COMMENT: Day of Protest

Since her first day in Malacañang, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has had a dual option: With militant labor groups, the first two; with the moderate, the third or a flavor of it. That was how May 1, 2007 Labor Day was celebrated.

With Moderates

The President spoke to moderate labor groups – the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and the Federation of Free Workers at the Folk Arts Theater and met the Federation of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association in Conference at the World Trade Center both in Pasay City.

While silent about the TUCP's pending P75-wage hike a day nationwide, she announced non-wage benefits for the workers – benefits which the moderates may feign acceptance to please the President but which militants would openly disdain. (Inquirer.net, May 1)

She ordered the tripartite regional wage boards to act speedily on the petitions for wage raises. What matters more is the amount of raise which, in the past, hardly met inflation.

"Historic" reduction of housing loan interest, from 14% before she became President in 2001 to 6%. Only workers – a small percentage – with such loans can benefit.

She has signed an executive order stopping the collection of withholding tax from minimum wage workers – a justice long-delayed, still denied. With minimum wage much below living wage, tax exemptions for workers and their dependents should have been raised instead.

PAG-Ibig will distribute P6-billion dividends to its members. This is legally due to the members. As, obviously, there are more than one million members, each will get less than P 6,000. Non-members will not be benefited.

PAG-Ibig will allot for its members P30 billion for tuition and emergency medicine loans. Are loans benefits? And non-members can't avail it.

From January 2006 to January 2007, she boasted, her government created 1.6 million jobs while the past administration generated only 500,000 in two years. This conflicts with reports that the numbers of unemployed and of overseas workers have steadily increased.

In the past, she had lunch with leaders of moderate labor unions. There was no such report last Tuesday. However, the spirit of peace — a caring President with patronizing workers – prevailed.

Vs. Militants

To the militants, Labor Day is a day of protest. President Arroyo would hear nothing of it. Last Tuesday, there were no media reports about violent marches and demonstrations as in the previous years. Yet, the police were as ever alert.

At Chino Roces (formerly Mendiola) Bridge, 250 riot policemen prevented a truckload of protesters from crossing to bring their protest nearer to Malacañang. Another 250 secured the American Embassy, ever a target of protests, and Liwasang Bonifacio (Bonifacio Park) where militant workers assembled for a rally. (Inquirer.net, May 1.)

The President not only would refuse to listen to the workers' demands like the P125/day across the board increase. But their freedom to peaceably assemble to seek redress has long been lost – both by default and suppression by the ever hostile police and government.

The violent encounters of militant workers and the police on Labor Day in the Philippines have been, essentially, replays of the first May Day protest 121 years ago of workers led by socialists and anarchists, close cousins – in the eyes of the police and Malacañang – of Philippine militant labor leaders.

May Day

While May 1 was first proclaimed International Workers Day – an international day of protest by workers for an 8-hour workday – in Paris on May 1, 1890, the first protest was in Chicago in 1886 that started with a strike by 400,000 union workers and ended bloodily in Haymarket Square on May 4.

"The American Federation of Labour adopted an historic resolution which asserted that 'eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1st, 1886' " after thousands – skilled and unskilled workers, black and white, men and women, native and immigrant – had been "drawn into the struggle for the shorter (work) day".

On May 1, 1886, work came to a standstill in Chicago. On May 3, while more than 6,000 strikers listened to anarchist August Spies at the Central Labour Union, strikebreakers or scabs came out of McCormick Harvester Co. a block away. The strikers forced the scabs back to the factory but 200 policemen attacked killing one striker.

As the protest rally in the evening of May 4 dwindled to about 200 under heavy rain, 180 policemen dispersed it. A bomb thrown into the ranks of the police killed one, fatally injured six, and wounded 70. The police opened fire. It was never determined how many protesters were killed or wounded.

September Day

The Chicago Haymarket incident convinced President Grover Cleveland to adopt the first Monday of September as the Labor Day. He feared that May 1 "could become an opportunity to commemorate the riots" and "it might strengthen the socialist movement".

While May 1 was the day chosen by the affiliates of the International Workingmen's Association dominated by socialists or anarchists, the first Monday of September was that by the Knights of Labor – holding its first parade on September 5, 1882. The first celebration was "a street parade to exhibit to the public 'the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations' of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families". (Wikipedia) 

Later, speeches of prominent persons were introduced "as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday". In 1909, the Sunday preceding was "dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movements".

"Today Labor Day is often regarded simply as a day of rest and, unlike May Day, political demonstrations are rare. Forms of celebration include picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water sports, and public art events. Families with school-aged children take it as the last chance to travel before the end of summer. Some teenagers and young adults view it as the last weekend for parties before returning to school." (Wikipedia)

What If…?

May 1 is International Workers Day celebrated as Labor Day, a national holiday in the Philippines. What if President Arroyo, by executive order or presidential proclamation, decrees a Philippine Labor Day modeled after the U.S. September Labor Day?

It's certain that militant labor organizations will protest. They cannot stop the President Arroyo from instituting a Philippine Labor Day as no one prevented President Diosdado Macapagal, her father, from changing Philippine Independence Day from July 4 to June 12. But they will continue observing May 1 as their Labor Day.

Eight-hour workday was won on May 1, 1886 in Chicago at the prize of the lives of five labor union leaders who were hanged. An international assembly of workers in Paris on July 14, 1889 declared May 1, 1890 as an international day of protest by workers for an eight-hour workday – launching May 1 as International Workers Day.

After the 8-hour workday had been won, the workers fought for other rights – won some and still fighting for many. In the Philippines, labor has long been struggling for a living minimum wage without success. Militant labor will be ill at ease with Labor Day as a day of rest, recreation and festivities. The legacy of May 1 is protest.

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at [email protected].)

 

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