Philippine organizing and struggles should be example to U.S. activists
During the entire month of July this year, I went to visit my family in the Philippines. As a Filipina-american, a feminist organizer (in National Organization for Women and Gainesville Women's Liberation) and a childcare teacher organizer (in the Alachua Childcare Teachers' Association-ACCTA) in Gainesville, I was very interested in using my traveling experience to learn more about political activism in the Philippines. I was fortunate to be able to interview several political groups while I was there including Gabriela-Cebu, a women's organization; the Cebu Community Hospital worker's union; the Political Detainees Task Force of the Philippines; United Small Fishermen in Bangbang; and the Coconut Industry Reform Movement, Inc. I also attended marches and rallies against a policy called the Philippines 2000, which was organized by BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan), the New Patriotic Alliance.
I was surprised how politically aware the people I met in the Philippines were. Most of them, in some way or another, had been involved in the EDSA revolution that ousted Marcos. One woman who was not an activist was talking about how fun the protests were. She said that she gets frustrated about how much the news talked about the street violence. She said that it was SO MUCH FUN. People were walking around wearing "I stopped a tank" T-shirts. Perhaps this is why people were so supportive when I told them I was an activist.
My mother's family lives in Cebu City, which is where we spent most of our time. While my family and I were walking around the city, I noticed several hand painted banners, mostly in Tagalog, hanging on a wall surrounding Cebu Community Hospital. The only English words on the sign were, "union busting". Since I would like to see childcare teachers eventually unionize and because I think unions are important to all workers, I was very interested in finding out more about these signs. I saw a couple women in front of a shanty, also covered with banners, at the entrance of the hospital selling mangos and cigarettes on a card table. I asked them what the signs were about. They were hospital workers who were fundraising for the union and they told me that in April 1996, 108 hospital workers were illegally fired. Since then their union had been protesting for over a year. The workers who had been fired were active union organizers and the management fired them to bust the union. With the union weakened, now the hospital is not recognizing that their union exists and will not collectively bargain with them.
I met with Perla Nava, president of the Cebu Community Hospital workers union (National Federation of Labor-Kilusang Mayo Uno), who has been a nursing aide for 27 years. She told me that this was not the first time their union held a protest. In 1984 hospital employees struck for 4 months and 5 days in order to get their union recognized and get a collective bargaining agreement. She said that 85-90% of the Filipino population are living below poverty level. Before they had a union, hospital employees were making only 700 piso/month. She said, "When we won the strike, pay increased to 1,000p/month and now we make 5,000p/month plus benefits."
Nava told me how her hospital union was affiliated with the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), or the May 1st Workers Movement of the Philippines. The KMU opposes the disastrous dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which promotes foreign interests at the expense of Filipino workers. The KMU helped and trained organizers to form the hospital union. Hospital management has tried to discredit the union by red-baiting them. Management says that the union is invalid because they are affiliated with a communist organization. Nava said that the hospital administration is ridiculous because management had always thought that about the KMU and it didn't stop them from recognizing them as a union before. "Besides," she said, "I don't care what they are. They were the only ones who came to help us when we needed it."
One of the major policies that Nava is helping to organize against is President Ramos' Philippines 2000. Philippines 2000 is a policy that is trying to attract foreign investors with Filipino cheap labor. Ramos argues that foreign investment will bring in more money to the Philippines. But money for whom and at what cost? Through this policy Ramos is enticing foreign investors by keeping labor cheap, devaluing the piso, and phasing out worker unions so wages remain low and benefits become nonexistent. Nava says that this leads to treating workers like "broiler labor, like a chicken". There is no job security, no advancement, low wages and no benefits. Foreign companies make the money, not the Filipino workers.
Nava invited me to attend a rally that BAYAN was organizing against the Philippines 2000. The march of about 1,000 people ended in the middle of a large congested intersection where the rally began. I saw that several people at the rally renamed the policy, "Poverty 2000". I had to remind myself that this situation is not something that is just affecting the Philippines. No job security, low wages and no benefits happens in the United States as well; many companies only hire temp workers or part time employees so that workers are not eligible for benefits. If Filipino workers had strong unions and were paid better wages, employers here in the U.S. couldn't force us to take less with the threat that they will move overseas.
The march and rally against the Philippines 2000 was only one of hundreds of protests around the many islands of the Philippines. In a street theater presentation, a group of peasant women were being tugged on a rope between Uncle Sam and President Ramos. The crowd cheered and banged pots and pans.
At the rally I saw a large banner that read, "Gabriela--advance the militant women's movement of the Philippines". I met Leny Ocasiones and Vida Arcamo, organizers of Gabriela-Cebu. The name of this national organization comes from a woman warrior named Gabriela Silang. The Philippines was under 400 years of Spanish colonial rule and Gabriela Silang led the longest revolt against the Spaniards. Gabriela in Cebu works mainly with peasant women, the urban poor and fishing women. (There are several groups internationally that make up Gabriela Network.) They organize around the issue of contraception and birth control and believe in abortion rights which is a bold stand to take in a largely Catholic country. An issue they organize against is the migration and trafficking of Filipina women. About 80% of the Filipinos working abroad are women. Several female members of my family have had to work abroad in order to support their families back home in the Philippines. One of my aunts works as a nurse in Houston 6 months out of the year to bring enough money home to her family.
