Learning with, from workers | The Church’s Response

Part 2:

The progressive workers movement was historically one of the most consistent in leading protests and strikes against the Marcos dictatorship.


Read also, Part 1: Sr Ems, giving life to the Church of the Poor | The Church’s Awakening

MANILA — When Sr. Em’s community of nuns joined the labor movement in the late 70s, they focused on helping with workers’ education. “We taught them how to make their group studies more interesting,” she said.

At first, all they had were chalk and doors for blackboard. She and two other nuns helped the workers improve their teaching methods. “They (workers and labor organizers) provided the content; we provided the teaching materials and encouragement.”

From teaching sessions with just one or two workers, they were soon teaching bigger groups, Sr. Ems recalled. She noted that once a group of workers were given (trade union) education, it seemed to have a ripple effect. It continued with other workers who were also encouraged to join study sessions.

Sr. Ems and worker-educators held training sessions every Sunday; often in the nuns’ rented house.

The nuns’ community also helped in educating the workers’ wives. Sr Ems explained that some wives tend to question the activities and sacrifices of their unionist-husbands.

“You can’t eat unionism; you can’t use it to buy milk,” the wives would tell their husbands. Others accused their husbands of meeting with other women, when they were only attending union meetings that lasted till midnight.

“Even we couldn’t understand at first how the unionists could neglect to develop their wives’ social consciousness – when apparently they know how to lead fellow workers into joining unions and mass actions,” Sr. Ems said.

Apparent impact

What was the immediate impact of all those hard studying together? Sr. Ems noted that in the 80s, when workers had managed to form unions and sign a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with their employers, they struggled also to gain some paid hours for union education and external activities. These, she said, became no longer the union officers’ privilege. Ordinary workers had to also enjoy it.

One of the biggest groups Sr. Ems and fellow labor educators gave much of their effort to since 1978 were the Rubberworld workers. After continued union education since 1978, they had fought to have provisions for workers’ education and training in their CBA by 1986.

Sr. Ems credited to labor organizers’ perseverance and broad trade union education – without mentioning her part in it – the workers’ achievement in 1983, the year they had established a “good union with its own office, social services like nursery, group buying of basic goods so that workers could avail of it at a relatively cheaper price.”

Sr Emelina Villegas urges workers to maintain links with the religious groups (Photo by M. Salamat, April 2013, Sto. Domingo Church, QC / Bulatlat.com)
Sr Emelina Villegas urges workers to maintain links with the religious groups (Photo by M. Salamat, April 2013, Sto. Domingo Church, QC / Bulatlat.com)

In those days, the ICM sisters were active in workers education, attending to some of their health matters, developing women workers’ leadership abilities, even helping them develop cultural groups.

Sr. Ems noted that most union leaders at the time were male, even when women made up the majority of the firm’s workforce. She called for training women to take on more active roles in union and community leadership, beginning with learning to speak before an audience. Sr. Ems took pride in the fact that in the beginning, they sometimes had women workers who shook with fear when speaking before a crowd, but who were later able to shed this fear.

According to Sr. Ems, their “inserted” workers’ community was also instrumental in forming cultural groups in unions. With training, these cultural groups were soon singing their own compositions, performing for nuns in convents and for fellow workers in other establishments.

“When there were strikes, cultural committees of some unions would visit and sing with the strikers. They would also teach other workers in cultural work so when they leave the picketline, the strikers have their own cultural committee,” Sr. Ems recalled.

With the experience of her sisters’ community, Sr Ems helped form with other religious groups in 1981 the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), where she served for more than a decade as the first executive director.

Heading EILER, she and other nuns and priests, members of the academe and known labor leaders, helped spread what they call as genuine trade unionism (GTU) all over the Philippines. The course was considered as the basic course to learn “genuine, progressive and anti-imperialist unionism”.

The progressive workers movement was historically one of the most consistent in leading protests and strikes against the Marcos dictatorship.

With other religious groups, Sr. Ems also helped to pool support for workers and unionists as the Marcos government struck down hard on critics and unionists. With Fr. Joe Dizon and other religious, for example, she helped form the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights, and in 2000s, the Church-Workers Solidarity.

