One Street with Different Stories of Unionism and Struggle

‘Not without a fight’ seems to be the motto of many militant unions against efforts to bust their unions; they basically always put up a fight for wages, jobs and rights.

Contributed to Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 12, April 27-May 3, 2008

In the busy street of Marcos Alvarez in Las Pinas, many vehicles would honk when they pass by the picketline of Far Eastern International Garments, Inc. (FEIGI). The reason: a placard urges them, Bumusina laban kay Gloria (Blow your horn against GMA) while another says Tanggalin si Gloria Hindi ang Manggagawa (Remove Gloria, not the workers).

There was a time when employers prohibited such placards to be posted even at picketlines for fear of offending the government. But these days, labour-intensive export-oriented companies such as FEIGI have other issues to complain about. Not least of them are decreased profits from declining orders of recession-wracked rich countries and lower value of their dollar earnings. Like other companies though, the employers’ coping mechanisms to protect their profit rates frequently put workers at a disadvantage. Early this year, thousands of long-time workers were retrenched when their employers shut down production or reduced their work force. Some relocated to industrial parks outside NCR with lower-paid contractual and non-unionized workers. These employers are just taking advantage of GMA’s come-on to investors: no-union, no strike and cheap labor.

Street of shutdown, retrenchment and full spectrum of trade unionism

‘Not without a fight’ seems to be the motto of many militant unions against efforts to bust their unions; they basically always put up a fight for wages, jobs and rights. “As soon as the management told us they’re temporarily shutting down operations while awaiting orders, we put up this picketline,” said a woman worker who’d been sewing Dockers and Eddie Bauer shirts in FEIGI for 23 years. Since April 7 they’d been protesting what they call as “illegal shutdown” and lack of financial assistance by the management. (A shutdown is deemed illegal when adequate prior notice (30 days) is not observed.) They’re also asking their long-time employers who, they said, had profited enormously from decades of their work, to give them financial assistance. Douglas Hsu, owner of FEIGI, ranks 707th in Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest billionaires.

But FEIGI workers have another pressing reason for holding a 24-hour picket outside their “temporarily closed” factory at Marcos Alvarez St. “Binabantayan lang namin, baka matulad kami sa iba” (We’re just guarding it, we don’t want to suffer what befell our fellow workers), confided another worker with more than 20 years of service in the company.

During similar shutdowns in large neighbouring export-oriented and foreign-owned garment factories, the employers took advantage of their workers’ absence to relocate their machineries and equipment to another factory site. “Kunwari pinagbakasyon, ‘yun pala ilalabas lang mga gamit” (The workers are forced to go on vacation purportedly for lack of business so that the machines and equipment can be carted out)said the 48-year old sewing machine operator. At the end of the scheduled shutdown, long-time regular workers had no more work to return to; they’re also reduced to almost begging just to get their legally mandated separation pay.

This is what’s happening now to workers of Kelseat and Chris Garments, both in Marcos Alvarez St. neighboring FEIGI. Kelseat had about 500 workers while Chris Garments had around 1,000 when the two companies recently shut down. Unlike workers of FEIGI, workers in these two companies were led by federations other than KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno or May 1st Movement). Kelseat workers were allied with PTGWO, a federation under the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), while the union of Chris Garments is officially affiliated with the Bukluran ng Mangagawang Pilipino (Unity of Filipino Workers or BMP). Some federations brand TUCP’s unionism as ‘yellow’ while BMP’s as the “new yellow.”

Yellow and new yellow unionism supposedly means compromised or collaborationist (in favour of the management and the government, at the expense of workers) mode of unionism. It accuses the union officers of selling out the workers’ struggle. The two yellows’ difference lies in the new yellow’s seemingly militant tact, yet essentially still selling out to the management. On the other end of trade union spectrum is the so-called genuine trade unionism being espoused by KMU and other unions. It relies on varied democratic and militant mass actions to achieve their demands and give workers some protection against the onslaught of profit-driven exploitation of their employers in connivance with the government.

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