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End of an era in labor relations

The passing away recently of Amado “Gat” Inciong, deputy minister of labor and major architect of labor relations during the Marcos regime, is part in a way of the death throes of unionism in the country, and the socialist ideals that fueled it.

Gat Inciong was a poor boy in San Juan, Batangas who, upon graduating as valedictorian of his provincial high school, wrote then Sen. Claro M. Recto for a way to get supported through college. Don Claro took him under his wing, and thus began a life-forming tutelage under the great statesman on what nationalism meant in the face of such defining issues as political sovereignty and economic independence.

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Like many of his contemporaries who grew up under the shadow of the Hukbalahap unrest in the countryside in the 1950s, Inciong was shaped by the poverty of those at the bottom of the class divide. His political consciousness was influenced by the incipient Marxism that undergirded labor movements in the early years of the last century and gave birth to militant organizations such as the Kilusang Mayo Uno, founded by the late Ka Bert Olalia whom he revered.

Inciong belonged to that older generation of social activists that we now call “kaliwa.” In what is perhaps one of the great ironies of our recent history, he was part of that cohort of writers and intellectuals who in the 1960s set out to reform society, first as propagandists in imitation of our 19th-century Propaganda movement, and then ending up as functionaries in the Marcos government.

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The complex of impulses that drove him and such men as Blas Ople, Adrian Cristobal, Guillermo de Vega, Juan Tuvera, Onofre Corpus and others to hire themselves out in the service of “building a new society” now look distastefully collaborative, making myths that for a time legitimized and perpetuated the Marcos regime.

There were those like Inciong, however, who, through the twisted and devious turns of the regime, managed to wrest some good out of the labyrinthine ways of an increasingly corrupt bureaucracy.

He authored, for instance, Presidential Decree No. 851, which institutionalized the 13th-month pay when he was acting labor minister. This created an uproar in the business community then, which criticized it as arbitrary, since it did not pass through the usual obstructive lobbying and series of hearings. Work on the 13th-month-pay decree took no more than 24 hours, from preparation to presidential approval, he said.

His hard-nosed realism, wedded to a fairly consistent ideological idealism, allowed him to push landmark legislation and make industrial peace workable, institutionalizing such arrangements in wage-making procedures as tripartite consultations among labor, management and government. He chaired the committee that drafted the Labor Code, a benchmark legislation that, among others, provided mechanisms for voluntary arbitration instead of clogging court dockets with piles of labor relations cases.

A nonlawyer, he nevertheless understood how to make the law work for those who get the bad end of the legal stick. He used the full force of his position to advance the interest of workers, but tried also to be fair to management. In doing so, he became a controversial figure: He was, on the one hand, hated by what he called “labor aristocrats”—those unscrupulous labor leaders who, in the course of hammering out collective bargaining agreements, sold their workers to “capitalist oligarchs”—and, on the other hand, was seen as a biased communist by the powerful or subjected to constant pressure by rent-seeking companies.

It did not help that he was short-tempered, unable to suffer fools and obstructionists alike, excoriating those who stood in his way. He stuck his neck out trying to get things done. In the process, he made many enemies, some of them unnecessary. In the end, for reasons that he kept to himself, he abruptly resigned. He bought a farm and for a time hid himself, perhaps to nurse a wound so deep it could only be healed in silence.

Toward the end of his days, he rued that the structures that had been built to promote equitable industrial relations have now collapsed in the face of contractualization and a global market that treats people like commodities, along with our coconuts and bananas.

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Socialism may have failed, but this old soldier at least clung to its ideals, and kept the poor at the center of its vision.

Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., had hardly warmed her seat as cub reporter for the Manila Chronicle when it was shut down upon declaration of martial law, and so for a time had to shift to writing speeches and policy papers in the Office of the Minister of Labor.

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TAGS: Amado “Gat” Inciong, en. Claro M. Recto, Hukbalahap, labor, Marcos regime
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