THERE is a revolution happening in the US now. And it has nothing to do with the January-Six Insurrection or their coming elections. Rather, on the rise, and in fact, experiencing a renaissance these past two years is the labor movement there. At the forefront of course is the ongoing strike of workers from the Union of Auto Workers whose 150 thousand-strong members come from the big three car companies in the US (GM, Ford, Stellantis). But also flexing their muscles in recent months through strikes or walk-offs are the unionized workers from the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA), Amazon, Starbucks, UPS, and McDonalds. In general, these workers are fighting for increased wages, noting that while company owners and CEOs tripled their earnings during the pandemic, workers’ pay remained stagnant.

There is no question about the impact of this latest show of strength by organized labor. Dismissed as an insignificant or spent force, now they are on a comeback trail. Union membership is picking up again, with 14.29 million unionized workers in 2022, up from 14.01 million in 2021. Even public opinion is turning around according to Gallup in 2022, with 71 percent of Americans now favorable to the presence of labor unions in the workplace, supposedly the highest approval rate since 1965. As the survey proves, there seems to be an emerging consciousness among Americans that the only force capable of fighting against the rapacious abuse of the elite and corporate America is when they themselves organize and unionize. Even before the pandemic, the gap between the rich and the poor in the US has widened, with the rich getting tax credits from Republican governments since President Ronald Reagan. In the workplace, this has been manifested by the unequal ratio between the salaries of Company CEOs and ordinary workers. Specifically, economists say that while CEO salaries since 1965 have increased by a whopping 400 percent, employee salaries have moved up by a measly 7 to 10 percent. And of course the divide became more pronounced during the pandemic, with CEOs of big companies still getting an average pay increase of 17 percent, while the rest were either laid off or survived with stagnant salaries. Talk about the poor getting the poorer and the rich getting richer. 

It is in the face of this inequality and injustice that this renaissance of the labor movement is taking place. And with the elections coming up soon, the unions are becoming a political force to reckon with, as should be the case. Even the Church has long ago recognized and supported in her Social Teachings the right to association of people and the right of workers to unionize. As Newtonian physics also teaches us, for every force there has to be an equal and opposite counter-force. For the masses, the strength that can balance the power of the rich can only come if and when they unite and organize among themselves. Which begs for us the question: if the sleeping giant that is the labor movement is now waking up in the US, what about here in the Philippines? Quo vadis the Philippine labor union? 

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are about 600 national trade unions and federations registered in the Philippines. But it adds that these only represent less than 10 percent of the 38.8 million labor force in the country. As many observers point out, as a political force, organized labor here has been weak and ineffective. They were oppressed during the time of Martial Law; after EDSA, they were seen as spoilers to the rebuilding of the economy, even if the track record of developed countries prove otherwise  — Iceland has 91 percent unionized workers, Denmark at 67 percent and Sweden at 65.2 percent. At any rate, in the country’s last national elections they seemed to have had no impact at all in the behavior of candidates nor in forcing these to commit to the agenda of the workers. In the recent one, one federation leader ran for the highest post but did not get even the support of his own federation. More importantly, their perpetual demand for “endo” or an end to labor contractualization was merely given lip service by the winning candidates. Analysts point out  that, ironically speaking, until these unions become united, like what we are seeing in the US now, they will never be taken seriously by the government and the private sector.

And that observation perhaps extend to civil society in the Philippines which is the bigger aggrupation of supposedly cause-oriented groups, non-government organizations, and people’s organizations that include sectoral groups like labor unions, farmers’ groups, womens’ organizations, etcetera. In the 1990s, international organizations like the United Nations and the Asian Development Bank praised the country for its robust and vigorous civil society landscape where civic organizations numbered in the thousands. These were key to the successful passage of several social legislations like the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) and the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA). But through the years, their number and strength have dwindled. Some leaders were coopted into government service or by the business sector. For many, a significant reason was the loss of funding from abroad. Since the time of Duterte, the culprit has been the “red-tagging” of these organizations, which has crippled them from politically becoming active. Whatever the reason, sadly, if not tragically, in the 2022 elections, civil society groups failed in organizing the poorer sectors of the country who ostensibly went for the least progressive choice—the candidate whose family a wide array of progressive groups fought during Martial Law. 

This unfortunate setback notwithstanding, in a world where the gap between the rich, which is one percent of the world population, and the poor, which is almost the rest of the world, is expected to worsen further, there seems to be no other way out. The trickle-down economic theory has long been debunked and exposed, together with capitalism’s greed that has led to the virtual collapse of the environment. The poor then can only rely on themselves and fend for themselves. As a wise saying goes, they can “organize or die!”

Fr. EMMANUEL “NONO” L. ALFONSO, SJ, is Executive Director of Jesuit Communications, writer and TV and radio host at ABS-CBN (Channel 2), DZMM Teleradyo, Radio Veritas and Radyo Katipunan. In 2008, he was given a Special Citation Award for Best Opinion Column Category at the 30th Catholic Mass Media Awards.