Ex-kings of the road | Inquirer Opinion
The Long View

Ex-kings of the road

Canberra—I quizzed colleagues here on the outcome of the first day of the nationwide jeepney strike. Reports—and reactions—were mixed. My takeaway from quizzing them and poring over our media feeds boiled down to three observations.

The first is that there were divisions among the unions, not least because the membership of some unions were, themselves, divided: Some drivers had already taken advantage of, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, gave in to, the government’s demand that they form cooperatives which would then obtain minibuses at concessionary rates from the government. The second is that the President may, by inclination and instinct, be a highly conventional leader (he declared himself against the euphemistically-termed jeepney modernization during the campaign, and his transport secretary was inclined not to be too confrontational), but he presides over a coalition, and half of it represented by the Vice President prefers a more combative approach.

This brings me to, third, the previous era still leaving a hangover in the current Restoration Era: The candid statement by one jeepney driver that he was unsure, even as of Monday morning, whether he’d join the strike because of threats that their tires would be slashed, was to me, very telling, as it suggests the real teeth behind the threats, otherwise not so unusual, that government would punish defiant drivers by depriving them of their franchises. Here in Australia, news from home is paralleled by reports of a brewing Qantas airline strike. The power of a strike is the power of intimidation: That a mass action by a specific sector will be felt by everyone else and the powerful will be correspondingly revealed as powerless in the face of a demonstration of organized resistance by an aggrieved portion of the citizenry. The strikers will benefit from a sense of solidarity among others, even if the result, as expected, is communal paralysis. But this isn’t necessary. To succeed, a strike must not be ignored; it must cause pain so widespread it would be better for the powerful to compromise than to escalate and thus prolong the communal pain. Because at that point, the strikers are more likely to enjoy public sympathy and inspire broader solidarity, than before. For strikers and those opposed to the strikers, it is all about timing.


That the public braced itself, wondering what would happen last Monday, with reporters who still have jobs, primed to report the commuting day’s outcome, points to the mixed inheritance left to the present administration by its predecessor. For all his popularity and corresponding zest and ability to intimidate, former president Rodrigo Duterte failed to achieve total victory in his administration’s goal of consigning the jeepney to history. Or to be precise, his people failed to leverage their boss’ charisma to do so. A society held captive by a militarized response to COVID-19 had less and less sympathy to spare with the once proudly militant jeepney federations, whose members were literally reduced to begging for alms. Even as life returned to seminormality, not all could, or did, return to their old routes.


In this manner, the former president achieved a kind of victory in that he could count on the numbing of broader society. I sometimes suspect what he achieved was more than this. His preference for fighting a virus, as if conducting a police action, ensured combining the mortal peril of both disease and a nearly dead economy into a threat that left no other choice but to embrace his leadership rather than risk a general collapse.

He conferred a certain kind of political if not social (but quite possibly both) respectability on expressing contempt for the formerly mightily organized being laid low. By being so obviously reduced, not just to outright poverty but political powerlessness, reviving the power of unions became that much more difficult. As the government recovered its breath, the war against the jeepney revived; by then, the perennial problem that had left it unfixable in the first place had a solution.


The unfixable problem had been this. The system that emerged at the end of World War II, because the prewar transport system itself was already in the midst of transitioning from rail to road (the tranvia was already on the way to being replaced by buses by the late 1930s), could be managed to the extent of government instituting the system of franchises; but jeepneys were private property, privately owned, and for government to demand they be junked and replaced with some other vehicle would only be attractive (and considered fair) if the impermissible was attempted: To mandate the use of public funds for what could be considered private gain. Every permutation examined, ranging from doing a vehicle swap to providing easy terms for replacement vehicles, sooner or later ended up declared legally defective on this score.

Only a society in which the chief executive was once again considered paramount, as the Duterte administration became, could have mustered, as the Duterte administration did, the political clout to declare it was going to simply decree the jeepney out of existence by turning the independent jeepney driver into a thing of the past, too; by becoming members of cooperatives they could, to begin with, be denied their previous identity and regimented in a new way that is more intimately tied to the government (and requiring its continued good graces) than the past.

For unions with an already divided membership, this spells the difference between maintaining at least the appearance of cohesion or risking an accelerating shrinking into irrelevance. With local governments taking to sending out their own vehicle fleets to partially fill the gap, and the Vice President alternating between accusing some unions of being communist fronts and others of sabotaging education efforts, it can be argued that the unions played their last card, and while there might have been some criticism of the President and the Vice President, their standing could only increase with one transport leader promising the public that if they are only allowed to still exist, they will attempt to improve the level of their service.

This is no longer the language of a sector that still believes it is still the king of the road. The future has come closer: Indentured servitude.

Email: mlquezon3@gmail.com; Twitter: @mlq3

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