Piston and some of its national leaders have become popular, and as such targets of vilification, because they consistently oppose the exploitation of drivers and Filipinos in general by the oil cartel and all those who “collude” with it.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — Whenever transport leader George San Mateo and fellow leaders of Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) would board a bus, they often encounter a driver and a conductor who would not let them pay the fare. “We in Piston would tell the conductor and driver: ‘Thank you, but the company might deduct it from your own pay.’
Then the Piston leaders would insist on paying although often, the bus driver or conductor wouldn’t let them, George told Bulatlat in an interview.
He remembered some bus conductors telling him: “George, we are comrades – and you’ve been a big help to us.”
Times like this never fail to invigorate San Mateo. He had thought Piston is more accepted among jeepney drivers and not as well-known among bus employees.
San Mateo rose to become the national secretary general of Piston in 2007. [Update: He was elected in 2012 as Piston’s national president.] Piston is a transport organization whose members came mostly from organizations of jeepney and FX (or AUV) taxi drivers and small operators, plus some associations of tricycle drivers.
Today, George San Mateo and Piston are familiar names for having consistently questioned the abuses of monopoly oil companies, the oil deregulation law that makes it legal, and the assumed paralysis of the government in checking the oil companies‘ alleged oil overpricing and runaway profits. Piston has also distinguished itself from other transport groups that immediately ask for fare hikes or other ‘non-solutions’ instead of taking first the path of protesting unjust oil price increases.
In this way, Piston has been courting the riding public’s support and sympathy. The group appeals to the public to see the mass transport drivers for what they are— a part of the downtrodden, exploited and oppressed people in Philippine society— and not the ‘undisciplined traffic violator’ that they say the government is painting them to be.
Who is the enemy of affordable mass transportation? One of the rightful owners of that tag according to Piston is the oil cartel. And whoever is taking the side of this oil cartel. In Piston’s experience, these include the energy department and the Philippine president.
As of this writing Piston had launched a transport strike against oil overpricing. President Aquino had tried to stop it through a last-minute “dialogue” with transport leaders while an energy undersecretary tried to weaken Piston’s protest by telling the media about Piston’s supposed suggestion to “strengthen” and not repeal the Oil Deregulation Law. Piston said it failed to remove public support to their protest against oil overpricing. When the drivers pressed on with their strike, Malacañang sought to belittle its impact and its leaders such as Piston, even as it deployed military trucks to provide free rides to the affected commuters. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) formed a task force with the aim of countering future transport strikes and similar protests.
Following that strike, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda questioned the leadership of Piston. He expressed doubts over San Mateo’s legitimacy as transport leader. In an interview with Bulatlat, San Mateo assured the public that he is 100 percent from and for the transport sector and the riding public.
A taxi driver opposed to contractualization
In 2004, San Mateo was a newly retrenched driver pounding the streets of Metro Manila in search of another job as driver. He could have stayed on as a driver in his old company, but it would have meant agreeing to be rehired as a lower-paid, non-unionized contractual.
“I guessed I was the last employee to be regularized in that company,” San Mateo recalled.
As such, he was one of the first to be laid off when the car rental company went full blast into implementing contractualization. They at least had a provision in that company that called for “last in, first out” if the company needed to lay off employees.
Prior to implementing a retrenchment, the said car rental company began refusing to regularize their employees even after they had successfully passed the casual and probationary status after six months or even after a year. George found out that other drivers who came in at about the same time he did were no longer regularized but only offered job contracts.
“At that time, we were more than 100 regular drivers. But in 2001 they started hiring contractuals. It was in 2003 they decided to contractualize big time, retrenching regular workers via first in last out,” San Mateo said.
Before suffering contractualization, San Mateo had worked in other car rental companies. He had worked also as a family driver to a boss in a construction company, and then as a multi-tasking driver to a commercial advertising company. Not only did he drive the company van, he also assisted in holding microphones or lights. He perfomed other odd jobs for the ad company.
As a driver in his first car rental company, he ferried the cabin crew of Philippine Air Lines to and from their residences and the airport. In his next car rental company, he worked also as a smartly uniformed driver but this time, his passengers were executives, tourists and other clients of the car rental company.
As a driver in this company, he got “intimately acquainted” with the city’s “tourism industry.” He was assigned to what they call in the industry as “limousine” service for hotels, airports, gambling dens, nightclubs and bars and other tourist spots and meeting places of the busy executives and the rich. He ferried big time gamblers, high-class prostitutes, visiting executives and politicians.
San Mateo also drove limousines and other types of “sweet-smelling luxury vehicles” for the said company’s VIP clients.
George resigned from the car rental company when he got a chance to buy, with his savings, a second-hand car. He turned it into a taxi with himself as the driver.
For three years he was a taxi driver-operator. But he was not his own boss. Soon, the continuous rise in oil prices, cost of taxi maintenance and servicing, traffic woes, stiff penalties and kotong (illegal exactions), eventually forced him to sell his taxi. He returned to working as a driver for another car rental company.
San Mateo easily found work in another car rental company where former co-drivers were working. It was here where he was eventually declared as “regular” on the job, but was laid off soon after and offered to be rehired as a contractual driver. As an individual protest, he refused.
