PHILIPPINES: The struggle for labour unity

Wednesday, May 22, 2002 - 10:00

BY NICK SOUDAKOFF
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The Solidarity of Philippines Workers (BMP) labour organisation was formed in 1993 emerged from the Communist Party of the Philippines-aligned May First Movement (KMU). Today, the BMP is the largest militant labour organisation in the Philippines. Green Left Weekly spoke to BMP president VICTOR BRIZ when he visited Sydney to attend the second Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference over Easter.

What is the state of the trade union movement in the Philippines?

The labour movement in the Philippines is fragmented. While there are 32.8 million workers in the combined formal and informal sectors, only 14 million are in the formal sector, that is those who are wage earners in an employee-employer relationship.

Just 3.5 million of these workers are organised. Union in the Philippines are organised at the enterprise level and are affiliated to nine trade union centres with different ideologies. Some are progressive and others not serious about defending workers' rights. For example, only 500,000 organised workers have collective bargaining agreements.

Because of this situation, the BMP has attempted to unite the labour movement. At first, we attempted this at the level of national trade union centre leaders. During 1994-95, there was a Caucus for Labour Unity, which included the biggest trade union centres in the Philippines. The CLU held a joint mobilisation in 1995. However, on May 1, the CLU was dissolved.

Even if labour unity at the very top level is impossible, labour unity still must go on. So the BMP formed the Fraternal Organisation of Union Presidents (KPUP), which organises some 1500 union presidents from the different trade union centres. This is a very strong block within the labour movement that can also pressure the government in its own right.

After the formation of KPUP, a wage increase campaign was launched. As part of the campaign, almost 100 union presidents staged a hunger strike in front of the Philippines Congress, which lasted 18 days. The hunger strikers demanded a legislated wage increase and other measures.

We won an increase in wages and reductions in taxes. This campaign proved that if the labour movement is united, it can fight for workers' rights more effectively.

How many unions are involved in the BMP?

The BMP is composed of 200 local unions nationwide, with a total membership of more than 100,000. There are more than 40,000 members in Metro Manila alone. The union presidents that make up the KPUP, which is allied to the BMP, represent an additional 200,000 workers across the Philippines.

The BMP organises the largest proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, so the Department of Labour considers us the most significant and militant labour organisation in the Philippines. The BMP is still expanding quite rapidly, but it is still not large enough. We cannot easily organise the unorganised.

Does the BMP also play a political role?

What have formed a workers' party, the Partido ng Manggagawa (PM). This was Ka "Popoy" Lagman's idea. Lagman was the chairperson of the BMP when he was assassinated on February 6, 2001. He had organised a Labour Consultative Assembly for January 27-29, 2001, to unite the labour movement and to launch a welgang bayan, (general industrial strike) to pressure the president and government to resign.

But President Joseph Estrada resigned before the assembly convened, so the focus of the gathering changed to how the workers' movement should deal with neo-liberal globalisation. All the union presidents described the same problems that workers are facing: increased casualisation; a reduction in benefits; the removal of the security of tenure; and the government ruling in the interests of big business and the multinationals.

The question was not just workers can we fight in the factories and in the streets with strikes and large mobilisations. The assembly decided that workers also need representatives inside Congress who can speak for the workers and that it was the right time to launch a workers' party. It made it cleat that membership would only be open to workers.

We know that forming a workers' party is not the solution to the problems workers in the Philippines face, but it is one way to fight for workers' rights.

The PM is not a factory-based organisation. We want it to organise the unorganised workers in their communities. When a workers join the PM, they are encouraged and assisted to form a PM chapter in their area. These activists are also encouraged to form unions at their workplaces and affiliate them to the BMP.

The BMP has asked all of our members to join and strengthen the workers' party by organising their neighbours and relatives. The BMP's and KPUP's is providing the organisational machinery for the party. The PM participated in the May 2001 elections and won one seat.

From Green Left Weekly, May 22, 2002.

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From GLW issue 493