KMU Working for Labor Unity

David Finkel interviews Ernesto Arellano

Ernesto Arellano is deputy general secretary of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), the May First Movement Labor Center of the Philippines. This interview was conducted in Detroit by David Finkel from the ATC editorial board while Arellano was on a U.S. tour organized by the Philippine Workers Support Committee. Arellano is also vice-president of the National Federation of Labor (NFL), the second largest of thirteen federations that make up the KMU.

ATC: There have been six attempted military coups against President Corazon Aquino, the latest of which might have succeeded if not for U.S. air support for her government. What is the attitude of KM U and the popular movement toward the coup and possible future ones—what would happen if Aquino were overthrown?

EA: The December coup was the most serious so far. This came about because of a series of betrayals by the Aquino government of what -the 1986 uprising has meant for the oppressed of the Philippines. The “peoples’ uprising,” as it was called, involved various people’s organizations in the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. Some of these had been organized following the assassination of Aquino, Cory’s late husband. Also, however, in that uprising a faction of the military participated: the Reform Armed Movement (RAM) headed by Gregorio Honasan. The new president Corazon Aquino failed to cultivate her base among the popular organizations that had helped her to power, opting instead to embrace the military component of the 1986 uprising,

This was manifested after the first coup attempt, when the two progressive personalities whom she had appointed to executive positions, Joker Arroyo, a top Aquino aide, and Labor Minister Augusto Sanchez, were the first to go, as the military demanded.

This already indicated that she was leaning more and more to the right She completely forgot the sectoral organizations that were long involved in the struggle against Marcos’ one-man rule, organizations started at the very time of the 1972 martial-law decree, longstanding organizations of workers, farmers, student and church organizations who fought in the 1986 uprising.

After every coup, the president became the captive of the ultra-right sector of the military. Whether from naiveté or whatever other season, she didn’t realize that the military had made and unmade Marcos, that it also made Cory Aquino and could unmake her. This is the long-term effect of the martial-law regime, where the military became a decisive force in the country’s political life, and now they won’t simply go back to the barracks and submit to civilian power.

Vigilante violence against the popular movement has continued, as reflected by Executive Order 264, creating the “Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units” (CAFGU). Instead of dismantling the paramilitary units, Aquino legitimized them.

The same year that Cory Aquino came to power saw the assassination of KMU chairperson Rolando Olalia, and a few months later the notorious massacre of farmers in front of Malacanang, the presidential palace. These events isolated the once-popular Aquino from the sectoral popular organizations, from which she could have derived the support that could have effectively neutralized the military.

Even those who supported her campaign for the presidency have had to move out. The resignation of the former director of the National Economic Development Authority, Solita Monsood, came over the program the government submitted to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank. This whole chain of events isolated Aquino and emboldened the military to attack.

ATC: Did the U.S. intervene on her side in the recent coup attempt in order to protect the future of the American military bases in the Philippines?

EA: I think so. The Aquino government is simply interested in increasing the rent and the military aid it gets from the United States—it’s been very clear from the start that she is willing to extend the bases agreement Sovereignty isn’t for her the issue; it’s just a matter of setting the price.

Washington could have easily allowed the coup to succeed by not intervening. But I think this would jeopardize its position, because for a junta to take over by a coup will eventually be repressive, forcing the people to look to other alternatives represented by the growing guerrilla movement.

So while Aquino is seen as very weak by the Washington policy makers, she remains their best bet to maintain the legitimacy of government If she is deposed by the military, whatever military or military-Civilian junta took over would be unable to rule, would have no legitimate mandate.

The experience of the people under Marcos with the military was quite horrible, and they would resist It might not be immediate, but I think they are more prepared to resist, given the strengthening of the sectoral organizations and the presence of a growing armed underground movement So the military solution or coup d’état will be simply a disaster for the Washington policy makers.

ATC: When you spoke at a public meeting last night, you mentioned that the KMU has made progress in breaking down a “Berlin Wall” between your labor center and other unions in the Philippines. I’m interested both in the KMU’s strategy for building unity of Philippine workers, and in the terminology you used. As a labor center in the context of a Third World struggle, do you feel that the enormous changes in the world, the so-called end of the Cold War, the upheavals in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, China, etc. create better or more difficult conditions for your struggle?

EA: In the main, the climate for organizing and doing coalition work with other trade-union groups has become more permissive. That’s how we feel, because the developments in Eastern Europe show that the socialist system has the capacity to recognize the people’s demands. This is also shown in Latin America by the Nicaraguan experience. The [liberation] movements that the capitalist countries perceive as inflexible or sectarian have the capacity to accept others’ political views.

In the Philippines, I think we started on this process even earlier. The uprising in 1986 provided us with a little breathing space. At least we entered into a coalition with other labor groups, which was unthinkable ten years ago—unthinkable on both sides, both the conservative unions and our own.

The rivalries between unions then were very sharp. In 1986, I think we realized the need to unite the labor movement in the Philippines. It has been so fragmented. Many of the labor organizations were highly centralized. A number of them were considered the personal property of their founders; positions were even inherited by the children of the organizers.

