New rise of Philippines labour movement

Wednesday, August 14, 1996 - 10:00

By Reihana Mohideen

MANILA — "Philippine Labor Secretary Leonardo Quisumbing wants his term to be remembered as one that fostered industrial peace ... [but] the changing balance of power among trade unions and federations is giving him another headache. The entry of former Communist Party leader Filemon Lagman and his federation called the Brotherhood of Union Presidents, which boasts of a membership of 1000 union presidents, has disrupted the established structure of the top ... [union] federations." So read an article in the May 22 issue of Asia Times on industrial relations in the Philippines. A May 16 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, which carried an interview with Lagman, also referred to the prospect of "the rebirth of a militant trade union movement in the country".

The coverage in these publications followed the 120,000-strong May Day demonstration in Manila, the largest in recent times, which the socialist workers centre the BMP (Filipino Workers Solidarity) played a key role in organising. The rally was followed in June by a strike campaign demanding tax reforms, in which some 160,000 workers in Metro Manila and the nearby provinces participated. The strike campaign was sponsored by the BMP, the Fraternity of Union Presidents of the Philippines (KPUP) and the National Confederation of Labor (NCL).

These three organisations have emerged as key in the workers movement in the country. The NCL is a mass-based national trade union centre. The KPUP is a grassroots organisation of local union presidents launched in March; it has more than doubled its size in around three months and currently has 747 local unions as a part of its network (there are around 3000 local unions in the country). The BMP is a mass socialist organisation with a total membership of around 130,000 workers.

The BMP traces its origins to the split within the pro-Maoist KMU (May First Movement), when the entire regional chapter in Metro Manila split away in 1993. The chapter accounted for more than half the total membership of the KMU. This was also the period in which a major split took place in the underground Communist Party of the Philippines, when almost half the membership rejected its Stalinist-Maoist politics. This split was led by the Manila Rizal regional leadership of the party.

Green Left Weekly interviewed FILEMON "POPOY" LAGMAN, the recently elected chairperson of the BMP and the alleged head of the Manila Rizal regional party committee.

Question: Do you think we are seeing a resurgence of the working-class movement?

It is definitely on the upswing. Our revolutionary movement is mustering its "second wind", this time with a strong working-class character. 1996 is proving to be a banner year, with the BMP, the NCL and the KPUP at the forefront of this resurgence.

Question: There are some major changes taking place in the organisational structures of the working-class movement. Could you explain the nature of these changes and what political impact they have?

Filipino workers are greatly handicapped in their struggle for their rights and welfare. More than 85% are unorganised. Unionised labour is deeply fragmented. Most federations remain under the stranglehold of mendicant and mediocre leaders. The level of unionism has stagnated at the factory level. It cannot seem to advance to organising struggles along industrial lines. This is the single most difficult objective limitation.

Even the progressive wing of the workers movement failed to upgrade the backwardness of trade unionism. After decades of labour organising, it failed as a motive force in the unionisation and the unification of labour. It pays more attention to its factional rivalry with conservative trade union centres while paying lip service to trade union unity, which is pivotal in upgrading the labour movement. It relies excessively and almost exclusively on militant collective struggles, ignoring the objective limitations arising from the backward development of trade unionism.

The emergence of the KPUP, NCL and BMP signals the all-out effort of a new breed of labour leaders and organisations whose aim is to reinvent the labour movement and radically change the structures and complexion of trade unionism in this era of imperialist, neo-liberal globalisation.

The NCL and the KPUP are basically trade union organisations with parallel aims of advancing the unification of the labour movement. The NCL does its efforts from "above", advancing unification by transforming itself into a "confederation" and advocating the unification of the major labour blocs into one trade union centre. The KPUP is a grassroots movement of local unions pushing for trade union unity from "below", developing itself into a working-class brotherhood of local union presidents cutting across organisational and political affiliations.

The BMP, on the other hand, is a revolutionary socialist mass organisation of the working class, aspiring to develop itself as a motive force within the trade union movement in organising the class struggle along socialist lines.

Question: Could you explain the role of the BMP as a socialist workers centre?

