By JUSTIN UMALI
A question has always bothered me since my college days: why do workers go on strike?
The first time I asked myself this question was when Philsteel workers in Cabuyao went on strike in 2012. I used to pass their picketline relatively often since their factory was next to this pork chop and silog place I liked called Starbecks. I didn’t think much about it. Maybe they wanted better wages, or benefits, or something.
It wasn’t until years later that I would ask myself that question again. In 2017, workers from Coca-Cola went on strike and I passed by them every day as I went to and from work in Makati. I understood a bit more about the workers’ struggle. They’re asserting their right to decent wages and regularization, I said to myself. I also wanted to be regularized, so I could somehow relate. But I didn’t really see why it was that necessary.
It wasn’t until I went to a strike myself that I really understood.
When I went to the Pepmaco picket, the first one I ever went to, and talked to people like Christine and Myra, they were more than eager to share their situation. It was harrowing to hear stories of how they were treated: the low wages, the danger, the abuse from their supervisors, but it was also inspiring to hear how they’ve chosen to fight back.
It was the same situation in NutriAsia, when Julius, Chris, and all the others were more than glad to share how bulldozers almost ran them over during their strike. Or in Monde Nissin where Rey and Luis told us about their years’ long struggle for regularization. But what really struck me was how they always answered the question of “Kumusta na?” (How are you?)
Kumusta na, I would ask. Lumalaban pa rin (Still fighting), they would always answer.
We often hear the quotes and the theories behind a strike. It is a high form of struggle against the capitalist. It is the most effective way of bucking bourgeois authority, by directly affecting a capitalist’s income. Strikes are the working class taking political power from the ruling elite.
But a strike is so much more than that. A strike is not just locking out the gates of a factory, or setting up makeshift tent after makeshift tent, or spray-painting calls on walls. It is making light of the situation to pass the time during dull moments in the afternoon. It is complaining in jest about having to eat sardines and misua noodles, and getting told to get busy with soliciting donations if they want to eat chicken. Most importantly, it is answering “Lumalaban pa rin”, confident in the inevitability of final victory, even if it doesn’t always work out like that.
Last August 27, Monde Nissin workers staged a second strike that lasted an entire day. Ferdinand told me that they wouldn’t accept anything but regularization papers if they wanted the strike to end.
It didn’t work out like that. Faced with no other options but continual dispersal or to negotiate a compensation, almost all of the workers agreed to take the money. It was far from a defeat. They had asserted their rights, and they had won, as far as the law would allow them to win.
One of the workers ended up shedding tears while their union president announced the end of the strike. I looked at him, and it cut me. This wasn’t my fight, but I shared in their struggle. I was there during the quiet moments. I was there during the tense moments. When I saw him cry, I knew he wasn’t sad.
Frustrated, maybe. But also relieved. It was a victory. It was the culmination of years of struggle. It wasn’t picture-perfect, but it was the working class asserting their rights: victory, by any other name.
This is what strikes are, essentially. More than the agitation of “sama-samang pagkilos” (collective action) and “uring manggagawa, hukbong mapagpalaya” (Workers as the liberating class), strikes are made of people fighting for their rights. In a society that affords no space for the majority of its citizens to call out inequality, it becomes necessary for people to engage in direct means of asserting their rights. The strike becomes the most powerful weapon in the workers’ arsenal, because it is the only one that works.
Strikes are struggles. In an increasingly impersonal world dominated by capital and profit margins, strikes shatter that illusion and remind us of the fundamental relations between people and things. Strikes are the tears shed at the sound of workers gaining their rights. They are the words “Lumalaban pa rin” said with the purest conviction, by workers who live, breathe, and have families to feed.
Each strike lights a match that can start a prairie fire. And eventually, that fire will come and burn away oppression and inequality. The working class demands it.