By ALDWIN QUITASOL
“Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather. To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather”— Mao Tse Tung
BAGUIO City — Why did this man come here to the Cordillera? He did not even speak a single word in Iloco or any Igorot language? Yet he served the workers of the region with utmost selflessness, and stood tall with unflinching courage defending them for more than three decades?
He was one lawyer who never boasted of his being a lawyer. He was a professional without “intellectual arrogance.” He was the legal counsel who never implied that he was more knowledgeable than his client. Nor did he pretend to be superior at making decisions. He listened, discussed, asked questions, gave suggestions and recommendations. He was full of enthusiasm to learn more and he was a most humble big guy.
The people who were lucky to have worked with him view him as a most remarkable comrade. The workers and other people whom he had helped view him as “the kind of lawyer who prioritizes the winning of the case for his client, unlike others who are just after the attorney’s fees.”
From the Bicol Region his family migrated to Antipolo, Rizal, after a wealthy family seized their house and land. The experience prompted him to promise himself he would rise above his condition, study and become a lawyer, so he could fight injustices like the one his family suffered. After finishing high school, he went to Manila where he studied college while working in the public sector. He was a clerk by day and a law student by night.
While in college, he joined the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) until the then Marcos dictatorship declared it as illegal. He actively participated in rallies against the tyranny of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
After graduating from law and passing the bar exams, organizers of the trade union movement invited him to serve the people of North Luzon, particularly the Cordillera and Ilocos regions. He did not hesitate. In the early 80’s, accompanied by Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement or KMU) chairman, Rolando Olalia, he took a bus bound for Baguio City.
In Baguio, he was immediately integrated as labor lawyer of the Cordillera Labor Education Assistance and Research Center (CLEAR). At the time, the mine workers at Antamok mines were forming a union; they sought his help as their legal counsel.
From 1980 to 2012, he served thousands of workers not only in the Cordillera, Ilocos Provinces, but as also in as far as Isabela and Cagayan, among others. He became well-known for his down-to-earth attitude toward his clients, yet fierce and firm at legal battles. Most of the cases he handled were on “high grading.”
Mine companies were suing workers caught “stealing” gold ore in areas where the company had property claims. Employers also sued workers for allegedly violating company rules; they also terminated workers. Most of the cases handled by lawyer Bunao won for the workers reinstatement with full back wages and payment of damages. Bunao’s attorney’s fees never came from the pockets of the workers as these were already integrated in the liabilities paid by the companies.
Some of the unions he served are the Mangmangged ti Benguet Antamok Gold Operations-National Federation of Labor Unions (MABAGO-Naflu-KMU), Baro a Timpuyog Dagiti Mangmangged iti Benguet-Naflu-KMU, Unyon Dagiti Mangmangged iti Itogon Suyoc Mines-Naflu-KMU, Agrofoods Employees Union-Naflu-KMU, workers of Narda’s weaving, Vital Farms Employees Union, Nagkakaisang Manggagawa sa Adriste, Nagkakaisang Manggagawa sa Ramos Construction, Philippine Rabbit Employees Union, Lepanto Employees Union-Naflu-KMU, Progressive Union of Mineworkers in Philex, Lepanto Security Force Union-Naflu-KMU, Shipside Employees Union, employees of Diamond Drilling Company of the Phils., Dong-in K7-Naflu-KMU, Bauang Power Plant Site Employees Union, and hundreds of workers from different workplaces, even the teachers of the colleges in Baguio. The latest addition is Sagada Weavers Union.
Federico Bunao lived simply, never owning a house or a car, unlike other lawyers whose priority seemed to be to proudly display their SUVs or cars. He did not even go on vacations abroad. He only had a television set, and one of his favorites that he never failed to watch was the boxing fight of eight-time world champ Manny Pacquiao. He had a table, a cabinet, a wooden bed, a stove, a couple of plates and glasses, a laptop computer, a mirror and a comb. He had bought a washing machine but not just for his own use. He shared it with colleagues especially during the rainy season when it is hard to dry clothes.
Federico’s wake in Baguio City saw workers, union presidents, labor leaders and members of different organizations and sectors coming to pay their last respects and give him tribute. Almost all of the workers who spoke that night remembered him well, recalling how he introduced himself to them, for example. “Bosing, tawagin niyo na lang po akong Dick,” (‘Sir, just call me Dick.’) they recalled. This was how he always introduced himself to everyone regardless of the person’s educational attainment or status in life.
Whenever he came out of the comfort room of the office of the Cordillera Labor Center, he will look at himself at the mirror and fix his curly hair. He would stretch out his two hands to check if his sleeves are still of the same length. He would then bring out his white flower embrocation and apply some on his finger and sniff it hard. He would drop a few on his tongue and on his nape.
He had had his share of falling in and out of love. He had known the heartache of being rebuffed. But he never did use it as an excuse to stop serving the cause of workers. At some gatherings, when prodded, he would talk about it like someone who threw his gift of flowers into the trash. At one time, someone counseled him, in Filipino, “Bok, she told me to just give my love to someone else.” And he reportedly jokingly replied to his counselor, also in Filipino, “Bok, just let them drool over me.”
At a recent tribute for him, the workers and his colleagues agreed that his one greatest love had been serving the workers and the people of the Cordillera. As Atty. Raul Molintas put it: “He was married to the workers of Cordillera.”