor for years of sustained industrial peace. Mr. Lacson suggests that the employers and organized labor have been responsible partners in promoting industrial peace.

That statement could easily rank as the Truthiness of the Year.

The truth is this: Mr. Lacson addressed a phantom, fictional organized labor. No such animal exists. The active labor unions have a total membership that is below half a million and you are speaking of 30 to 40  million Filipinos in the labor mainstream.

Even the most radical groups had lost much of their CBAs.
Trade union  organizing in job sites, in the age of selfies, and of “I” and “ me” and “ myself,” has been virtually impossible to do.

Like in many parts of the world, including the former enclaves of industrial unrest, trade unions are struggling for survival. Organized labor has been eviscerated in many industrial cities and substantially weakened in others  .

Just look at our own CAMANAVA, the former center of  radical  trade unions.  In fact, that the middle class is disappearing in the US has been partly traced to the weakening of the trade unions and the adoption by many states  of the right-to-work policy.

Technology and innovation, which created most of the jobs that are in demand today, have helped upend the traditional activism at the work floors.

So what was the partnership between labor and employers that Mr. Lacson  referred to?  He was actually engaging in Orwell-speak.  Industrial peace built on the carcass of the decimated trade unions.



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