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Vol. VII, No. 10      April 15- 21, 2007      Quezon City, Philippines











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As NAFLU celebrates 50th anniversary in May:
Workers Honor Felixberto Olalia (1903-1983)

The National Federation of Labor Unions-Kilusang Mayo Uno (NAFLU-KMU, May First Movement) holds a tribute-dinner in honor of Felixberto Olalia, Sr. on April 16 in Quezon City, as part of activities in celebration of NAFLU-KMU’s turning 50 years old in May 2007. NAFLU-KMU’s founder Olalia Sr., a multi-awarded, highly popular labor leader in his time, a brave Huk guerrila commander and a timeless, shining example until now of what it means to champion genuine, militant and anti-imperialist unionism.  

Contributed to Bulatlat

Based on his own recollection, Felixberto Olalia, son of poor farmers from Pampanga, started working as an apprentice in a shoe factory at the age of 13. It’s a very young age for a boy to start working, but even before that, as a child, Olalia had actually worked for some time as a servant to a wealthy family in Tarlac, where he overheard his master saying that chili is bad for the poor because it increases their appetite and makes them eat more. That the poor have limited rights to having appetite and eating would be Olalia’s unforgettable first political lesson in life, a story he would narrate often.

Forced to stop schooling at a young age and brought to Manila’s miserable workers’ district, Olalia came of age and started life not only as a young worker but also as a nationalist activist. He and his family first lived in Bagumbayan (Sta. Cruz) and Tondo. Given the concentration in the area and in the adjacent districts of strategic manufacturing and commercial establishments and workers’ communities, these areas had historically been breeding grounds of the country’s first unions, union leaders and nationalist heroes.

Felixberto “Ka Bert” Olalia addresses
a gathering of workers and trade unionists

The shoe shop where Olalia first worked had a union which, along with 21 other shoe shops belonged to the Union de Chineleros y Zapateros de Filipinas (UCZF, Union of Slipper Makers and Shoemakers of the Philippines). Perhaps because of his early experience at poverty, Olalia quickly joined the union’s activities. He became elected as “member” when the union reorganized, which meant Olalia became tasked to do lots of technical work, including functioning like a messenger. He recalled how he would hand the invites for a meeting to all 21 unions of UCZF. Olalia was elected as secretary from 1920 to 1925, then president up to 1940.

As member and later, a leader of UCZF, he and others led demonstrations demanding the Philippines’ independence from the US and eight-hour working day (they worked twelve hours every day at the time). They brandished the Philippine flags during their rallies even if it was patently banned, and to be caught waving one meant a scuffle with the American police and imprisonment.

Coalition work

Because the union he was leading was composed of numerous shops with local unions, Olalia clearly grew to appreciate the value of coalescing with other workers and unions in the Philippines to further strengthen their campaign leverage. In 1939, he helped organize the militant Katipunan ng mga Anakpawis (KAP, Association of the Toiling Masses) and was elected its general secretary. Then he took part in the all-out campaign to unite labor; they formed the Collective Labor Movement (CLM) where he was elected Vice-President.

At the time of the U.S. colonial government, then the puppet commonwealth government, and then today’s puppet (though supposedly sovereign) government, trade union repression was (and still is) the government’s standard reaction, later coupled with nurturing yellow unionism to divide the traditionally militant and nationalist unions and to confound the masses of workers. Since the U.S. colonial government began training and coddling local yellow union leaders, uniting the Filipino labor movement has become a sort of a holy grail to genuine and militant unionists.

In the history of the Philippine labor movement, Olalia proved the most indefatigable in striving to cobble together the broadest possible coalition of working people. When CLM failed, he and other labor leaders organized the Manila Labor Council in 1940 where he was elected general secretary.

The outbreak of World War II merely stoked Olalia’s desire for freedom. Becoming a member at last of the Communist Party of the Philippines (now referred to as the “old” party) which had been established a decade earlier by elder stalwarts of the labor movement like Crisanto Evangelista, Olalia’s energies became more fruitfully devoted to organizing, and this time, to armed guerrilla warfare as well.

As designated secretary of Manila-Rizal, he delivered in organizing the area. Before the Japanese troops invaded the Philippines, he also trained at guerilla warfare in Nueva Ecija and upon his return to Manila, was recruited by the Allied Intelligence Bureau to its service, knowing full well that he is also a member of the Hukbalahap (Huk, People’s Army Against the Japanese).

Olalia served as commander of Hukbalahap’s Manila squadrons, but he had to organize at least three squadrons of fighters first, who mostly came from organized workers.

Ideological battles of the looked-down upon self-taught intellectual

Olalia reached only Grade IV but it did not stop him from reading academic heavyweights such as the political-economic treatises of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which Crisanto Evangelista would lend him, or which Olalia himself had bought out of his meager earnings as a shoe worker. He was soon able to build up a considerable library.