On the basis of our analysis we formulated three basic principles: for genuine, militant and nationalist trade unions. “Nationalist” refers to our desire to involve the workers in analyzing the economic and political conditions in the Philippines and adopting a position on them [in contrast to “purely factory based” unionism—ed.].

The conservative unions remain suspicious of us. The ‘Berlin Wall’ between the unions; is still there.dsw further reinforced by the international policy of the AFL-CIO and some other international trade secretariats. The AFL-CIO is telling union leaders “Don’t talk to Arellano.”

It’s encouraging in the Philippines that the two labor centers, the Labor Advisory Coordinating Council (LACC)* of which the KMU is a member and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (IUCP) can meet and discuss certain issues, particularly wage issues. This is a very limited area of discussion, a modest step toward unifying the labor movement.

Of course, we still hold the view that many unions in the Philippines are “yellow” (company unions), and a number of their contracts are below minimum standards. But our experience has been that workers’ awareness is growing regarding the company unions, forcing them to consider their role as unions.

Atlas Copper Mining and Development Corporation provides an example. For more than a decade, workers there were under the Associated Labor Union (ALU), the biggest federation within the TUCP. KMU’s affiliate, the Southern Philippines Federation of Labor, was able to conclude a contract there, with far better benefits than the ALU contract. So even though the repression was tremendous, in the last union representation election, SPFL still won by a landslide.

Even the yellow unions are being forced to develop a more pro-worker stance and drop their role as company unions. This factor requires the development of a certain amount of tolerance on our part for these unions, even though we don’t drop our observation that they maintain substandard contracts.

As we discuss with them, issues that they traditionally consider non-trade union problems—such as the foreign debt, American bases, right-wing vigilantes and agrarian reform—have been raised. Little by little, they understand the need to address these issues, because, I think, the actual conditions in the Philippines are pushing them.

For instance, workers last year obtained a 25-peso increase in the daily minimum wage, but in six months this has been completely eroded. This compels them to rethink their positions, and at this point KMU’s alternative agenda becomes acceptable to these groups.

But certain labor groups and leaders have always redbaited KMIJ. We’ve grown accustomed to that from the time we first organized KMU. And the red-baiting is still there.

ATC: There has been considerable negative publicity surrounding the first statement by the KMU on the Chinese events, supporting the Chinese Communist Party in the Tiananmen massacre, and subsequent reversal of that position. Can you comment on the substance and the process of the KMU’s policy?

EA: The first statement of the KMU supporting the Chinese Communist Party leadership did not reflect the majority view of the membership of the National Executive Committee or the National Council.

The NEC is composed of fifteen members or less, the NC of forty-five. It is the National Council that is the policy making body between national conventions, while the NEC is the policy-making and implementing arm in between meetings of the NC.

There was a limited discussion first, on the NEC level but without a quorum. We have a secretariat, which is charged with overseeing the daily activities of the KMU, and one of these tasks is to prepare statements after discussion of a certain issue. So the release of the first statement was a shock to the majority of the NEC, and more so to the members of the National Council. For this reason, we had to call for a full-blown discussion by both bodies, the NEC and NC.

I took the position that the massacre of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing should be condemned, but that we should at the same time be aware that our commitment to the people’s socialist Struggle in the Philippines, China and worldwide is unwavering.

However, the convening of the NEC and NC took some time. My organization, the National Federation of Labor, informed the KMU that we could not identify with the statement issued by the KMU, and we issued our own statement.

The NFL, organized in 1947, had been a union dominated by one family, but it was transformed by the infusion of new blood. All of our KMU-affiliated federations have overcome the phenomenon I spoke of earlier, of one-man domination and of splitting when there is any disagreement over leadership. The KMU leadership in fact tolerated our statement; we encouraged all the member federations to present their positions.

To me and to all my colleagues, the process that followed the first statement was very encouraging. We underwent a vigorous process of discussion. It’s unfortunate that the first KMU statement is being exploited by our detractors, because the process we underwent demonstrated our capacity to correct our own errors through our internal processes, without breaking up the organization.

What isn’t known to trade unions here in the United States and Europe is the internal debate that went on immediately after the first statement was issued. Some territorial and industrial alliances of KMU (another part of the KMU’s organizing structure, linking up with peasants, the unemployed, etc.) also issued statements that differed from the first KMU statement.

The absence of information about this process and the heated debate among the members and within the committees, has led many unions abroad to be skeptical about the genuineness of our statement retracting the first one. It is important to make these things known.

For further information on the KMU and the struggles in the Philippines for workers’ rights, land reform and the closure of U.S. military bases, contact the Philippine Workers Support Committee, P.O. Box 11208, Moiliili Station, Honolulu, HI 96828. PWSC produces an informative newsletter, Philippine Labor Alert ($7/yr.) and distributes the KMU’s International Bulletin ($15/yr.)

*The LACC, formed shortly after the 1986 uprising, includes the KMU and three other labor-federation groupings. The TUCP, supported by the AFL-CIO, broke with the LACC when its demands for representation equal to that of the other four groups combined was rejected. The TUCP was conciliatory to Marcos’ martial-law regime and received preferential treatment under the dictatorship. The TUCP also had demanded the removal of Labor Minister Sanchez after the first coup attempt.—ed

May-June 1990, ATC 26