Philippine unions under attack


Interview by Andrew Nette

In the five years that the Aquino government has held power in the Philippines, wages have declined while prices have skyrocketed. The conditions of the latest IMF loan require further cutbacks in government expenditure and basic social services. Military and vigilante violence against popular organisations is more widespread than under the Marcos dictatorship.
The Kilusang Mayo Uno, or May First Movement Labour Centre, has been at the forefront of the struggle for change since it was established on May 1, 1980. More than 850,000 workers belong to KMU-affiliated unions.
Last October 24, the KMU was instrumental in organising a nationwide general strike, the biggest since Aquino took office. It called for wage increases and a halt to IMF intervention in the economy. At least four people were killed in separate incidents, two of them "moderate" trade unionists belonging to the government-aligned Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP). Nineteen passenger buses were burned in the metro Manila area.
Since then the government has moved to outlaw the KMU, blaming it for the violence and trying to link it to the illegal Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People's Army. Recently KMU chair Crispin Beltran was jailed on fabricated charges, one relating to a matter some 20 years past. Several KMU-affiliated unions have been threatened with deregistration.
ERNIE ARELLANO, secretary general of the KMU, was interviewed for Green Left by ANDREW NETTE during Arellano's recent visit to Melbourne.

What success has the KMU had in organising ununionised sections of the workforce, such as the building industry and the sea workers?

We have recently begun our first organising among construction workers. This has been very difficult due to the fact that they have no job security. Most building workers are considered casual or contractual for the duration of a specific project. Consequently, they are very hesitant to become involved in unionism.

KMU is working very closely with the National Association of Seamen in the Philippines. Agreements with foreign interests are not recognised for the purpose of labour laws. Most sea workers are employed by foreign companies, so it is very difficult to organise these workers. Our best strategy is to link up with sea workers' unions in other countries, and the International Union of Seamen, based in Holland.

There are hundreds of thousands of Filipinos working overseas in the Middle East, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

What is the KMU's position on these workers?

Once workers leave the country, KMU has little power to enforce their labour rights and conditions. The only mechanism we have found effective is to link up with solidarity groups in countries where there are Filipino workers. Through these we encourage them to join the unions in their country of work. This way they also get a political education and in the process become more supportive of the struggle in the Philippines.

What is the KMU's relationship to the TUCP?

Organisationally we do not have a relationship with the TUCP. We do work with them on an issue-to-issue basis, and we have strong links with the TUCP rank and file. Many local TUCP affiliates, particularly in the metro-Manila area, participated in the October strike, despite the fact that the policy of the TUCP's national leadership was one of non-participation.

How does the KMU assess the October strike?

Although the KMU led the strike, it was supported by all cause-oriented organisations. As a result we won a nationwide wage increase.

The strike would have been more successful had it not been for the violence, particularly the bus burning, which overshadowed the main issues. Nonetheless, the strike underscored the growing level of poverty in the Philippines, the widening gap between the wages of workers and the cost of living.

What has been your response to the government's recent moves against the KMU?

Organisationally we have filed a complaint before the International Labour Organisation, which we hope the ACTU will support.

Politically, we see a clear pattern of using the courts and organised paramilitary violence to isolate and eventually break up KMU. The government has already used warrantless arrests, which were recently legalised, to arrest our chairperson, Beltran. This is a very effective intimidation tactic — the fear that whatever you say might cause your arrest.

The KMU is participating in the call by a large coalition for a second EDSA [the acronym for the popular mobilisation that led to the fall of Marcos — from the name of the street where people gathered]. In a recent interview, Beltran predicted this could occur in the next six months.

The conditions are certainly there. There is a growing crisis among

the Aquino government and the ruling class generally. This was illustrated in the EDSA commemoration celebrations this year. Only 5000 people turned out for the government-sponsored celebration on February 25, whereas the people's celebration on the 27th drew over 20,000 people.

Do you think the people's organisations are ready for another EDSA?

They are more organised than in 1986, but they are not yet ready to hold power after anything similar to a second EDSA.

If such an uprising happened, what do you think the United States response would be?

The US is much more encouraged by recent international developments to intervene in Philippines politics, especially since the Gulf War and with the Soviet Union having become practically a junior partner to America's plans.

The point to remember is that, with the presence of American bases in the Philippines, the US is already intervening in the affairs of our nation. This has increased in the lead-up to the termination of the treaty covering the bases on September 16.

The big problem for them is trying to overcome the massive anti-bases sentiment. This has even spread to the national government level, with a majority of senators saying they are not in favour of a new bases treaty. A new treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

What is the KMU's position on the events in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China?

We are learning a lot of lessons from these developments.

The most important of these is that the people should be in control of their own organisations so they can prevent the development of a bureaucracy so powerful it is not accountable to the people. In terms of the KMU, this means the local membership control the union, not bureaucrats.

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