From La Tondeña to modern day unions: The continuous struggle against dictatorship and oppression

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MANILA — “Tama na! Sobra na! Wakasan na!”

The people’s resounding call did not start yesterday. Decades ago, this was the same battle cry against the Marcos dictatorship, originating from one of the most legendary feats of the workers’ movement: the La Tondeña strike.

Only three years after Marcos imposed Martial Law, thousands of people, including about 800 workers of the largest distillery in Asia at that time, braved the wrath of state fascism and picketed to assert their rights. Workers were hired for eight weeks, thereafter terminated, and then rehired as contractuals. They went to the National Labor Relations Commissions (NLRC) – 30 times to be exact – to no avail. Justifiably, it was in the middle of this massive strike where student activist Edgar Jopson called, “Tama na! Sobra na! Welga na!”

After the La Tondeña strike, more than 200 other strikes broke out nationwide. More than 70,000 workers were involved and were supported by the church, youth, women, and other sectors. Their protests took many forms – silent strikes, sit-down strikes, slowdowns, mass leaves, stretching of the break period, among others.

Rattled with the resounding call for ouster and justice, the Marcos dictatorship devised means to curtail workers’ rights, ending up with the pro-capitalist Labor Code of the Philippines, an ingrained labor policy that the country hails up to this day, a labor disputes commission marred with bribery and corruption, and undue restriction over the workers’ strongest weapons – the right to strike, and the right to form unions.

The Marcos dictatorship’s labor policy

Prior to the declaration of Martial Law, the Philippine economy was already struck in a spiraling crisis. The National Census and Statistics Office (NCSO; now the Philippine Statistics Authority or PSA) recorded almost a 20-percent rate of unemployment in 1931. According to the 1977 Yearbook of Labor Statistics, 78 percent of the total 6.347 million families in the Philippines in 1971 earned below P3,000 annually, and 41 percent of families earned P2,000 per year. Consequently, a Filipino family would have had to subsist on P5-P8 per day.

With prevailing economic conditions pushing the Filipino people further into poverty, strikes and uprisings became inevitable. Thus, towards the goal of curtailing the freedom of speech, of organization, and other fundamental human rights, Marcos orchestrated events building up to the imposition of Martial Law.

To control the spike of strikes and workers’ movements, Marcos made it a point to codify all existing labor laws of the Philippines. Showing utmost subservience to the United States, he welcomed the Rannis Mission with open arms and adopted their recommendations to the labor code – the same labor code we have up to this day.

The late Marxist political economist Edberto Villegas explained in his book, “The Political Economy of Philippine Labor Laws” that the Rannis Mission ‘pushed for an export-oriented industrialization and liberalization of imports in the Philippines, advising against trade protectionism and import-substitution.’ The mission was named after Gustav Rannis, its head, and was sponsored by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Bank (WB).

Consequently, the Rannis Mission laid the foundations for labor policies that prevail even up to this day.

1. Heightened export of labor and the OFW phenomenon

The Labor Code then created the Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB) and National Seaman Board (NSB) to take care of recruitment for overseas jobs. OEDB looked for employment for Filipinos abroad. Annually, 112,191 workers are deployed abroad, the Middle East being the most common destination.

Benefitting from these, a journal of the National Manpower and Youth Council (NMYC) cited how much host countries gained from the Filipinos’ cheap labor: US$50.9 billion.

Supposedly a temporary solution to the lack of jobs in the country, deployment overseas has, rather, become the norm. Dollar-earning remittances became an easy solution for the government to increase revenue without putting out too much from its pockets. It capitalized on the Filipino laborer’s willingness to take on low-paying jobs abroad, lest be stuck inside the country without any job at all. This has left the modern-day heroes now called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) vulnerable to rights violations and severely abusive work environments.

2. The institutionalization of contractualization

In the mid-1970s to 1980s, Marcos issued a decree allowing the hiring of workers on contract for special work, thus marking the beginning of a long struggle against contractualization. This was further institutionalized after being recognized in the Labor Code and with the Department of Labor (DOL) issuing several rules for the implementation of labor contracting and sub-contracting.

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3. Cheap labor and cost-saving schemes for capitalists

How else can the government generate jobs? Supposedly, it would be through the strengthening of local industries. But the answer every past administration has to this question is a resounding ‘open door’ policy. Instead of enhancing workers’ skills, especially that of the youth, the government always rushes to shove them into low-paying, low-skilled jobs.

