Thursday, August 09, 2012

"The harshest of times and the worst of typhoons" won't break PALEA workers

Vashti Kenway

PALEA workers rally in Manilla, 28 March.
PALEA workers rally in Manilla, 28 March.

Philippine Airline workers organised in the union PALEA (PAL Employees Association) have been staging a brave and defiant dispute for over 11 months against their employer’s attempts to outsource jobs. They have withstood physical intimidation, poverty and the threat of jail time and have stood firm.
Socialist Alternative’s Vashti Kenway interviewed PALEA president Gerry Rivera at the strike camp in Manila. Only days before much of the camp had been blown away in a typhoon. As the interview was being conducted striking workers were resurrecting tarpaulins and re-establishing electricity.
In the subsequent days Manila suffered from torrential rains and the resulting floods have disproportionately affected communities of workers and the poor. Many PALEA workers have had their difficult lives made even harder. The Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party) – Philippines is requesting financial assistance.

Could you give us some background to the PALEA strike and deal with some of the issues at stake?
The real issues here are the right of the workers to security of employment, the right of the workers to self organisation, the right of the workers to collective bargaining. If we want to understand the history of this struggle we have to understand the history of PAL/ PALEA relations. Sometime in 1998 PAL, because of a paralysing strike of the pilots, asked for the suspension of the collective bargaining agreement, because then PAL was considered to be losing money. It was in financial distress.
Seven unionists objected in court, but the court came back to support the PAL. So they suspended this agreement for 10 years from 1998 to 2008. Sometime in 2007, one year ahead of the schedule for ending the so-called “rehabilitation period” and reinstating the agreement, we discovered PAL was actually making money. What’s more, at this time they also revealed their long term plan to outsource several departments, because of this so-called financial crisis.
They continued to maintain that the PAL was making losses. The departments they were going to outsource included airport services – which included cargo, operations, ramp services, baggage handling, equipment services, catering, medical, accounting, legal and labour relations. So that was the plan laid down on 26 August 2007. This meant virtually everyone in the PALEA union would be outsourced. PALEA has a total membership of 3,400. It is one of the biggest, if not the biggest labour organisation existing today in the Philippines. If we allowed this, we would be allowing the extinction of the union. So we opposed the outsourcing.
This scheme being laid down by the management is in violation of the collective bargaining agreement; it is a violation of the Labor Code, which prohibits the outsourcing of jobs which are already being performed by union members.
So we fought them, we opposed them. We went to the Department of Labor on several occasions and filed notices of strike. But the Department of Labor, under the most recent administration, came up with a decision saying that PAL is actually losing money and to avoid the imminent collapse of PAL the outsourcing program should be allowed. They said outsourcing is a management prerogative. We filed many submissions but they were rejected by both the last administration and this current one. We even took it to the office of the president, who affirmed the decision of the Department of Labor.
Despite these decisions we know that their premise that PAL is losing money is wrong. For the fiscal year 2011 they made a comprehensive profit of $US72.5 million after tax. So there is really no legal or moral basis for the decisions of the management or the government. There are now two contending issues: management prerogatives and the rights of workers to job security and self organisation – collective bargaining. It is clear that despite workers rights being enshrined in the constitution that this government, which is pro-capitalist, is supported the capitalists of PAL. So on 11 August 2011, they said they wanted to terminate 2,400 workers.
On 27 September we had no choice but to stage a protest at around 7am. Right after we staged this protest PAL made an announcement cancelling the flights on that particular day till 6pm. At midday they announced that all the workers in airport services, catering and the reservation centre are considered off duty until 30 September without pay. After that we were no longer to be employed by PAL. So they were able to illegally lock us out. Workers were barred from continuing their jobs, their functions. On that afternoon thousands of policeman and security guards physically evicted our members from the airport. From that time on we have set up and maintained this camp. We have maintained this camp in the midst of a big typhoon, including the most recent 2 weeks ago.
Tell us a little bit about the history of the camp itself
During the first days it was more of a rag tag centre with plastic sheets. We were initially more than a thousand here but PAL did not stop from outsourcing us or terminating us. We have been attacked twice by the goons of the company. The first time was on 19 October. The second on 29 October was more violent and resulted in the dismantling of our camp and serious physical injuries to some of our members.
One of the attackers was apprehended by the roving airport police and he admitted that the thugs were paid by the management, but ironically it was PAL who filed criminal cases against us. They filed a case against 41 people on that particular day because they said they were obstructing the entrances. They even launched a media campaign against us by saying in the press that we were tyrannical thugs. We didn’t have the tens of thousands of dollars to pay for advertisements in the media so we came up with some banners showing where the real tyranny comes from. This banner has pictures of the thugs attacking our camp.
PAL has also filed another case against 265 (downgraded to 243) of us, saying that we have been disrupting the operating services of the airport. But that is a farce. Why? Because PAL is the one disrupting operating services. Outside of the legal technicalities, to allow PAL and this government to prosecute these 243 influential members of PALEA would be a gross violation of the rights of the workers… the right to self organisation, the right to peaceful actions and assembly.
