Felixberto Olalia Sr., the Grand Old Man of the Philippine Labor Movement

Mention the names Crisanto Evangelista, Amado V. Hernandez, and Felixberto Olalaia Sr. and one is reminded of the history of the militant workers’ movement in the Philippines. Felixberto Olalia Sr. was instrumental in the rebirth of the militant labor movement during the dark days of Martial Law, the peak of which was the founding of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement). Sensing that Olalia was a threat to his rule, Marcos jailed Olalia at the age of 79. His imprisonment during the twilight of his years led to his death.

Contributed to Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 26, August 5 to 11, 2007

Felixberto Olalia was born to a family of poor farmers in Bacolor, Pampanga in August, 1903. Poverty forced him to stop formal schooling after grade four to work briefly as houseboy to a wealthy family in Tarlac. He soon left Tarlac with his family to try their luck in Manila.

Despite poverty, Felixberto Olalia embraced the changes and challenges of his young life with much exuberance. He and his family first lived in what was regarded as ‘Kapampangan enclave’ in the workers’ districts of Manila’s Bagumbayan (now Sta. Cruz) and Tondo. At the time, the country’s strategic manufacturing and commercial establishments were concentrated in those areas of Manila.

At seventeen Olalia started working as an apprentice in a shoe factory. Soon he joined a mobile theater group or vaudeville, the country’s popular form of entertainment at the time. He would travel with their theater group’s cast and crew to perform all over Luzon. Thus, Olalia got more familiar with the lives and ways of Filipinos in other provinces and localities, aside from the lives of the workers he lived with in Manila.

Having seen poverty and its attendant injustice early in life, and living intimately with almost all kinds of workers in their new community, Olalia immediately drew close to organized workers. He participated actively in efforts to improve meager earnings through collective struggle. From being an active member in the union of the shoe shops where he worked, Olalia was elected as secretary and a few years later as president. At the same time, he joined the movement for Philippine independence where the Philippine labor movement had figured prominently since its inception.

Felixberto Olalia came of age both as a young worker and as a nationalist activist. As a leader, he led various campaigns for improving the Filipino workers’ welfare. That included demanding for an eight-hour labor day instead of twelve hours, or longer, as was the practice at the time, and holding demonstrations urging for the Philippines’ independence from the US.

To compensate for his lack of formal education, Olalia also spent much time and money to buy and read lots of books and periodicals.

History of involvement

When Marcos came to power in 1965 Olalia was already a veteran union leader who had become somewhat famous for sticking to his guns in behalf of the workers and the Philippine independence movement.

He had worked closely with Crisanto Evangelista, the incorruptible and pioneering leader who had earned even former Commonweath President Manuel L. Quezon’s praises. Olalia looked up to Evangelista as mentor and model. They had founded numerous organizations together with other pioneering union leaders. When the Second World War erupted, Olalia joined the Filipino guerrilla fighters- he organized and led at least three Manila squadrons of Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Peoples’ Army Against the Japanese).

After the war, Olalia and other leaders of the labor movement who survived the war went back to forming bigger organizations to agitate for reforms. The granting of Philippine independence in 1946 didn’t dampen their quest for “genuine sovereignty and freedom.” Along with poet and fellow labor leader Amado V. Hernandez, Olalia and other militant labor leaders were arrested and thrown in jail in the fifties on charges of rebellion.

After his release from jail, Olalia promptly went back to organizing workers and peasants. When former President Marcos gave a speech before the US Congress in the sixties, he described Masaka, a militant Central Luzon-based peasant organization that Olalia had prominently helped to establish, as the number one “threat.”

Masaka became one of the first targets of the Marcoses even before they declared Martial Law in 1972. Former President Marcos had also tried to co-opt Felixberto Olalia. He sent the labor leader as emissary to then Communist China in missions to establish diplomatic links with it. In fact Olalia was in China in one of these missions when Marcos declared Martial Law.

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