By Chit Estella
April 30, 2009
ON the long black granite wall on the grounds of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani are 185 names of heroes and martyrs who fought the Marcos dictatorship. Some are well-known to the public; many are not. But all are bound by the fact that they had committed a great part of their lives to opposing authoritarianism.
But surprisingly absent from the list are those whose names have always been synonymous with the anti-dictatorship movement: labor leaders Felixberto Olalia and his son, Rolando.
“Mukhang napakatagal na ng panahong dapat ay naisali sila sa hanay ng mga tunay na bayani (It seems it is taking such a long time for their names to be included in the ranks of true heroes),” said Elmer Labog, chair of the Kilusang Mayo Uno, the labor alliance in which both Olalias served as leaders.
Because of this, the leftist labor organization is starting to feel that the neglect has been deliberate. This has puzzled Labog and many others considering the contributions made by the labor movement in the country’s long struggle for freedom and democracy, especially during martial law.
Just three years after the declaration of military rule in 1972, it was the labor sector that gave the impetus for bigger and more frequent protest actions. A three-day strike was held at La Tondeña at a time when there was an absolute ban on protest actions.
“It was the first ever strike under martial rule,” said Labog of the work stoppage that opened the floodgates for similar protest actions that covered not just individual factories but entire zones. Taken together, the strikes numbered about 700 and crippled the dictatorship.
In the street rallies held at that time, organized labor—along with students and farmers—provided the warm bodies that confronted the water cannons, truncheons and bullets which the dictatorship used to clamp down on protests.
It would take years after the La Tondeña strike of 1975 before business and other wealthier sectors of Philippine society would openly join the protest movement. They would do so in 1983 with the assassination of former senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
In those protests, the name of Felixberto Olalia figured prominently. Slight in appearance, he was nevertheless a charismatic leader and a fiery speaker. More importantly, he was a relentless organizer. In the 1950s, he was imprisoned on charges of subversion. He would be thrown in jail again in 1972 and in 1982 for rebellion. Between jail terms, he would form alliances of labor unions and federations. Under house arrest, Olalia died at the age of 80.
His son Rolando was a lawyer. “But he turned his back on the lucrative opportunity to serve the rich corporations,” said Labog.
Like his father, Olalia joined the KMU and became its chair. Unlike his father, he survived martial law. He would instead meet his death during the restored democracy under Aquino.
In one of the most violent actions taken against the legal left, Rolando—along with his driver—was found murdered, his body bearing the signs of a painful death in the hands of his tormentors. His murderers were never found.
Rolando would not be the last unionist to be killed, however. Labog estimated that about 1,000 laborers have been slain, 38 of them under the administration of President Gloria Arroyo.
Wall of Remembrance
If the heroism of the Olalias and other laborers could not be doubted, then why are they not remembered as heroes?
The Wall of Remembrance, in fact, carries names of persons from a wide range of the political spectrum, from traditional politicians to liberal academicians, activist students and the religious sector.
The idea of honoring those who spent their lives opposing the dictatorship came from Ruben Mallari, a US-based Filipino doctor who was part of the anti-Marcos movement. His idea received strong support from those who had opposed martial law and in 1986, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation was set up.
In 1992, six years after Mallari broached his proposal, the Wall of Remembrance, along with a monument sculpted by famed artist Eduardo Castrillo, was unveiled. Initially, 65 names were etched on the wall.
Glancing at the names, it would be clear that the Bantayog Foundation does not discriminate against the Left. A number of those honored as martyrs were even known to have joined the New People’s Army, the armed component of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
A source in the Bantayog, however, said there may be something in the way that decision-makers in the foundation regard workers, particularly militant workers, which affects their choice of heroes and martyrs.
“Hindi malapit ang puso nila sa mga manggagawa (They do not have a soft spot for workers in their hearts),” the source who asked not to be identified said.
Nominees to be named heroes or martyrs are screened by a selection committee in the foundation. Its members include the foundation’s executive director, Quintin Doromal, Thelma Arceo, Carolina Malay and Joy Kintanar. Doromal is vice president and trustee of the people’s organization Kilosbayan and was commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government. Malay and Kintanar are both former political detainees and were members of the underground movement.
Another committee reviews the nominations and the final decision is made by the board of directors of the foundation. Weighing heavily on the final decision are the views of officials such as Deogracias Vistan, former president of the Land Bank of the Philippines, and Alfonso Yuchengco, chair of the board of trustees. Former Senate President Jovito Salonga, founder of Kilosbayan, is the chair emeritus.
Some insiders in the foundation said lack of documentation and supporting papers usually explains the failure of certain nominees to pass the selection process.
Bias vs. labor?
The Olalias, however, have been nominated three times. Each time, their inclusion was thwarted.
Doromal, executive director of the foundation, said the board considers a nominee’s contributions “in totality.”
Apart from the positive deeds, it also takes into account “the damage, the negatives,” that some nominees have done. In the case of the Olalias, Doromal said the board took note of the “damage to the economy and to other sectors” done by the labor leaders.
He was apparently referring to the strikes waged by the KMU in the work places it controls.
“It (KMU) was supposedly the reason that investors didn’t come to the Philippines,” a source in the Bantayog said. Protestations that other reasons have been cited by such investors—like inconsistency in the observance of certain policies by government itself and corruption—went unheeded.
“They (foundation officials) are management people,” the source said.
Still, Doromal said there is hope that the Olalias might still get the nod of the board. “The Olalias are not the only ones where we have had real discussions. (It just gets to the point where) we get tired and say, let’s discuss this another time.”
Reflecting the reluctance of some foundation officials, Doromal said, “I know that from labor’s end, the Olalias were very much in the forefront (of the struggle). But they were not the only labor leaders who helped move this country ahead.”
“We have no preconceived notions about anybody. We don’t know everything about everybody but we try to look at the totality,” he said.
Referring to the possible inclusion of Felixberto and Rolando, he said, “The bottom line is, it’s not a closed item.”
KMU’s Labog deplored the attitude of the foundation. “Masama ang loob namin sa ganyang paninindigan. Napakamaling pananaw iyan (We feel bad with that kind of position. It’s a very wrong attitude),” he said.
The bias against workers exhibited by those foundation officials, he said, shows a misunderstanding of the labor movement.
“Kung walang manggagawa, hindi mabubuhay ang negosyo (Without workers, no business will survive),” Labog said, adding that ultimately, the economy can grow only if basic sectors like workers and farmers are given stronger purchasing power, something which the KMU has been fighting for.
Pointing out that most of those who died opposing the dictatorship came from poor sectors like labor, Labog said, “Malinaw pa sa sikat ng araw na napakalaki ng kontribusyon ng mga manggagawa. Dapat nilang(foundation officials) suriin muli ang kanilang criteria. Tapat ba sila sa kanilang paninindigan (It is clearer than daylight that workers have contributed so much. They should reevaluate their criteria. Are they being true to their principles)?”