If we allow them to successfully prosecute us, they are not only disallowing PALEA members from staging protest actions within the bounds of the airport, they would be barring all workers in the aviation industry from strikes and protests. If we allow them to get away with this, nothing will stop this government and the capitalist-controlled system from creating new anti-worker laws. They could just declare any industry “vital” to the country and then bar them from their constitutional rights.
It is not just an issue of legal technicalities; it is a question of the rights of the workers to express themselves by way of particular actions. This is how this system of government treats its workers. This is how oppressive this system is against the workers and the great majority of the population. So we think this struggle of PALEA is not the struggle of PALEA alone. It is the struggle of the workers as a whole. This is what is at stake.
So we decided that we will not go along with this legal case. It was decided that each one of these 243 PALEA workers shall post a 6,000 peso bail. If we do that then we need at least 1.5 million pesos [$A34,000]. But we have resolved we will not pay one peso. If we do that it is like saying “You are right.” Then we would have to prove our innocence before the courts. But we want the whole world and other workers to understand this is not just a fight between PAL and PALEA – this is a bigger fight. This is a fight against the capitalist system. So we have resolved that we will go in there and voluntarily place ourselves into the custody of the courts if the warrant of arrests goes out.
So you are posing both a legal and a political challenge?
Yes we have the legal side, but we are trying to escalate the political side of this for the benefit of the workers. We are going to the Department of Justice, presenting our opposition and protesting. We will have PALEA and other supporting organisations to show that many people are supporting us. This is important. The struggle of PALEA is not just against PAL, it is not just against one of the richest people in the Philippines (the owner of PAL), it is not just a struggle against the courts or the media – it is a struggle against the system. It is a struggle globally. While this is not to lift ourselves from our seats, PALEA is the one that has frontally opposed the oppressive scheme of outsourcing and we hope we can show the way to fight.
What kinds of international solidarity have you had so far, and what more could people do?
Australia has done a lot. When first we were able to meet you guys in Australia, we were able to share our struggle. That was important to us. Now when given the opportunity to talk to our brothers and sisters in the labour movement as well as organisations like Socialist Alternative and Australia Asia Worker Links. This opportunity allowed us to share what is really happening in the Philippines. As such, the solidarity support from letters, to a picket we held in Melbourne, to other campaigns, as well as the logistical support and money has really helped us in this long struggle.
Yes, the money is important as there are thousands of workers affected. In fact we have already had to ask some of our members not to report to the camp daily because that would entail some expenses. We have been out of jobs for 11 months now so you can imagine how hard it is to make ends meet and sustain our families. It is now a question of weight and balance. Should we maintain our struggle or surrender? The overwhelming majority of workers say we should continue. We haven’t achieved enough yet. The only thing that would make us stop in this struggle is if we get our jobs back, our regular employment. But it is difficult. Many union resources are taken up in this camp. The resources are dwindling. We need support, not just moral and physical, but also financial.
What are some of the difficulties facing you in this struggle? How do you keep going?
It isn’t an easy struggle, it is has been very hard maintaining this camp for ten months. There is a saying in the Catholic dogma: “You cannot listen carefully to the sermon if your stomach is empty.” This is happening now and it means over a thousand of our members have had to transfer to the service providers, even though this contradicts what they feel. Some have claimed their separation benefits. We want to avert this. The main reason why our members have done this is because of their financial situation. I am not accusing them of being collaborators. Of course there were some who from the very first moment we staged this protest who attempted to collaborate with the management, but the overwhelming majority of people who have claimed their benefits have done that because they can’t withstand the pressures of finances.
So it is very hard, but if you look around you see people smiling, people who still look strong. Why? Because we think we are really people here understand the issues. People are aware and conscious of their political rights. Why? Because at the camp we have initiated programs and seminars letting people know about their political rights and conducting some sit-in seminars on the issues of socialism, the issues of capitalism, which one is better? Which one should be chosen by the workers? That is more of the political consciousness, and even if they aren’t won to socialism, the way they have been carrying out this struggle is socialism. That is what is carrying them along and to help them withstand these challenges.
We man this camp 24/7 which means that there are people who live here. People sleep here. This is where the ingenuity of these people comes in. We have made permanent structures, we have electricity, we have food. Everyone is involved. We have camp managers, we have educators, we have cooks. We also have a women’s committee. Prior to the struggle our women members were quite passive, but now look, we have volunteers and women involved and active.
Of course we don’t have the comfort of our own homes but one thing comforts us: the unity among the people. We have the support of families. Every day there are children coming to the camp. We have a basketball ring. This camp is a school. We exchange ideas from within and outside. We have a long stream of visitors. Other groups, unions and NGOs come. We hold seminars on unionism for other unions – they have asked for us to lecture them. It is ironic that we have this problem and now unorganised workers come to us and ask us to help them set up and organise their own union.
This camp becomes a school, so the exchange of ideas and experiences creates more solidarity and unity and this makes us stronger. We can withstand even the harshest of times and the worst of typhoons.