But just like Andres Bonifacio, Olalia had been haunted by his low formal educational attainment even in his own field of workers’ organizations. To the courageous and proud man it must have rankled, as in fact he’d candidly admitted to having been hurt in an interview in 1980 with journalist Pete Lacaba, where he said:

“Though it hurts to say it, it’s unfortunately the truth… I’m (just) a worker, and no one had imagined that a worker like me may one day become a mass leader or a participant in theoretical discussions on Marxism.” (Olalia was trying to explain why a few intellectual leaders from the Newspaper Guild sided with Amado V. Hernandez while most of the workers sided with him in a misunderstanding that had not even involved Hernandez within the Congress of Labor Organization in the late 1940s.)

Olalia had also been expelled twice from the old Communist Party due to disagreements with the Lava brothers’ analysis of the Philippine political situation and their subsequent policies. First, when Olalia opposed the retreat-for-defense policy imposed by the Lavas who mistakenly believed the Filipinos were no longer fighting the Japanese troops; Olalia reported that it may be true for most USAFFE but not for the squadrons of Hukbalahap rebels who were still operating in many areas. Second, when Olalia vocally doubted the “See you in Malacañang” ambitions of the Lavas who believed that winning in the elections alone would sweep them in power.

History proved Olalia’s analyses and positions correct, but by then, while in the thick of forming bigger and broader labor organizations, he was already telling a doubtful Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas that he is no longer a member of the erstwhile Communist Party. His achievements as labor leader wrote history for the Philippine labor movement, a feat which even the Department of Labor and Employment, in celebrating the centennial of the labor movement, honored in 2003.

After the Second World War, Olalia quickly resumed workers’ organizing. Even if “­mopping-up operations” were still being conducted, he and other labor leaders in the newly formed CLO organized the first May 1 rally after the war in 1945. American security forces reportedly disarmed them of their placards, but they managed to conduct a program and even welcomed some GIs and WACs who joined them when the latter saw what remained of their May Day placards.

The rally, according to Olalia was “just a May 1 celebration, because May 1 is a revolutionary day being celebrated by progressives all over the world.” From that day on in 1945 and many more Labor Day celebrations after that, Olalia would help and lead in organizing more  militant organizations. The last and at present the biggest militant labor center that he helped form was Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Movement).

Formed in 1980 by a broad alliance of militant and nationalist unions, federations and alliances that grew strong even as it protested against Martial Law, Olalia and the rest of KMU’s leaders were hounded and jailed by Marcos’ troops. For Olalia, it would be his second (and final) arrest and imprisonment under Martial Law. He was first arrested and imprisoned in October 1972; 10 years later, after seeing to the massive expansion and outbursts of progressive activities of the workers’ movement, which culminated in the founding of the KMU in May 1980, Olalia was again arrested and jailed in 1982. He was put in solitary confinement. Forced to sleep on cold cement floor for two weeks, Olalia, 79, then already regarded as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Labor,” fell ill and later died, a “house-arrest” prisoner.

Lasting contributions

Before the heavy-handed government crackdown against militant labor in the 1950s, Olalia served as treasurer of CLO (Congress of Labor Organizations). But after disagreements with other CLO leaders over how militant they ought to be, he led the establishment of Katipunan ng mga Kaisahang Manggagawa (KKM) in 1949, bringing with him and other leaders most of their affiliate unions from big government and private corporations. The KKM spearheaded the 1951 demonstrations against a proposed bill in Congress outlawing strikes in government corporations. The said bill was not enacted into law.

With KKM Olalia again tried to unite labor by forming the Council of Trade Unions in the Philippines, but his efforts failed. However, Marcos in the 1970s would bring back the idea of this united labor by forming the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), for the opposite reasons held by Olalia. The latter worked to unite labor according to its historical revolutionary traditions, Marcos according to the yellow or collaborationist mode of unionism prescribed by the U.S. colonial government since the 1920s, when it became apparent to the U.S. colonial government that they cannot just outlaw militant unionism.

KKM led several demonstrations asking the government to enact laws for the protection and amelioration of the laboring people. As a result of Olalia’s seemingly fearless defense of the workers, he was overwhelmingly elected as Chairman for Labor in the First National Labor-Management Conference held in July 1951 at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. In his position, Olalia was instrumental in the adoption of various resolutions which the Philippine Congress enacted into laws. For instance, the Magna Carta of Labor, Women & Child Labor Law, Minimum Wage Law, creation of an Agrarian Court and other laws beneficial to labor.

But despite (or because of) his popularity and valuable service to workers, Olalia was arrested by the police for alleged subversive activities later in 1951. Released from jail in 1956, he proceeded immediately to organizing workers, thus courageously flouting the terror of the crackdown on militant unionism.

