Union Obrera Democratica at 120: The seeds of workers’ struggle


MANILA — Various labor unions look back to the roots of their militant workers’ struggle by celebrating the 120th founding anniversary of Union Obrera Democratica (UOD) today, February 2.

The program, titled “Panata ng Manggagawa para sa Makabayang Pagbabago,” was spearheaded by Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research, Inc. (EILER), Tambisan ng Sining, Mayday Multimedia, Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), and progressive coalition Makabayan Bloc in a live broadcast via Facebook Live and Zoom.

The UOD was successfully established on February 2, 1902, at Variedades Theater in Sampaloc, Manila to uplift the conditions of the workers in the crucial times of United States imperialist aggression.

Back then, it was first spearheaded by revolutionary propagandists Isabelo de los Reyes, Hermenegildo Cruz, and Dominador Gomez adopting the Vida e Obras de Carlos Marx (Life and Works of Karl Marx) and Los Campesinos (The Farmers) as the foundation of the movement’s principles.

Resistance and repression

The struggle of the workers has always been influential and victorious in the past, according to Fr. Dionito Cabillas from IFI, a church denomination that had been a closed ally of UOD in advancing the Filipino peoples’ rights.

“In the first mass rally that they had organized, there are approximately 70,000 workers mobilized in front of Malacanang on July 4, 1902, to call for the freedom of the Philippines against the US,” he said, underscoring that it was the same celebratory date of the US of their independence day.

“Despite the accusation of Governor-general William Howard Taft that the leaders of the union were anarchists and radical subversives, the union continued to fight, following nationwide consecutive strikes,” Fr. Cabillas added.

The union federation initiated a nationwide strike on August 2, 1902. The first general strike happened on Malabon Commercial Tobacco Factory, following local walkouts in factories of Manila and adjacent cities.

According to Dante Guevarra’s History of the Philippine Labor Movement, the strikes resulted in increased wages in some factories. However, De los Reyes and other union leaders were jailed for four months.

The struggle of UOD persisted even after the political repression. “De los Reyes was pardoned but under the conditions that he will not continue as a union leader anymore. Soon after, Gomez was elected as the new president of the federation, who later on will be labeled as subversive,” Fr. Cabillas said.

In May 1903, UOD had successfully mobilized 100,000 workers in condemnation of US imperialist aggression and the first Mayo Uno celebration in the country.

On top of these victories and repressions, the legacy of UOD has been resonant even up today. The demand for regulated eight-hour work time is now being employed in the Labor Code of the Philippines under Article 83 which reads, “The normal hours of work, of any employees, shall not exceed eight (8) hours.”

An inspiration to workers’ fight today

The workers’ senatorial aspirant, Elmer “Ka Bong” Labog, highlighted that the establishment of UOD is the spark of militant unionism in the country. “They were the first to propagate that the workers are decisive forces of our freedom from the chains of oppression.”

Labog also said that the bright history of UOD inspires the establishment of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), an independent labor center in the country promoting militant unionism, during the height of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

“The founding of KMU was attended by more than 50,000 workers from different unions and federations under the leadership of Felixberto Olalia. Up until today, the union is active in fighting for the workers’ rights, particularly the living wage, regular work, safe workplace, and respect to human rights,” Labog added.

In the data presented by KMU, the Philippines is the top country in the ASEAN region with the highest unemployment rate with 6.5 percent recorded on November 2021, with its 4.5 percent inflation rate of the same year.

Jerome Adonis, secretary-general of KMU, said that the abovementioned data means that the conditions of the workers have been exacerbated. “Before the pandemic, the government reported a 2.9 million increase in employment. However, in reality, there are 3.2 million unemployed which is relatively higher than their reported numbers.”

Aside from this, he also said that the quality of work that the government is providing to its people is questionable. “They are providing informal, low income, and low earning jobs which on its utmost significance, is temporary jobs that depend on contractualization.”

Adonis also said that the Duterte regime has failed to prioritize the workers’ rights and welfare. Under the term of President Duterte, the KMU only documented two attempts to increase the wage of the workers with a 9.4 percent rate, the lowest increase in more than three decades.

The vow of workers

The conditions of the labor unions today are parallel to what the UOD had also encountered. Almost no union nor marginalized sector has been spared from the attacks on human rights, according to Adonis, mirroring the crackdown of the US colonial government against the UOD.

Adonis shared that the vow of the workers today is to expand, unite, and fight especially under the impending national elections. “Organize millions of workers who remain contractual, reach them through the electoral process to advance the agenda of the workers.”

“Prepare and expose the looming deception of Marcos-Duterte tandem,” said Adonis, sharing that a new Marcos in seat means another threat to democratic rights of workers and a new Duterte is an extension of incumbent power that neglected the plight of the people.

Adonis assured that the duty and the militancy of workers will not end in the context of national elections. Meanwhile, Labog called on the workers to make UOD an inspiration to strengthen their struggle for health, livelihood, and democracy in the context of a pandemic, government negligence, and looming dictatorship. (JJE, RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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