Philippines Labor Party sets example of union leadership

If “Labor Party” makes you think of right-wing parties like the ALP or the British Labour Party, the Labor Party in the Philippines (PM from its name in Tagalog) will be a refreshing surprise. Unlike those parties, the PM is a home for revolutionaries and trade union leaders who put up a fight against their bosses. It is one of a number of socialist parties in the Philippines, the largest of which is the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

For a short few days in January, I visited Labor Party bases in Manila and on the islands of Cebu and Negros. The party leaves a strong impression. It organises unionised urban workers, urban poor communities, farmer cooperatives and rural workers.

In Manila and Cebu, I met with union after union whose president or entire leadership are PM members. Some of these unions were not in strategic sectors and had a limited economic power, but at least one PM-influenced union is waging an important battle in which victory or defeat is going to affect workers across the whole country.

Airlines dispute

Labor Party cadres won the leadership of the Philippines Airlines Employees Association (PALEA) in 2007. This is an old union affiliated to the traditionally conservative Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and the International Transport Federation. However, under  PM leadership PALEA is leading an important fight against the intended dismissal of almost 3000 Philippines Airlines ground staff in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. These are members of PALEA who would lose their positions if the company is allowed to outsource operations such as catering.

This would force many of the affected workers onto individual contracts and all of them out of the union because unions in the Philippines are enterprise-based. Workers I spoke with in different parts of the country consider contractualisation to be the key issue for all workers. Many workers are following press coverage of the Philippines Airlines dispute.

The Department of Labor took over arbitration of the dispute in 2010 and ruled in favour of the company. Philippines President Benigno Aquino was asked to revoke the decision in December. Aquino has not made his ruling yet. However, on March 7 PALEA issued a notice of intention to strike.

Labor Party leaders see their struggle with Philippines Airlines as crucial because of its potential to provide an example to all workers of what is required to turn the tide of contractualisation and outsourcing that has swept the country.

The PM project aims to establish a mass independent labour party with a program of class struggle that can unite all workers. The leadership say this meets an objective need in the Philippines, where no genuine national workers party exists and the workers movement is divided regionally, by sectors and politically.

The Labor Party is already a party based primarily among workers, although it still involves only a small minority of the working class. I was able to visit some of the strongest PM bases. Coming from Australia, I was extremely impressed by both the number of working people involved and their concrete achievements.

Organising urban workers

Silangan is a small barrio of Rosario, on the outskirts of greater Manila. It was established as a barrio in 2005. It is located adjacent to the Cavite Export Processing Zone A and provides some of the zone’s 70,000 workers. Silangan is led by cadres of the PM who established a cooperative that hammered out a memorandum of understanding with the old landlord to purchase what had been agricultural land. They then set about raising funds for the deposit and arranging a loan. The cooperative now sells house blocks to working families very cheaply, attracting people from other parts of Manila who struggle to pay commercial rent. The barrio is run by a PM-majority local council.

Silangan is a politicised, relatively safe and well-organised community with popularly organised night watch patrols, youth-led collective rubbish clean-ups and prime office space allocated for the local labour union federation. Sometimes police enter but are told to leave by Silangan’s security, which is registered with the municipality as an auxiliary peace and order force.

Silangan is part of the Labor Party’s mass base. The party logo seems to pop up everywhere - on people’s hats and shirts, above the entrance to the barrio, on houses - and its name appears frequently in conversations. Of the 850 families living in Silangan, most appear to support the PM, and many are active in the party. University and high school students in the community have recently established a branch of a PM Youth (PM Kabataan) whose first major mobilisation was at International Women’s Day on March 8 this year. PM leaders report that Silangan lies within one of five local regions influenced by the Labor Party, with 10-15 barrios in each.

The PM uses its bases such as Silangan to advance the party’s electoral work. It won a small number of positions on municipal councils in Rosario and elsewhere while at the same time using electoral campaigns to promote the PM as a party to represent all working people. It has also been able to force some concessions from councils. For example, the Rosario municipality allocated funding in 2010 for a drainage system in Silangan. For the most part, work on the land has been resourced from within the community itself.

Cooperative farming

After the fall of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, farmers armed with an old gun or two, plenty of machetes and a determination to take over the land that they worked staged mini-insurrections on their haciendas (large and medium farms). Many succeeded in taking the land. Their actions had become legal under land reform laws passed after the dictatorship was overthrown; however, landlords would refuse to implement the law unless forced to do so by their workers.

The tiny island of Negros is largely covered in sugar cane grown by 2 million people. Of the 300,000 hectares of flat agricultural land, 100,000 have been distributed to farm workers. The Labor Party influences 12 farm cooperatives on Negros. The farm I visited is a medium-size hacienda of 90 hectares worked by 70 largely Labor Party families. The PM cadres who make up the historical leadership of the cooperative were all ex-members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Under the terms of the land reform law, the cooperative has been paying the landlord for purchase of the land over a 25-year period at low interest. The repayments have been modest enough to allow the cooperative to re-invest profits in expanding production, which now includes sugar, rice, organic eggs and chicken and timber. There is much less idle land than was the case under the landlord’s control. The PM also organises unions of sugar and other farm workers who are still working for a landlord.

The Labor Party as a whole originates in a break from the old Communist Party of the Philippines. In 1991 the CPP reaffirmed its strategy of a prolonged guerrilla war as the main line of march of the revolutionary movement. They expelled all those who rejected this line. Those rejecting the guerrilla war line became known as the “rejectionists” or “RJs”.

The Manila-Rizal branch of the CPP broke away in the early 1990s. It then launched a new trade union-based socialist centre, an organisation aimed at uniting different sectoral forces (workers, urban poor, youth and so on) called San Lakas (One Power), and later the Labor Party (PM) as an electoral party.