The Philippine Labor Movement Is Beginning to Turn Against Authoritarian Rule

Michelle Chen

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspecs honour guards during the 116th anniversary of the PNP at its headquarters in Manila on August 9, 2017. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The peo­ple of Mani­la have always strug­gled to sur­vive day to day, but now they’re cheat­ing death every night. The vices and ban­dits that usu­al­ly roam the streets are being eclipsed by a cru­el­er men­ace: the foot sol­diers of Pres­i­dent Rodri­go Duterte’s author­i­tar­i­an régime.

This week, Duterte brought anoth­er sum­mer night­mare to the region, with 32 drug per­son­al­i­ties” slaugh­tered in 67 police oper­a­tions, deployed in a series of raids on the provin­cial out­skirts of the city. The mas­sacre capped a year of thou­sands of killings in a hyper-mil­i­ta­rized drug war, which seems to be grow­ing bold­er fol­low­ing Duterte’s recent expan­sion of mil­i­tary rule. 

The for­mal impo­si­tion of mar­tial law has shown that much of the pres­i­den­t’s work­ing-class base remains loy­al. Bank­ing on promis­es of sta­bil­i­ty and devel­op­ment, many are still lured by the polit­i­cal deal he proud­ly cam­paigned on — trad­ing democ­ra­cy for law and order” — even as his admin­is­tra­tion robs them of both. His brazen pop­ulism and incen­di­ary rhetoric is now under­min­ing the labor move­ment that helped bring him to pow­er, as the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to fail to pro­tect work­ers from exploitation.

But dis­sent is brew­ing among some allies on the left, who have sup­port­ed him since his days as a rene­gade may­or of Davao. Late last month, the left-wing Kilu­sang Mayo Uno (KMU) Labor Cen­ter set up a street encamp­ment to protest mar­tial law and demand labor reforms.

Pover­ty, hunger and oppres­sion among work­ers have wors­ened under Duterte’s con­tin­ued pro­mo­tion of cheap, con­trac­tu­al and repressed labor,” the group declared in its July 24 man­i­festo, denounc­ing the president’s eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy as sub­servient to the neolib­er­al dic­tates of the U.S. and China.”

Break­ing from labor’s gen­er­al tol­er­ance of Duterte’s hard­line tac­tics, the group con­tend­ed that mar­tial law was mere­ly being used to cur­tail civ­il lib­er­ties and sup­press work­ers’ and people’s legit­i­mate demands and strug­gles.” At the same time, the mil­i­tary crack­down on a rebel­lion on Min­danao island, Duterte’s home region and long a site of com­mu­nal con­flict, has served as a threat to oth­er work­ers assert­ing their demands for reg­u­lar jobs and liv­ing wages,” they write.

The chaos that Duterte gen­er­ates is pro­vid­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for blud­geon­ing the insur­gency and tight­en­ing his grip on the urban core. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a strong­man per­sona, his scorched-earth polic­ing agen­da has led to mass impris­on­ment and extra­ju­di­cial slaugh­ter with vir­tu­al­ly no due process, accord­ing to inter­na­tion­al human rights author­i­ties.

But dis­il­lu­sion­ment with Duterte’s image as a voice of the peo­ple” is spread­ing among the rank-and-file. Old labor alliances have bris­tled at the Labor Min­istry’s ongo­ing fail­ure to address sys­tem­at­ic abus­es of work­er rights, neglect of long­stand­ing union demands for stronger reg­u­la­tion of sub­con­tract­ing and refusal to imple­ment mean­ing­ful land reform. With an esti­mat­ed 24 mil­lion irreg­u­lar con­tract work­ers nation­wide, gird­ed by a high­ly unequal tiered wage struc­ture, unem­ploy­ment and social dis­en­fran­chise­ment fes­ter amid state oppres­sion and neolib­er­al free markets.

The par­al­lels between Duterte’s reign of ter­ror and Trump­ism go beyond the optics of nation­al­ist brava­do and vul­gar sound­bites. Both fig­ures have mas­tered the art of manip­u­lat­ing media and social anx­i­eties to dis­tract the pub­lic from the root caus­es of social dysfunction.

In real­i­ty, polit­i­cal insur­rec­tion from mil­i­tants on the coun­try’s mar­gin­al­ized out­skirts, along with the war on drugs, both reflect the abysmal social inequal­i­ty and depri­va­tion that his régime has inher­it­ed and per­pet­u­at­ed. The chief vic­tims of Duterte’s drug wars, after all, are the job­less, dis­en­fran­chised youth who have been trapped for gen­er­a­tions in a mael­strom of cor­rup­tion and exploita­tion. Yet mass incar­cer­a­tion, extra­ju­di­cial killings and ram­pant police-led bru­tal­i­ty con­tin­ue in a crack­down that rights advo­cates have con­demned as a war on the poor.”

Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al observed in Feb­ru­ary that police-led and vig­i­lante street vio­lence have over­whelm­ing­ly hit the urban poor. And the police and paid killers have built an econ­o­my off extra­ju­di­cial exe­cu­tions. Wit­ness­es and fam­i­ly mem­bers repeat­ed­ly told us how the police stole mon­ey and oth­er valu­ables from their homes, and wed­ding rings off the fin­gers of the deceased.”

The police and vig­i­lante aggres­sion unleashed by Duterte’s anti-crime cam­paigns, now steeled by mar­tial law in Min­danao, has pro­voked tense back­lash from faith groups and human rights advo­cates who fear a return to the dic­ta­tor­ship days under Mar­cos. An oppo­si­tion pros­e­cu­tor has even tried to get Duterte charged at The Hague, appar­ent­ly with lit­tle impact on domes­tic pol­i­tics. But Duterte’s grip on civ­il soci­ety will only be bro­ken when he los­es the faith of his work­ing-class fol­low­ers, the vast major­i­ty of whom sup­port his drug war poli­cies, although most express con­cern about extra­ju­di­cial mur­der impact­ing them or some­one they know.

Nonethe­less, mil­i­tant work­ers might be crys­tal­liz­ing a grass­roots opposition.

Fol­low­ing the protest camp action in late July, KMU Chair Elmer Labog stat­ed via email that the cam­paign was one of sev­er­al mass upris­ings across the coun­try that month, large­ly dri­ven by frus­tra­tion with dis­mal wages, the exploita­tion of pre­car­i­ous sub­con­tract­ed work­ers and per­va­sive state vio­lence under mar­tial law.

Labog, nonethe­less, acknowl­edges the chal­lenges of orga­niz­ing under author­i­tar­i­an­ism, argu­ing: Once again these are dan­ger­ous times for orga­niz­ers and mass lead­ers, but we had sur­vived the worst attacks under Mar­cosian rule. We have learned a lot from our expe­ri­ences dur­ing those dark days under mar­tial law.” While some yel­low unions” are still stand­ing by Duterte, Labog notes, They would even­tu­al­ly be iso­lat­ed by sup­port­ing anti-peo­ple and anti-work­er poli­cies of the U.S.-Duterte régime.”

Par­tido Mang­ga­gawa, a labor-left oppo­si­tion par­ty, expressed sol­i­dar­i­ty with KMU’s protest camp, but also point­ed out that KMU remains some­what com­pro­mised — indi­rect­ly tied to the régime through key cab­i­net posts held by par­ty affil­i­ates who are serv­ing in Duterte’s cab­i­net have not resigned, so there is an ambivalence.”

Par­tido Mang­ga­gawa, mean­while, has joined a nation­al fed­er­a­tion of left­ist labor groups, Nagkaisa, to sign a col­lec­tive oppo­si­tion state­ment to Duterte’s oppres­sive poli­cies. The coali­tion linked the fate of work­ing peo­ple to the need to dis­in­vest in vio­lent and repres­sive insti­tu­tions, and to focus instead on social reme­dies that actu­al­ly raise the qual­i­ty of life, rather than fuel more blood­shed. At the heart of labor’s demands are issues of basic wel­fare: fair tax­a­tion of the rich, sta­ble fam­i­ly-sup­port­ing jobs and reha­bil­i­ta­tion for youth and com­mu­ni­ties trapped in the drug crisis.

The group cau­tioned, It will be very unpro­duc­tive [for Duterte] to spend his remain­ing years in office for this cost­ly war. War is both destruc­tion and polit­i­cal dis­trac­tion. It nei­ther cre­ates nor equal­ly redis­trib­utes social wealth that is now con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of oligarchs.”

The state­ment also denounced régime’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of soci­ety when there was a bet­ter war to wage and win against con­trac­tu­al­iza­tion, low wages and high prices of basic goods and ser­vices. If you want peace, Mr. Pres­i­dent, build social jus­tice and eco­nom­ic inclu­sion first.”

Echo­ing a long lega­cy of oppres­sive admin­is­tra­tions, Duterte has built pow­er by aggra­vat­ing social divi­sions. Find­ing com­mon ground among all the com­mu­ni­ties under his grip, how­ev­er, can sow real pop­ulism — if a crit­i­cal mass can rise again against author­i­tar­i­an rule.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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