Labor day in the Philippines

by Alex Almario
Belaboring the worker’s cause

Most of our holidays have become, through the years, largely cynical. Christmas, people will say, has now been turned into a secular, profit-dri ven event. Valentine’s Day is not really nothing is as openly and as hopelessly cynical as Labor Day. People still get together and actually feel happy during Christmas and can’t help but get romantic every 14th of February. People don’t suddenly love their jobs on May 1.

Sure, we are occasionally entreated to tributes of the labor force of the country, dazzled with talking points and motherhood statements about how the working class is “the heart and soul of the nation” or how the blue-collar workforce are the “unsung heroes of the national economy.” But those are mostly limited to presidential speeches and press releases by the Department of Labor and Employment (or perhaps editorials from the Manila Bulletin). In actuality, Labor Day exists as a culmination of yearly labor grievances, which can be summed up in one statement: the world still doesn’t care about us.

For capitalists, Labor Day exists for a different reason: it is their token “acknowledgement” that labor is supposedly as important as they are. It’s just one of those concessions, like unions and collective bargaining agreements; not unlike the concessions given by bored boyfriends to demanding girlfriends to make Valentine’s Day the one day in the entire year that is entirely about them.

The May 1 Labor Day holiday is in commemoration of the first ever concession made by capitalists to the workforce. After years of demanding that work hours be scaled down to eight hours a day (and after much rioting), the United States’ Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions finally got what they wished for in 1886. Years later, in 1903, the U.S. would take Labor Day to the Philippines.

The roots of Labor Unionism in the Philippines, however, can be traced back earlier, to one Isabelo de los Reyes, who, apart from being the first national labor leader in the country, was also a senator and, amazingly, the founder of the Aglipayan church. This Renaissance Man didn’t get his socialist chops from America; he went straight to the original source – Europe. After agreeing to work for the Spanish Government in Madrid (which was offered to him by the Governor General to get him to shut up about reforms), he returned to the Philippines in 1901 armed with comprehensive socialist literature from the masters: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Victor Hugo, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and Mikhail Bakunin, among others. He spent a year spreading the gospel to laborers all across the country before establishing the Philippines’ first ever national labor union, the Union Obrera Democratica Filipina (Philippine Democratic Labor Union), along with its first ever labor publication, La Redencion del Obrero (The Redemption of the laborer) in 1902.

De los Reyes was anti-imperialist to the core and fought mainly against American business firms in the Philippines. After dealing with Spanish colonialism for most of his life, he set his eyes on the Americans, of whom he was skeptical from the get go. In this regard, he was the precursor to the Kilusang Mayo Uno.

The KMU was established in 1980, against the backdrop of Martial Law. The crux of their advocacy – and pretty much that of Philippine Communism in general – is that our government still answers to that catch-all phrase of evil that is “American Imperialism.” It’s supposedly omnipresent and enslaves us to this day, which is why“Presidente (fill in name): tuta ng kano” and “(fill in President)-U.S. Imperyalismo, ibagsak!” remains the standard template rallying cry in any random demonstration in the country. “U.S. Imperyalismo,”, as a notion, is simultaneously exaggerated, justified, and misleading. Socialists and laborers alike have a lot to be upset about with the U.S. but it all starts with one fact: they created Capitalism.

Capitalism has taken a major hit lately, what with all the economies dropping like a bunch of domino pieces all over the globe and all this business (no pun intended) about “occupying” places. But all this demonstrates is how wide a margin of victory Capitalism had against Socialism in that old ideological war we keep reading about in textbooks: it’s been on a terrible losing streak for the past couple of years but it’s still in charge and it’s not even close. Despite all the talk about recessions and financial crises, all we still keep talking about is the newest iPad version or the Avengers movie or where to spend our money this summer. Capitalism is no longer a political or economic concept: it’s our entire lives. And by “our,” I also mean all the communists in the country and even that one hiding in the Netherlands.

There is one inherent problem with Capitalism: its main concern is profit. That’s not a negative judgment; it’s an accurate and concise statement. Profit is what makes continuous production possible. Without it, business ceases to exist; plain and simple. So as highly effective as it is at supposedly “improving our lives,” any benefit we attain from it is purely incidental, because it is, by definition, not primarily concerned about us. Socialism is the one that cares about us as human beings (in theory). But the problem with Socialism is the same thing that makes it potentially ideal: it’s a utopian concept. And we all know by now what happened to “Utopia.”

Labor Day has been celebrated for more than a century now, yet it still carries as much bitterness as it did when it was first instituted because the supposed sentiment behind it has, still, and will always ring hollow. No matter how many holidays and tributes we devote to workers, they will remain forever insecure because the one thing they want to care about them – the capitalist system – just does not and will not because it cannot. It’s the curse of a system that continues to simultaneously improve our lives and frustrate the living hell out of us.

In theory, the fact that workers are also consumers should help ease the discontent. After all, having the newest iPad model or watching the Avengers movie or spending your vacation in insanely-commercialized Boracay tends to mitigate our miseries towards our jobs a little. But not everyone could afford those things and certainly notthe workers of Superstar Coconut Products in Davao who were demoted after they protested the company’s unfair labor practices last year. The ones who are exploited the most are often the ones who have little to benefit from Capitalism anyway. Those who have little to lose are the ones who are not afraid to fight back. For better or worse, that’s always been the true essence of Labor Day.


Photos: May 1 Labor Day protest (Photo by Ina Silverio Alleco / Some Rights Reserved


Alex Almario has won a Nick Joaquin Literary Award for his fiction; his reality, though, is a lot more mundane as a Junior Creative Director in his day job and a writer of essays in his own blog, Colonial Mental, where he reflects on pop culture and why it matters.