From her experiences in workers’ communities, Sr. Ems shared that when educated and trained, workers did not just work for their plight in the workplace. “Among themselves, they have creativity. They can develop their own cultural and socio-economic services.”

She said, for example, that the workers she knew had helped to organize their communities and neighboring factories. “They have formed, for example, the likes of United Neighborhood of Sauyo (then a factory belt). Sr. Ems recalled that the basis of unity, the orientation of such neighbourhood association, was unionism.

“For its members, it is more political. Those days, urban poor issues were considered as workers’ issues,” she said.

Not only were the workers in the neighbourhood organized by the unions in those days, Sr Ems said they also managed to organize through their communities the professionals residing in the area. In mobilizing for rallies, which had later developed into people power, Sr Ems said these professionals also joined them.

With unions active in many aspects of their life in the workplace and their communities, their having “solidarity relationships” with their counterparts in other countries also followed, Sr Ems said. While she and fellow nuns in her community resided in Sangandaan, they facilitated a number of “workers’ exchange” with Belgium, Germany and some countries in Asia.

With Germany, they had exchanges that very specifically focused on workers in car manufacturing and sports shoes and clothing such as Adidas.

Post-Edsa smokescreen

Looking back, when nuns and workers were still sort of breaking the ice between each other, Sr. Ems smiled at the memory of how some workers had caught the nuns’ attention and compassion.

“I see workers approaching congregations, but the religious and the lay would say: ‘We don’t want to get involved with you, you’re violent.’ And the workers would reply: ‘Okay, Sister, can we just give you names and numbers to call in case something happened to us? Like a phone brigade?’”

This way, Sr. Ems said, the nuns were able to help in the workers’ mass actions.

With another group of nuns who were more contemplative, Sr. Ems recalled, progressive labor organizers would call them and say, “Sister, we’re about to go on a march. Please pray for us.”

When another group of nuns told the workers, ‘We can’t go marching,’ the workers would say, ‘it doesn’t matter, Sister. We brought drinking water in a jeep, can you ride with it and take charge of distribution?’

“Sisters could not say no to workers,” Sr. Ems said. She related that workers also approached the Augustinian nuns, known then for being conservative.

“Ay naku, you are communists,” the Augustinian nuns reportedly said.

“But Sister, if a hungry communist worker is hungry, would you refuse to feed him?” Nuns in a way have something like a doctor’s Hippocratic oath.

Despite the hardships and the ups and downs of getting involved in the progressive movement and workers movement in particular, while still active in her other tasks as a nun, when asked if, given a chance, she would do things differently, Sr. Ems said no, except maybe, start her participation earlier in her life. She was in her early forties, already a mother superior, when she first got involved. Today, Feb 26, she is celebrating her 78th birthday. She still teaches Theology, she remains active as member of the Board of Ibon Philippines, of the consultancy organization Masai, of EILER and Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, and also of groups opposed to privatization of the Philippine Orthopedic Hospital.

Nearly three decades after the first people power uprising, Sr. Ems looked back at the experience of the Filipino trade union movement and the progressive bloc in general, and she wonders what kind of grouping is needed for this army of mass retrenched and unemployed. She asked, “Can there be a global union of the unemployed? Can solidarity groups be formed again?”

Given the post-Edsa years of anti-strike, anti-union conditioning of workers, she rues what seems to be the young workers’ lack of awareness of their rights. “Until now, they seem to be afraid of picketlines and labor strikes.”

After the first Edsa, the first Aquino administration lost no time in amending labor laws to the detriment of the workers movement. Nowadays, Sr. Ems notes that in the Church-Workers Solidarity, for example, the members are mostly unemployed. They are workers or unionists retrenched by the thousands so the company could bust the union and resort to contractualization.

Regarding the current President Benigno Noynoy Aquino III, son of the Post-Edsa 1 president Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, she said: “It is like we have a smokescreen.” She recalled how, after Edsa and after the fall of the dictatorship, some people, including some of her fellow religious, seem to think the problem has been solved and it is now past the time for activism.

In her capacity as a convener of Church-Workers Solidarity, Sr Ems looked back to the time when the Filipino trade union movement was more vibrant and strong. She urges the remaining unionists now to persevere, to never lose touch with the sisters whom she said can still be called upon to provide support if only the workers would not stop finding ways to reach out to them.

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