Filipinos are migrating to work as domestic helpers, entertainers, brides or caregivers to the sick or the elderly. As you can imagine, it is very hard on families and relationships between married couples to have the woman absent for such long periods of time. I had always thought that it was hard on my mother and aunts to move to the U.S. in order to have more opportunity, but I hadn't realized just how difficult the decision to move must have been. It made me see how brave the women in my family and other Filipino women are.
Arcamo of Gabriela took me to a fishing village in Bangbang, Cordova, where she is helping fishing women to organize. Their group is called PAKABA (Panaghygpong Sa mga Kababayen-an sa Bangbang, Cordova), the sister group of the PPMB (Pananghugpong Sa mga Pobreng Mananagat Sa Bangbang), United Small Fishermen in Bangbang;. Both groups are organizing against a reclamation project, which is part of a plan that benefits the Philippines 2000. The families that live in this tiny fishing village are being kicked off their land. The fishing villages alongside the island of Cordova provide the main food source to the large island of Cebu. The oceanside that they fish on will be covered with land and developed for foreign businesses and tourists. 23,000 families are being moved out of the area with no place to go. In Cebu City, thousands of families, including my family, who has lived in the same home for generations, are being "relocated" so the business district can enlarge.
When I met with Artemia Pogoy, chairperson of PAKABA, I asked her and other PAKABA members why their women's group organized separately from the fishermen's union if they both had the same goals. They said that the hardships on their men were even harder on them. "A Filipino woman makes 40 centavos for every man's piso." If the women and their families are forced to leave their land and their livelihood, they know how Filipinas are particularly affected: women may have to migrate to support families, women may turn to prostitution, or they may experience more domestic violence due, in part, to economic hardships. They said that they needed to deal with these economic issues as women. I asked Arcamo if she thought that domestic violence only happens with poor people and she said, "No, but the increased stress in the family is a factor."
Inside their nipa hut meeting hall, there hangs a large beautiful mural. On the left is Uncle Sam, a Japanese man and a European man. Underneath them is a Japanese fishing freighter complete with radar to detect fish and a Filipino fishing boat, the size of a canoe. This picture depicts a treaty the Philippines government has with Japan that allows Filipino fishermen in Japanese waters and vice versa. But with such great technological differences, this treaty is hardly fair to the Filipino fishing industry. At the bottom left is a starving Filipino holding fish bones. In the middle of the mural is a group of fishermen holding a flag that says "Pamalakaya", the National Organization of Fishermen. On the right side is a picture of what the fishermen and their families want: education, health care, a cooperative, and their families kept together.
While I was in Manila, I was able to meet Roy Ribo, an organizer for the Coconut Industry Reform Movement, Inc., a coalition of nongovernmental organizations and the coconut farmers' union. I learned from him how difficult it is to know whether to settle for a little bit of what your organization is working for or whether it is better to go for your demands uncompromisingly. In 1987, they began a "Land to the Tiller" campaign. They were pushing for a policy called PAR Code, a comprehensive agrarian reform program, which would favor farmers and their families. Eventually this policy became watered down. The leadership of Ribo's group did not want to settle for this compromise because they believed that with mass worker protests they would actually win their original demands. Ribo didn't believe this was the correct strategy for this situation. He said that the farmers had been protesting for many years already and would be relieved to finally make a gain, even if it wasn't what they had initially intended. COIR settled for the compromise and Ribo sounded unsure of how it would affect his organization. Is winning a compromised demand better than risking getting nothing at all? Would it make further gains more possible or would the new policy satisfy the farmers enough to lull activism? These are questions all organizer have debated at one time or another.
Also while I was in Manila I was able to meet with the Political Detainees Task Force of the Philippines. I met them through Edmund Landrito who is a community/student organizer and a former political prisoner. According to his profile by the Task Force, "In December 1995, the government ordered a crackdown of the rebel Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) following the fatal ambush of Leonardo Ty. Landrito and two others were arrested without warrant. Authorities said they were ABB members involved in the slaying of the business tycoon, yet they were only charged with violation of the dangerous drugs act." The Task Force said that many political prisoners, since the overthrow of the Marcos regime known for imprisoning dissenters, are now being charged with criminal charges, which are much more difficult to fight.
I left the Philippines proud to know that I have a heritage of strong fighters for independence and social justice. In a country of about 700 islands, over 100 dialects, little technology (phones, computers...), and other organizing obstacles, national political activism is going strong! Achieving economic independence from foreign interests seems to be a uniting factor among many of these political groups.
Activists here in the U.S. have a lot to learn from Filipino activists. We should not sit back and pity the obstacles and problems of this Third World nation so that we may feel lucky and grateful that we don't have it so bad. I wanted to bring back the lesson that we must continue fighting and that the problems that exist in the Philippines also exist here and that there is a connection. I have been inspired by my courageous sisters and brothers in the Philippines.
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