Reaffirming the Struggle for Working People's Rights and Freedoms: Celebrating the Philippine Labor Centennial

Alliance of Progressive Labor, 2 July 2002

The hour has come when men will be able to face one another without humiliating, without feeling deep within them the death-pangs of either suffering or tolerating injustice.

Hermenegildo Cruz, UOD Secretary General, 1902

The year 2002 marks the centennial anniversary of the founding of the first trade union federation in the Philippines—Unión Obrera Democrática (UOD).

On 2 February 1902, amidst the massive repression imposed by the American invasion forces, some 150 voting delegates, in the presence of an even larger number of non-delegates, from the printers' unions and other workers' organizations (proto-unions called gremios) of barbers, cigar-makers, tobacco workers, clerks, carpenters, woodcutters, lithographers and other laborers met in Manila to form the UOD. A few months later, UOD led a series of strikes in the different factories to press for higher wages and better working conditions. These militant actions snowballed into the first general strike on August of 1902. The UOD quickly grew from 33 to more than 150 unions. By 1903, the federation, then renamed as Unión Obrera Democrática de Filipinas (UODF), led a march of more 100,000 workers in front of Malacañang (seat of the American colonial administration) to mark the first May Day rally in the country.

While fighting to better the working and living conditions of the masses, the UOD also spearheaded the workers' struggle for the liberation of the motherland. Hand in hand with the desire for national liberation, it was in the UOD that the sparks of class-consciousness was first articulated. As the renowned historian William Henry Scott once wrote, if they did not produce a general conflagration, they at least set fires which are still burning in the Philippine labor movement.

The Labor Centennial provides a unique opportunity for the working people to reflect on the meaning of the 100-year struggle and its relevance to present day struggles against all forms of oppression. It comes at a time when the movement is facing the daunting task of defending and advancing workers' and trade union rights against the onslaught of neo-liberal globalization. At the very least, the Labor Centennial could go a long way not only in reaffirming a deeper commitment to the cause among trade unionists, but it could help broaden and deepen working people's support for trade unionism.

But that is probably why the ruling class is giving this historic event a low profile. Unlike in 1998, the 100th year celebration of Philippine independence, the Labor Centennial is devoid of pomp and pageantry. As such, the general public, especially the working people, have very limited awareness of its significance.

It is therefore imperative for the movement to campaign for broader working people awareness of this historic occasion.