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

All leaders of militant workers’ organizations were arrested and jailed immediately after the declaration of Martial Law. These included the leaders of National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU), a militant labor federation established by Olalia in 1957. Its leaders were imprisoned for more than a month, its office was ransacked, equipment soiled, and the office was padlocked until some of the leaders were freed. China offered Olalia asylum which he reportedly considered for a few days. But he eventually decided to go home where “the struggle is ongoing.” Marcos’ police arrested him right at the airport and threw him in jail.

From the sixties to seventies, the bulk of rallyists denouncing Marcosian policies and programs came from students, workers including members of NAFLU, and the urban poor. These rallies denounced many of Marcos’ policies such as its joining the U.S. war on Vietnam through sending Filipino soldiers to fight alongside Americans and hosting the summit of Asian leaders participating in the U.S. war on Vietnam (attended by then US President Johnson). Rallies also opposed the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and repressive decrees.

Upon Olalia’s release from jail, he returned to organizing mass movements. In 1974 when Marcos instigated the founding of Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) to unite the Filipino labor movement, Olalia was touted to become its first chairman, but according to Amado Gat Inciong who was Labor Undersecretary at the time, Fabian Ver had opposed it. As Marcos’ direct hand in the formation and operation of TUCP became more obvious, a sizeable chunk of labor leaders including Olalia walked out of the TUCP’s founding congress.

Olalia and the labor organizations he led would since then proceed to shatter many of Marcos’ grand excuses for imposing Martial Law. Activist youths and workers combined to strengthen existing militant labor organizations and form new ones that would challenge the underpinnings of Marcos’ vaunted economic development. Despite numerous Martial Law prohibitions on people’s rights to form organizations, hold mass actions and launch strikes, they persevered. NAFLU under Olalia went on to register the biggest number of strikes launched in the seventies.

For Marcos, Olalia came to personify one of the political threats to his credibility problem and continued rule. Whatever supposedly good reasons Marcos had in imposing Martial Law, for instance “economic development,” were shattered by persistent unionization and strikes which exposed the sweatshop conditions of the Filipino workers especially in so-called growth areas like export processing zones.

Many of the unions formed during Martial Law became automatically anti-Marcos, as their struggle for union recognition and slight improvement of working conditions immediately ran counter to many Marcos decrees. Marcos’ violations of human and trade union rights became more apparent each time a union strove to ask for improved working conditions and standards.

Olalia helped establish human rights organizations to document and expose Marcos’ violations here and abroad. He helped form the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights (NCPWR) and the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR). These human rights watchdogs successfully combined labor, professionals and the religious sector.

In 1980, Olalia became the first chairperson of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement), a large militant labor center whose very formation in Araneta Coliseum that year was a stark protest against Martial Law. Its founding congress was attended by a large section of organized workers, allied professionals, religious and anti-Marcos politicians as well as local and foreign media. It became a harbinger of the growing people power against the Marcos dictatorship.

Probably sensing that, Marcos ordered a massive crackdown against militant labor. His armed forces swooped down on the offices of both KMU and NAFLU and the residences of its officers and arrested and jailed its leaders. For Olalia, it will be his second arrest and imprisonment under Martial Law. Placed in solitary confinement and forced to sleep on cold cement floor for weeks, Olalia, 79, then already regarded as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Labor,” got ill and soon died, still a prisoner under “house-arrest.”

Felixberto Olalia’s death is clearly in the hands of the Marcoses.

Olalia could have chosen to lead an easy life as a labor leader, albeit a corrupted or co-opted one; or he could have just retired during the Martial Law years. However, he persisted in his brand of nationalist unionism up to the end of his life. He died in 1983, still a fighter at age 80. The Marcos dictatorship had evidently regarded him as a fierce enemy that despite his age, they saw it fit to manhandle and treat him cruelly in jail.

To people who opposed Martial Law, dictatorship and the repression that all these entailed, Felixberto Olalia clearly deserves to be recognized as a hero. Contributed toBulatlat.com

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