On Jan. 23, 2002, the Supreme Court in Gerardo Rivera et al. vs. Hon. Eduardo Espiritu et al. rendered an unprecedented and unsettling decision legitimizing the abrogation of the collective bargaining agreement between Philippine Airlines and the PAL Employees Association and banning the forging of a CBA for a period of 10 years.
That CBA abrogation, coupled with the enforced absence of a CBA for one decade, was malevolently machinated by the PAL management, inordinately supported by then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada and finally sanctioned by the Supreme Court. It eroded the gains of trade unionism in the Philippines and set back the labor movement by decades.
“Can you eat the CBA?” was Erap’s admonition to PAL workers at the height of the PAL-Palea labor dispute in September 1998. It was either an expression of patent bias against workers or a reckless endorsement of the inflexible antilabor position of management.
“Workers eat their CBAs,” meaning that workers eat precisely because they have their CBAs. This was the retort of a crusading and fearless labor advocate and leader, whose assassination 13 years ago was marked last Feb. 6.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous and controversial decision was in the agenda of the 2002 annual conference in Geneva of the International Labor Organization, where the Philippines’ antilabor policies were widely criticized—to no avail. The decision became final and executory even as the local labor movement was stunted and imperiled.
Today, the data on the labor scenario are pathetic. Of the total active workforce, 34,388,000 are from the private sector and 2,922,000 from the public sector. Of those employed in private enterprises, only 1,420,286 or 4.13 percent are unionized; of the total government employees (national government agencies, local government units, government-owned and -controlled corporations or GOCCs, and state universities and colleges), only 518,047 or 17.7 percent are union members.
Of the 17,029 registered labor unions in the private sector, only 1,227 or 7.2 percent have existing CBAs. And of the 1,824 registered personnel associations or unions in the government sector, only 360 or 19.7 percent have collective negotiating agreements.
These are truly dismal figures. But what is more tragic is the dwindling number of actual strikes for the past five years, with only eight strikes in 2010, two in 2011, three in 2012, one in 2013, and two in 2014 recorded nationwide, not because of better work conditions, increased wages or industrial peace, but because of stunted unionism which is aggravated by globalization and unremitting contractualization.
The proliferation of strikes is never encouraged. Strikes are lawful weapons of last resort when reasonable bargaining and negotiations fail. But the absence of strikes is not indicative of workers’ contentment but of their apathy and helplessness under the overwhelming ascendancy of capital and the indifference or pressure of government.
This ominous trend must be reversed. Otherwise, the partnership between labor and capital will crumble with the continuing marginalization of Filipino workers.
The expanded membership of the association of rank-and-file personnel in GOCCs and government financial institutions or GFIs is a beacon of hope in public-sector unionism. Kamaggfi (Kapisanan ng mga Manggagawa sa GOCCs at GFIs) includes in its roster the workers’ unions in profit-generating government agencies. The combined net profits in 2014 of the Social Security System, Government Service Insurance System, and Land Bank of the Philippines alone amounted to P102.2 billion.
Kamaggfi, chaired by Amorsolo Competente, the president of Alert and Concerned Employees for Better SSS, must hurdle serious challenges. Its most formidable challenge is waging a successful campaign for the enactment of a long-delayed statute implementing the constitutional grant of the right to strike to government personnel. There is no pending bill of this import in the 16th Congress.
Section 3 of Article XIII of the 1987 Constitution provides: “[The State] shall guarantee the rights of all workers to self-organization, collective bargaining and negotiations and peaceful concerted activities, including the right to strike in accordance with law.”
The right to strike by private-sector workers is safeguarded, implemented and regulated by the Labor Code. But there is no counterpart legislation for public-sector employees on this matter. Hence, executive and administrative issuances deny the right to strike to government employees in the absence of an implementing law. This vacuum persists despite the Supreme Court’s suggestive observation in Social Security System Employees Association et al. vs. Court of Appeals et al. (1989) that “in the absence of any legislation allowing government employees to strike, recognizing their right to do so, or regulating the exercise of the right, they are prohibited from striking.” There is thus critical immediacy for the enactment of an implementing statute.
The right to strike by public-sector employees is imperative in government enterprises engaged in banking, insurance, transport, utilities, tourism infrastructure and energy. These are precisely the state businesses whose personnel unions are Kamaggfi members. These government employees must share in the fruits of their labor above the minimum benefits provided by law, which enhancement can be achieved through collective negotiations and concerted activities, including the staging of strikes, if necessary.
Philippine unionism badly needs a shot in the arm. The Kamaggfi can administer the requisite initial dose. Its activism can influence the revival of unionism in the public and private sectors. Legitimate, responsible and vigilant unions are indispensable institutions to preserve the partnership of workers with private capital and the government.
Edcel C. Lagman is a former representative of the first district of Albay.