The BMP, as a revolutionary socialist, legal mass organisation, assumes a pivotal role in advancing the class struggle and the general democratic movement. It distinguishes itself, as a mass organisation, from a political party in assuming a vanguard role in the socialist and democratic struggles.

The BMP considers the advancement of the democratic struggle its most immediate political task in the struggle for socialism. However, it believes that in advancing the people's democratic movement, the motive and decisive force is the working-class movement. Hence the necessity of the concentration of forces in organising the working class.

And for the working class to assume a leading role in the democratic struggle of the people, they must view this struggle as a necessary condition for socialism. They must understand the struggle for democracy from a socialist perspective, and therefore, the necessity of socialist awakening of the mass of workers, which is the basic task of the BMP.

The specific projects that we have undertaken, such as the workers' school, workers' magazine and workers' radio, primarily serve political consolidation. The workers' law firm aims to upgrade the legal flank of the trade union movement, while the workers' development bank is a major effort in undertaking the economic struggle.

Question: Presidential elections are to be held in 1998. How will the workers' movement relate to this?

Although we view bourgeois elections as essentially nothing but a periodic opportunity for the workers to choose who among the ruling class will be given the chance to fool and rob the people, we find nothing inconsistent in participating in the bourgeois parliamentary struggle for the purpose of advancing the mass struggle.

The BMP upholds the mass struggle as its basic form of struggle and is prepared to participate in a flexible way in electoral struggle to develop the parliamentary flank of the mass movement. If we can lay down the basic requisites this year, we foresee the building of an electoral labour party by next year in preparation for 1998.

Question: How will the BMP function in relation to other sectors, such as the urban poor?

We see the distinct sectoral struggles of the urban and rural poor as component parts of the working-class movement, since the basic class forces behind these movements are primarily the proletarian and semiproletarian masses. We seek to develop amongst the urban and rural poor a socialist movement of the unemployed and underemployed on the basis of the land and housing problems. The growing misery of the urban and rural poor is the inevitable result of capitalist development.

Our relations with other class forces will be determined by the demands of the general democratic movement. We will support every democratic struggle of other sectors that advances the aims of social progress and social justice while persevering with the independent line of the working class in the struggle for democracy and socialism.

Question: What role do you see multi-sectoral organisations such as Sanlakas playing in this framework?

Sanlakas is a broad coalition for the people's general welfare, for nationalist and democratic struggle, and the people's legislative and political agenda. We expect it to develop its own initiative and integrity as an organisation independent of the working class and political forces within the coalition.

Although the BMP will exert its utmost to influence Sanlakas to support its political line and program, it will always uphold Sanlakas' organisational structure and principles. BMP believes that Sanlakas can only be effective if it can fully develop its own positive identity, dynamism and spontaneity in the general democratic movement and not allow conspiratorial organisations to manipulate its organisational processes. We would like to see Sanlakas develop as a major political force in the people's struggle for freedom and democracy.

Question: The Philippines, like other south-east Asian countries, is being affected by global capitalist restructuring. What problems does this pose for the workers' movement?

This "globalisation" is not the cooperation of nations but the international competition of capital. The impetus for globalisation is the crisis of world capitalism. Hence, its most salient point is the free movement of capital and goods, the liberalisation of trade and investments among nations. This means the free movement of goods and capital of imperialist nations unfettered by national boundaries. For the Filipinos, this is nothing but an international version of our "parity rights" agreement, which the US imposed on the Philippines immediately after its bogus independence of 1946. This globalisation is nothing but the recolonisation of the world by imperialist powers.

The working class in all countries is bound to bear the brunt of this intensified competition. In the effort to be more globally competitive, capital will strive to cheapen and seek cheaper labour. And cheaper labour means the curtailment of trade union rights. Globalisation will unleash a worldwide offensive of capital against trade unions. This will mean a "no union, no strike" state policy, which in the Philippines is now a de facto policy, at least in the Regional Industrial Centers of the Ramos government.

Question: What do you think are the key elements of a strategy to counter this?

This capitalist globalisation must be answered by a globalisation of working-class cooperation in defence of their rights and welfare and working-class solidarity against recolonisation and oppression. The international solidarity and struggle of the workers against this neo-liberal globalisation is a major step in the revitalisation of the international socialist and anti-imperialist movement.

From GLW issue 242