An honest man

ABS-CBM, Thursday 7 August 2003, 0:37:0 a.m.

The tragedy of the Philippine labor movement has been that too many of its leaders were easily bought. Not so was Felixberto Ka Bert Olalia (August 5, 1904–December 4, 1983), who, upon becoming a worker in a shoe factory, then took the lead in establishing a labor union in the factory, and fought for better working conditions. He organized the Union de Chineleros y Zapateros de Filipinos in 1920 and served as its secretary from 1920-25 and as its president from 1925 to 1940. It was one of the first industrial unions in the Philippines. From being a messenger, he was elected president of the union.

He became part of the finance committee of the Collective Labor Movement in 1929, and also became the secretary-general of Katipunan ng mga Anakpawis sa Pilipinas in 1939.

He worked with veteran union leaders like Crisanto Evangelista—the father of the Philippine trade union movement, of whom Manuel L. Quezon once said, He is a rare labor leader—he cannot be bought. I know, because I tried. The same high praise could have been heaped on Olalia.

Ka Bert entwined his championing of the workers' cause with defending the country's sovereignty and national interest. Together with nationalist colleagues, he formed in 1942 the League for National Liberation and served as lieutenant colonel from 1942-43. Later he joined the Allied Forces' Intelligence Bureau, to monitor and document the activities of the Japanese occupation forces in the Philippines; and he was commander of the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon of the Manila Capital Region from 1944-45.

Right after World War II through the '50s, Ka Bert cofounded and led several national labor unions such as the Congress of Labor Organizations, then the biggest and strongest labor federation in the country; thereafter, he became president of the Katipunan ng mga Kaisahang Manggagawa (KKM). He also served as the chairman for Labor in the first National Labor-Management Conference in July 1951. He suffered imprisonment in 1951. Upon being released in 1954, he founded the Confederation of Labor in the Philippines (CLP), and later, the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU) in 1957.

And yet, despite being imprisoned by the status quo, Ka Bert worked closely with the legislators and policymakers as what is today called as a street parliamentarian. He engaged in active dialogue and lobbying with the legislators of his time; and was instrumental in the adoption of various prolabor resolutions and laws by the Congress of the Philippines such as the shortening of the 12-hour work day to the current 8-hour work in 1934; Republic Act 875, or the Magna Carta of Labor, women and child labor law, minimum wage law, to the creation of an Agrarian Court, and other legislation.

In 1970 he was sent as an emissary to China and helped in the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Government of the Philippines and the People's Republic of China.

At the height of martial law when strikes and labor unions were outlawed, he founded and became the first national chairman of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in 1980, and Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawang Pilipino (PMP). Two years later, on August 13, 1982, in an infamous labor crackdown, Ferdinand Marcos had Ka Bert arrested and detained.

He was arrested, detained and convicted in September 1951-56 for simple rebellion; detained for 4 1/2 months in October 1972 for alleged subversion. He was again arrested in August 13, 1982, on the accusation of inciting to sedition and for conspiracy to commit rebellion. He was put in solitary confinement, and this led to the deterioration of his health. He was transferred to the Camp Crame Hospital and later to the V. Luna Hospital on May 1, 1983, due to the recurrence of his rheumatic heart disease. During the eight months of detention, Ka Bert's body grew weak. Later, he acquired a heart illness. He died of pneumonia in prison.

It is necessary to capsulize Olalia's life because, unlike labor leaders who became politicians or multimillionaires, Olalia made no effort to build a personality cult around him or to mulct his fellow workers. He was born a poor man, died a poor man, left a poor family. His son would continue his work but die at the hands of rightist assassins.

His fiery rhetoric survives for all times in Pen Medina's rendition of his speech in an audio book, Twenty Speeches that Moved a Nation. Yet larger than his genuine abilities as an organizer, his phenomenal dedication to the interests of the laboring class, is his having lived, and died, as a labor leader should: sharing the hardships of his fellow workers. No higher laurels could a labor leader crave.