Though overdue, CHR tribute to labor leader Bert Olalia hailed

“If Ka Bert were alive today, he would lead protests against Aquino’s push for Charter change, against moves to extend Aquino’s term and clip the Supreme Court’s powers.” – Nenita Gonzaga, KMU and longtime aide of the late Felixberto Olalia


MANILA – Labor leader Felixberto “Ka Bert” Olalia was finally hailed by a government body as a hero in the struggle against the Martial Law dictatorship. The Commission on Human Rights gave its tribute to him yesterday Sept. 22, in commemoration of Martial Law.

Olalia is the first chairman of national labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) whose very existence is a protest by the labor movement against martial law and repression. Under former strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos, strikes were outlawed and unions were forced to join the government-backed Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. KMU bucked all this prohibitions.

Unions under the leadership of Felixberto Olalia exposed and opposed the government repression of unionism, as its labor union struggles soon became part of resistance to martial law. Crippling workers strikes in 1980s preceded what turned into political strikes and people power uprising.

“Felixberto “Ka Bert” Olalia is truly a hero of the Filipino people’s struggle against the US-backed Marcos dictatorship. He suffered immensely in the struggle against Martial Law: he was repeatedly imprisoned and died as a consequence of poor prison conditions inflicted on him,” said Nenita Gonzaga, vice-chairperson of KMU for women’s affairs and longtime aide of Ka Bert Olalia from the time he was at the helm of National Federation of Labor Union to the time he led KMU.

Gonzaga worked as secretary of Olalia from 1962 to 1983.

Olalia died in 1983 of complications arising from being in solitary confinement despite his old age. He was made to lie on cold concrete. His office in KMU and NAFLU were ransacked. Soldiers even defecated on their cooking pots.

According to KMU, which has long hailed Olalia as a hero, the government tribute is “long overdue and does little justice to his greatness and heroism.”

The University of the Philippines’ School of Labor and Industrial Relations had also honored Olalia a few years back. Olalia’s son, lawyer Rolando Olalia, also became a labor leader. But he was brutally murdered by soldiers in 1987 during the administration of the late president Corazon Aquino.

Same old

In a statement emailed to media yesterday, Gonzaga drew on her long experience of working with Ka Bert and concluded that if the grand old man of Philippine trade unionism were still alive, “he would condemn and struggle against the political repression by the government of Pres. Noynoy Aquino and his scheme to extend his term and clip the powers of the Supreme Court.”
Aside from KMU, many human rights advocates and civil society groups view Aquino’s actions as “symptoms of a dictatorship.”

Gonzaga, who has also been imprisoned along with NAFLU and KMU leaders due to government crackdowns on the progressive labor movement, notes that fascist repression continues under Aquino. Worse, the repression today, unlike in Marcos’ time, is marketed with a “democratic veneer,” she said.

Gonzaga believes Ka Bert would condemn the fact that street protesters are brutally being dispersed, activists are targeted for extra-judicial killings and abductions, peace talks are sabotaged, and militarization in the countryside continues.

Focusing on the labor movement where she closely worked with Olalia in his time, Gonzaga believes Ka Bert would condemn the “prevailing but undeclared Martial Law against workers’ unions and strikes.”

The democratic veneer she talks of is manifested in claims, for example, that unions and strikes are still legal in this country, and that workers still have union and democratic rights.

The problem crops up when workers try to enjoy these rights. According to Gonzaga, workers who try to form unions are illegally being sacked while strikes are violently suppressed by the Labor Secretary using her assumption of jurisdiction power over labor disputes.

“If Ka Bert were alive today, he would lead protests against Aquino’s push for Charter change, against moves to extend Aquino’s term and clip the Supreme Court’s powers,” Gonzaga said. Given Olalia’s record, she said he would likely oppose, too, Aquino’s Cha-cha as this will establish a dictatorship and will expand his usurpation of the powers of Congress over the national budget. (

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