THE FIRST LABOR DAY AND OTHER PRE-WORLD WAR II MILESTONES IN THE WORKERS MOVEMENT IN THE PHILIPPINES
According to the Historical Calendar (1521-1969) of the National Historical Institute, the first Labor Day in the Philippines that was held on May 1st, the date recognized as Labor Day throughout the world since the growth of the labor movement, was in 1913. On May 1, 1913, Filipino workers and labor leaders convened a labor congress, the third since unionism took hold in the country, at the Cine Oriente along C.M. Recto street, then known as Azcarraga, in Manila. Around 36 labor unions heeded the call to hold congress and unite under one umbrella, the better to fight for the rights of Filipino workers. Thus was born the Congreso Obrero de Filipinas (COF) or Congress of Philippine Labor. Elected as president was Hermenigildo Cruz, unschooled protégé of Philippine labor pioneer and one of the great intellects of his time, Isabelo de los Reyes. Cruz went on to become one of the stalwarts of the labor movement, playing no small part in the realization, eventually, of many of labor’s legitimate demands. Following in the footsteps of an earlier federation– the Union Obrera Democratica de Filipinas (Democratic Labor Union of the Philippines)– the COF passed several landmark resolutions: to advocate for absolute and true Philippine Independence; to condemn the American Federation of Labor for excluding African Americans and Asians from its membership rolls; and to fight for the legislation of the eight-hour work day. Workers then were made to work for as many as 12 hours a day, even more—and for a mere pittance barely able to hold body and soul together for the next working day.
The long road to the first Labor Day was nonetheless paved with the hardships of the first generation of organized workers during other celebrations, or non-celebration, of Labor Day in the past, and other events which, though did not transpire on May 1st, were definite steps towards workers’ emancipation.
In 1899 a strike was staged by workers in the printing press of the Revolutionary government. This was followed by the establishment of the Union de Impresores de Filipinas or UIF in December 1901 and the establishment of the first workers’ federation, the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD) headed by de los Reyes in 1902. That year saw the staging of a successful general strike organized by the UOD in order to demand an increase in wages. The government’s response was swift and malevolent: organizers including delos Reyes, were seized and thrown in jail. Nevertheless, the strikes managed to achieve victory, small though it was, in the form of wages being raised in a number of establishments.
The next major victory came a year later, on Labor Day itself when some 100,000 workers led by Dominador Gomez (who took the place of de los Reyes as foremost labor leader), massed before the gates of Malacañang Palace, shouting slogans against American imperialism and that Governor General grant their just demands. Some 200 troops were immediately mobilized to guard the gates, holding them off with their bayonets aimed at them. To compensate for the governor refusing to see them, Gomez held an impromptu lecture against America’s double standards and the prevailing system in the country that allowed workers to suffer unjust conditions, concluding his diatribe with an exhortation to the workers to close ranks and unite for only through solidarity would they achieve genuine independence. Accused of being subversive in speech and action, Gomez went the way of his predecessor De los Reyes—before the month ended he was also locked behind bars.
Not all of workers’ militant actions merited retaliation: in 1908, a general strike staged by waterfront workers affiliated under Union de Marinos de Filipinas, organized by Pedro Guevara, so paralyzed Manila’s shipping industry that the industry firms gave in to their demands for better working conditions and higher wages.
For every step up however since that first Labor Day in 1913, it seemed that the workers’ movement made two steps back. Time and again, discord usually in the form of methodological differences among leaders reared its ugly head, causing dissension and splits. Thus, at the COF congress held on May 1, 1929, left-wing members headed by the communist and committed union pioneer Crisanto Evangelista bolted due to the presence of large numbers of non-members. A few days later Evangelista and his group held a conference, during which they organize, along Communist lines, the Katipunan ng Anak Pawis (KAP), and passed a resolution calling for establishment of a workers’ party. A year later, KAP and COF held separate congresses. But it is the KAP, with its more aggressive brand of unionism reminiscent of de los Reyes and Gomez’, that provoked the authorities’ ire. Thus, during KAP’s congress in Manila on May 31, 1931, constabulary and police agents, a number of them working incognito, pounced upon and arrested around 300 unknowing KAP officers and some convention delegates. While the greater number of those arrested were released after a day in prison, around 24 leaders remained locked up including Evangelista and Juan Feleo, KAP officer and vice-president of the Kalipunang Pambansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (KPMP), a union of peasants and rural workers. By September the same year, the Communists and their organizations, including KAP, were outlawed.
A tragedy struck the workers’ movement in 1934, although it occurred not in the month of May but September. Perhaps one of the earliest strikes ever to have been sacrificed with workers’ blood, the strike staged on 1 September 1934 at a cigar factory in Manila, saw the killing and injury of a number of workers. A year later on May 1-2, 1935, the Sakdal, an organization many of whose members were peasants and rural workers, staged their uprising against the Commonwealth government in Laguna, Cavite, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan, which resulted in the killing of 59 Sakdalistas by responding government troops. Though it may not have been of the workers’ movement its membership and basic demands (genuine Philippine independence and social justice) mirrored those of the workers’ unions, too. The violence and bloodshed in these two last events bespoke of the increasing turbulence of the times not only in the Philippines but in the world at large when peoples were beginning to get caught in the increasing crossfire of the ideological battle between democracy on one hand, and fascism on the other. It was also a harbinger of worse things to come not only for the working class but for all Filipinos when the country would be plunged into World War II and the Japanese occupation six short years later.