Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Reinventing the labor union

AS expected, labor organizations nationwide—especially those associated with the left shade of the political spectrum—came out in droves for the Labor Day march, shouting the usual demands, issuing the same statements, and waving the same old yellow-red banners. And predictably, the President of the country went out on TV proclaiming the usual platitudes about workers and some “nonwage” benefits.

A day after, workers are back to the salt mines, to their usual struggling lives as if nothing has happened or will happen, the passionate marches in the streets notwithstanding. For generations, they have been repeating the same routine every Labor Day until the comemorations seem to have lost their meaning.

This week’s Labor Day celebration, however, is somewhat different, signifying that fresh winds of change are currently blowing on the labor movement. No, we can’t see those creeping changes from the usual marches and breast-beating. The signs are in the recent jobs fair held by the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) at the Quezon City Hall as its way of celebrating the workers’ day, and the day before that, another one sponsored by the Manila city authorities in collaboration with private business at the Luneta Park. Asked about their novel way of celebrating Labor Day, TUCP spokesman Alex Aguilar said: “For us, the priority is Trabaho Muna [Work first]… It’s not because we belong to organized labor that we will only focus our energies on organized labor. I think we should also address the needs of those looking for jobs. Remember, we have three million people who have no work.”

This is a refreshing change in perspective from the labor movement that for long had largely focused attention on the country’s organized labor—the labor aristocracy. It’s been called a “labor aristocracy” because the number of workers that these unions represents hardly make up 4 percent or less of the country’s work force. It’s from this attitude that sprung anti-economic growth and anti-business statements of many labor organizations, denouncing foreign investors as “exploitative,” opposing labor policy reforms aimed at making the labor market supply and demand less rigid, conducting crippling do-or-die workers’ strikes, and lobbying Congress for nationwide across-the-board wage increases that benefit only a minute percentage of the working class (the union members) and injured hundreds of thousands of small and micro enterprises that make up the backbone of the economy.

This change in perspective, therefore, would suggest that more labor leaders are now more receptive of progrowth policies that create more jobs, that they no longer look at capital as the “enemy of the working class,” and that labor could actually be a partner of entrepreneurs in building a better and prosperous Philippines.

TUCP, of course, has always been a “moderate union” whose activism has always been tempered by economic and social realities, albeit it has been subjected to some unflattering remarks in the Marcos past, if only because its leaders were always there at the official celebrations of Labor Day. But we believe that other unions may actually have to take cues from it because of globalization, a potent economic and social force that is now currently shaping the workplace and is marginalizing labor unions in general. In the Philippines, globalization has been associated with several trends that are slowly making labor unionism less relevant to the new types of workers.

One could cite three major currents that are affecting the labor movement.

One, liberalization of global trade suggests that factories, more than ever, are dead serious about efficiency and competitiveness, thus forcing them to maintain lean and mean operations. These companies achieve this efficiency by computerization, downsizing, outsourcing, and by focusing on their core competences. Many have relocated away from Metro Manila to special economic zones in Calabarzon and secondary urban centers where the environment are less ideal for labor organizing. Given the rigidity of the country’s labor policies, these companies would rather focus on recruiting and holding on to skilled workers—empowered workers who have less need of services from labor centers.

Two, in the last decade, economic growth has largely been buttressed by the rapid growth of the service sector, specifically banking, telecommunications, outsourcing, and business services. These types of economic activities require urban-based and tech-savvy workers whose idea of “job security” is something that comes from their education and training and not the collective bargaining agreement.

Three, a significant percentage of the country’s labor force that are contributing significantly to the economy are overseas workers—nurses, aircraft mechanics, pilots, health professionals, caregivers, ship crews—and are beyond the reach of the traditional labor organizations.

How labor organizations reinvent themselves to cope with these undercurrents to remain relevant to the working class would depend largely on how they would adapt to these new labor dynamics. Essentially, increasing the base of the working class locally through economic growth and job expansion is one approach. So are providing skills training and job placement programs for workers, for instance, nurses and seafarers. They may also consider engaging poverty reduction as well as the development of small and medium enterprises. These are not the usual stuff that labor organizations do. But then again, this is a brave new world where they need to try new things to stay relevant to the needs of the less fortunate whose interest they deem to serve. Otherwise, unions might just drift into obscurity.

As singer-songwriter Bob Dylan would put it:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now, will later be fast
As the present now, will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

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