The Marcos dictatorship established the National Manpower and Youth Council (NMYC) in 1969. It established training institutions in the country, which according to the Labor Code, “will ensure the efficient allocation, development and utilization of the nation’s manpower and thereby promote employment…” La Salle School of Arts and Trades, Marikina SAT, Bataan SAT, Pangasinan SAT, Iloilo SAT, Bicol University, and a lot more participated in the program.

Private corporations that promised to shoulder the costs of NMYC training of future laborers were granted a tax deduction of 50 percent. Easily said, the employment of Filipino workers became synonymous with company savings.

Similarly, the Labor Code produced by the Marcos regime promoted apprenticeship. In principle, it is understood to be training and preparation for a job, but in actuality, the program is abused as a means for cheap labor, child labor, and other workers’ rights violation. Similar to the effect of the institution of NMYC’s training programs, companies that implemented apprenticeship programs were granted a tax deduction of 50 percent.

Ironically, workers’ productivity and the rise of employment due to this scheme did not encourage the government to increase their wages, and actually resulted in the complete opposite – the maintenance of cheap wage levels in exchange for a flourishing export program.

As a result, the number of vocational workers rose quickly, even overtaking the number of agricultural workers in a supposedly agricultural country. And, analogously, the services sector employs the largest number of workers even up to this day.

4. Anti-union policies and practices

The Marcos dictatorship did not want another La Tondeña, and thus incorporated in the Labor Code and its own implementation of labor laws all means to stop one.

Under the Labor Code, what seems to be a provision protecting the economy is actually for the protection of investors. The prohibition of strikes in vital industries became a systematic impediment on the workers’ right to strike. According to Marcos’ Letter of Instruction NO. 368, the Secretary of Labor has the discretion on which industries to include and exclude from the list.

Meanwhile, even if the right to strike was still recognized (if not merely mentioned as a formality), the Labor Code prohibited the collection of strike contributions by unions and stated that all strike funds should be transferred to labor education and research purposes. A strike does not usually last for a day, and persists until the employer or management becomes willing to negotiate or to respect the workers’ demands. At that time, and still a reaction to the series of nationwide strikes, Marcos imposed a ban on foreign donations to Philippine trade unions, unless permitted by the Minister of Labor. To deprive them of their capacity to raise funds among themselves for a strike directly affects their right to hold one.

The Marcos dictatorship likewise played with the classification and re-classification of ‘unfair labor practices’ or union busting from an administrative offense to a criminal offense. Nonetheless, this did not prevent management from imposing preventive suspension on workers suspected of participating in an upcoming strike. A workers’ argument for unfair labor practices falls, therefore, and becomes relegated to a case of illegal dismissal.

The establishment of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) for compulsory arbitration likewise served as a barrier to the realization of justice and respect for workers’ rights. Briberies were rampant. Amado Inciong, then Undersecretary of the Department of Labor (DOL), narrated in an interview how a manager of the Manila Hilton Hotel paid a commission for ‘services rendered’. These amounts range from P150,000 to P500,000 each.

49 years later

An activist calls for the abolition of the anti-communist task force which red tags labor unions and their leaders and members. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan / Bulatlat)

Marcos imposed these policies with the pretense of generating more jobs, boosting the economy, and making the Philippines Asia’s tiger. The reasons go on and on. But so did Aquino. So did Ramos. So did Estrada. So did Arroyo. So did another Aquino. And, presently, so does Duterte, even at a larger and more destructive scale.

Fast forward 49 years after Marcos imposed Martial Law and used his iron fist to clamp down workers’ rights and workers’ movements, the labor sector continues to rise.

Crisis cannot be denied. The objective conditions will always push the oppressed to fight. It is but a natural reaction for someone offended to seek justice, and for one deprived of justice to assert. Truth be told, La Tondeña strike workers had foreseen it all along: that their victory was not a culmination, but a commencement of a bigger and more all-encompassing struggle against oppression and exploitation.

The strikes of Nestle, Coca-Cola, NutriAsia, and many other unions are reminders that the legacy of La Tondeña strike lives on. A dictatorship, no matter how merciless and seemingly powerful, can never defeat the people’s sovereign will. (RVO) (

Villegas, E. M. (1988). The Political Economy of Philippine Labor Laws. Foundation for Nationalist Studies. Quezon City, Philippines.

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