THE recent show of unity of various workers groups from the left militant to the moderate and section of small and medium sugar farm owners on the issue of sugar import liberalization is quite positive.
After all, there remain a strong basis for forging workers unity especially when an issue as big as agriculture liberalization, low wages, poor benefits, and security of tenure that affect not just a few but all agricultural and industrial workers.
Actually, the issues that easily galvanized workers unity in the 80s were not just sugar crisis, but class issues, starvation wages, poor benefits, slave-like working conditions, fascist brutalities of the sugar farm owners’ private armies in tandem with sugar-subsidized Philippine constabulary, Philippine army and the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDFs) later transformed into Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units (Cafgus).
A strong workers movement in the 70s and 80s however started to break up towards the middle of the 90s; such major break-up was triggered more by differing ideologies and political standpoint among their ranks than the counter fascist attacks of the state.
A decade or more after that, the weakened Negros workers movement caused by intense internal debates coupled by some inter-labor skirmishes suffered defeat after defeat from the recoup of the big landed elites.
A number of workers controlled farm lands were taken back by land owners, unionized sugar workers dropped to more than half of the strength of the 80s, Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) reduced considerably, more regular workers turned into piece-rate workers, numerous union and farm worker-leaders left their organizations and lived "normal lives," others were by state security forces while a number killed each other in some sorts of revenge and envy.
All this have given the landed elites the long break to trample the workers’ rights, and made their lives more miserable.
Only in the last five to six years that various workers groups in Negros began to pick up their respective baggage and faced the bigger issues while confronting common concerns of the workers movement.
Unlike in the 90s where conflicts in the workers movement were dealt with antagonisms and often burst in the open, in recent years, various workers groups have become more sober and rationale in handling their tensions in the old fashion of unity and struggle.
Of course, suspicion and restraint towards each other are still visible, but the common concerns, big and small, organizational and political, are what seem to interest them now more than their differences.
As a consistent observer-analyst of the Negros conditions, I find this trend growing especially that workers are facing more problems with the ruling Duterte administration. And I believe this will grow significantly in the next few years.
But the initiatives would be stronger and sustainable if the young labor leaders play more active role, and forge similar solidarity with other sectors and individuals who not only appreciate the workers issues and struggles, but see their continuing major importance in effecting bigger social, economic, and political reforms towards transforming society.
Much has still to be done in this regard.
As to dealing with the medium and big sugar farm owners who have recently joined the solidarity with the workers on sugar import liberalization, the workers groups should exercise caution with them, in strict observance of principle of unity and struggle, independence and initiative. The workers movement in Negros and elsewhere have long experienced and learned lessons on the treachery and double-dealing of a number of medium and big sugar farm owners joining them.
Still, together they should not relax even on such specific issue of sugar import liberalization. They should instead keep pressing on because the SRA and Malacanang though giving an ear to them are actually firm and bent on the full liberalization of our agriculture including sugar.
If sugar industry is busted once more like in the 70s and 80s, it would be the end of it, and thousands of sugar farm workers and small sugar landowners mostly agrarian reform beneficiaries and “arindarors” or lease-holders, will be displaced with intensity never experienced more than three decades ago, and probable social upheavals and resistance that could even surpass the 80s.
Yesterday’s display of workers unity in Bacolod and other cities in the region speak only of one thing -- the workers cannot and should not be underestimated by the powers that be because they have as a class the innate capacity to bounce back, and leap forward to reclaim the dignity of labor and realize the desirability of their struggle for national freedom and democracy, towards socialism.
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