An activist leader ‘lost and found’
While looking for another job as a driver in 2003, San Mateo met up with friends back from the days when he was a student activist.
During the 80s, when San Mateo was a student residing at his grandmother’s home in Parañaque, he joined a progressive youth organization based in their community, the Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (Kadena). Although his mother hailed from Pampanga and his father from Bataan, they met in Manila and raised all their children in that city, including George. He is the fourth in a brood of five.
In the 80s George was an activist and youth leader. He chaired Kadena-Parañaque from 1985 to 1986. In 1987 during the Cory Aquino administration, he was tapped to become the national spokesperson of Kadena. He spoke on behalf of the youth organization from 1987 to 1991.
After that, he briefly worked in Baguio City as a mass leader for a Cordilleran alliance called Tuntungan ti Umili. But his parents begged him to return to Metro Manila in December of 1992, to help support the family “for a while.” At the time, said San Mateo, his elder siblings were all already married. Since he was as yet unmarried, his siblings requested his help in supporting the aging parents.
San Mateo agreed. Financially supporting his family “for a while” began in 1992, with him working as company driver for a succession of two different employers, then as a driver to a succession of three different car rental companies, interrupted by years when he was a taxi driver-operator. In short, he directly worked as a driver for more than ten years.
In 2003, San Mateo gravitated to Piston and to friends from his youth activist days. When some drivers and active members of Piston learned that he was looking for a “job,” they invited him to Piston as one of its “volunteers.”
San Mateo started working as public information officer of Piston in 2004, just when its well-known leader, Medardo Roda or Ka Roda, had suffered a stroke. San Mateo’s first “job” at Piston combined elements of his last task as an activist in the 80s, that of being a national spokesperson, and his experience as a driver and a taxi driver-operator.
He told Bulatlat that although he had not worked side by side with Ka Roda, he had seen Ka Roda in rallies and transport strikes back when he was the national spokesperson of Kadena. The chairman of Piston when San Mateo entered the transport organization was Mar Garvida, who he noticed was “not that in touch with the day-to-day life of ordinary drivers”. San Mateo said he and other Piston leaders had to spend time “updating and briefing” Garvida. He can’t believe that a so-called transport leader has little familiarity with the drivers’ situation, problems and demands.
In 2005, San Mateo was elected secretary general of Piston-National Capital Region. At the same time, he was appointed as national spokesman for the transport organization.
In 2007, Garvida left Piston for 1-UTAK, a group that calls itself a transport partylist, and who has for leaders a lawyer such as President Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita lawyer, Atty. Vigor Mendoza, and for a time, even the late former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) general Angelo Reyes.
In the third national congress of Piston, San Mateo was elected as its secretary-general and the then secretary general Steve Ranjo was elected as president. Leading a national organization such as Piston is a full-time job in itself, said its leaders. [Update: The following Piston assembly, they elected San Mateo as national president.]
As leaders of Piston, San Mateo described themselves as not the desk-bound, office-based type who has to be briefed about the plight of public utility drivers. On the contrary, he said, they work and live with fellow public utility drivers, eat with them, meet and study with them.
What do they hope to accomplish with that? They seek to expand and strengthen Piston, build alliances with other transport federations, to “defend and advance” the interest not only of the transportation sector in the country, a “vital ingredient for the nation’s progress,” but also of the riding public.
Filipino jeepney drivers pride themselves on being “sweet lovers.” Tons of jeepney art bear out this message. Asked if it is true for him, too, San Mateo can only say his “job” takes him all over the country. He was still unmarried at the time of Bulatlat’s interview. The reason his family made him return to the capital, which also led him to work as a driver, remained true after more than 10 years.
Doesn’t he have a “station,” a driver’s “TODA”, as they say, where he parks his romantic overtures, driver as sweet lover and what not?
He replied that he is now constantly discussing with leaders and drivers and operators, consulting with various local chapters of Piston. In his 10 years as a driver, he’d had three relationships that did not last. At the time of this interview, he admitted that he was on his fourth try into sustaining a serious relationship.
Here, he joked, he had perhaps, finally, hopefully, learned how to strengthen his girlfriend’s helmet, so she wouldn’t bump her head against the reality of his long, consuming, but low-paying and sometimes even dangerous, working hours.
Piston leaders, said San Mateo, “share leadership role, staff work, area work and they’re part of the nitty-gritty of the drivers’ life.” The stress of the driver’s mad day on the road can rub off on the persons close to them.
All that seem part of his job. “If not, you will be out of touch with the drivers. You need these to correctly respond to crucial transport and people’s issues,” he said.
That a presidential spokesman would question the “legitimacy” as transport leader of someone like George San Mateo and a group such as Piston could only mean that Lacierda probably needs to ride the public transport more often, and not only during a national day of protest or transport strike, San Mateo’s supporters butted in.
In fact, even an intern from Bulatlat shared how, just by name-dropping San Mateo and Piston, an FX taxi driver became friendly to his passengers.
San Mateo laughed when he heard this, thinking it was another drivers’ joke thrown to pass the time in humble roadside eateries where they congregate. But when reassured that the intern was serious and it really happened, San Mateo attributed that sense of Piston to what the organization has built with their relentless struggle for safe, affordable mass transport since 1981.