Before the 1950s ended, Olalia had helped established, at first in 1954, the Confederation of Labor of the Philippines, and in 1957 (after coming into conflict with some CLP leaders concerning honest and genuine trade unionism), the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU).

Said Felixberto Olalia of NAFLU: “Ang pinakamalaki nitong nagawa ay ang makapagbigay ng halimbawa ng genuine trade union. Hindi kami nagluluku-lokohan. Hindi kami tumatanggap ng under the table deals (lagay). Ang ipinaglalaban namin ay para sa kapakanan ng mga manggagawa. Ang isa pa naming nagawa ay ang aming pagposisyon laban sa pagsasamantala ng mga dayuhan, laluna sa tinatawag na transnasyunal o multinasyunal. Nilalabanan namin ang lahat ng nagiging sanhi ng ano mang makasasama sa mga manggagawa.”(Its biggest legacy is serving as an example of a genuine trade union. We are not fooling the workers. We do not accept under-the-table deals. We are fighting for the interest of the workers. One of the things we were able to do was to take a stand against exploitation by foreigners, particularly the so-called transnational or multinational corporations. We fight all those that will be bad for the workers.)

With NAFLU striving to increase the number of “genuine trade unions,” or militant and anti-imperialist unions, Olalia  did not stop pursuing his dream to unite the Philippine trade union movement and expand the scope of their struggles from mere plant-level collective bargaining negotiations to joining street and parliamentary struggles. While keeping an eye on NAFLU’s undertakings (where later he would be helped a great deal by his son, Rolando Olalia, who was then shaping up into another great labor leader himself), Olalia launched himself into repeated efforts to form a broader organization that would unite and solidify labor.

In 1959 Olalia campaigned to unite the trade union movement with the formation of the Katipunan ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Association of Filipino Workers), but it lasted only until 1963. He co-founded the Lapiang Manggagawa (LM, Workers’ Party) which later became the Socialist Party of the Philippines (SPP). In 1964, he conceived and finally organized with the assistance of other peasant leaders, the Malayang Samahang Magsasaka (Masaka, Free Association of Peasants), composed of peasants from Bataan, Bulacan, Zambales, Laguna, Batangas, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Cavite, Rizal and other provinces. Masaka was considered the most militant and biggest peasant organization until the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.

He was leading a worker-peasant delegation to the People’s Republic of China when Martial Law was imposed in the Philippines. He was said to have thought hard about returning, he was being offered an asylum in China. But Olalia still went back home where at the airport, he was promptly seized and then detained at Camp Crame for about five months.

The struggle to end the Marcos dictatorship

Olalia’s leadership in militant unionism and mass movement ran against each Philippine government’s ideas of economic growth which revolved around selling the country’s natural resources, including its cheap and docile workers. Or in today’s parlance, “competitive.”

As president of NAFLU and with his talents for alliance work, Olalia helped a great deal in the Filipino labor movement’s concerted efforts to resist the clampdown on their human and trade union rights, and in the process to expose and oppose the Marcos dictatorship’s iron rule. Through their concerted mass actions and campaigns, they brought home the message that contrary to the much-promised development, the majority of the Filipino people were increasingly getting hungrier, their livelihoods and wages insufficient to cover even the most basic of their needs.

The strikes and demonstrations they held even when these were banned gave others hope and courage in joining protest actions. The success of the strikes they led, as well as the growing restiveness of labor amidst a worsening economic situation, eventually paved the way for a broader cross-section of Philippine labor movement to meet together to hold a joint May Day rally, despite the ban on rallies.

In the 1980s, Olalia and the labor organizations he led also became popular among people’s organizations abroad, so that the Philippines’ Grand Old Man of Labor Movement was frequently invited to speak at conferences abroad. Establishing linkages with labor organizations abroad, Olalia also helped urge these organizations to pressure their governments to withdraw its support from the Marcos dictatorship.

For his life’s work in the progressive people’s movement, Felixberto Olalia paid a high price – in sum he had been arrested and charged with rebellion from September 1951 to 1956; jailed in 1972 (because he cannot bear to not be in the Philippines where the war was being fought); arrested again and charged with conspiracy to rebellion in 1982. He died a prisoner in 1983, at the age of 80.

He died a hero’s death, but it is the courageous and resilient way he had spent his long life in service of the people that deserves to be remembered and emulated. Notwithstanding the awards he received, the countless votes of confidence and support from the masses of workers and even from some organizations of the upper classes, Felixberto Olalia deserves to be recognized as our national hero. He himself explained why, although he probably never meant it that way:  “Banal at dakila ang maglingkod sa uring manggagawa.” (It is virtuous and noble to serve the working class.) Bulatlat




© 2007 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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