Growth without labor unions is not "change" - Blueboard by Carmel V. Abao
"You KMU, stop it with labor unions.... Do not do that because you will ruin my administration... When you do that I will kill you all... Do not do it now in active labor front. Because if you do that, things will be ruined... Give the Philippines a respite of about 10 years".
These lines, from Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, obviously provokes one to ask: do labor unions really prevent economies from growing?. Duterte, after all, gave these remarks in a speech where he claimed that he could attract more investors to the country -- if only labor unions would not ruin his plan. His speech delivered the message that unions are vultures that prey upon vulnerable investors.
The silencing of unions is apparently part of Duterte's promise of a "change that is coming". The notion that unions hinder economic development, however, is not new. Growth without labor unions has been the norm all over the world since the 1980s, so, Duterte's model of growth is not new.
The current, outgoing administration, in fact, has held a similar view: unions are bad for the economy. Very early into his Presidency, President PNoy was confronted with the Philippine Airlines workers' (PALEA) strike. The President then declared that the strike was an act of "economic sabotage". In a number of State-of-the-Nation Addresses (SONAs) after that, the President would point out, in a celebratory tone, that there were very few (practically no more) strikes in the country.
Using the lens of labor rights, both Duterte and PNoy can be proven wrong on at least three grounds.
Firstly, it is not the role of unions to spur growth or development. The role of unions is to protect the rights of workers as they deal with the costs of development. Unions exist not to bring about development but to cushion the negative effects of development on workers.
The beginnings of unionism can be traced to the beginnings of industrial and capitalist development. According to British sociologists-historians Sydney and Beatrice Webb who wrote extensively on labor's development in Europe in the 1920s, the very first association that can be considered a union is the "Printers and Hatters' Association of 1667" of the United Kingdom-- given the definition of the union as "a continuous organization of workers with the goal of improving their lives".
The first unions were "craft unions" composed of craftsmen or high-skilled workers such as "tailors, silk weavers, cotton spinners, wool pickers and frame knitters". These workers had to protect their jobs given the shifts in the mode of production in the 17th-18th century most especially the rise of the factory that divorced the worker from the instruments of production and highlighted the differentiation between "capitalist" and "worker".
In the Philippines, the first labor organizations were "gremios" or "craft guilds". According to historian William Henry Scott, these were either mutual aid groups or small cooperatives whose members helped each other in time of need or guilds of skilled workers that sought to protect their jobs and raise incomes. The very first Filipino "labor union" was the Democratic Union of Lithographers, Printers, Bookbinders and Other Workers formed in 1892. The very first "labor movement" was the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD) formed in 1902. The UOD's founding President was Isabelo de los Reyes who learned of unionism while in exile in Spain from 1897 to 1901 for his nationalist and anarchist advocacies.
Two centuries hence, the raison d' etre of labor unions remains: to protect the rights of workers. These rights are now enshrined in international labor conventions and national laws.
Secondly, investors can hardly be viewed as vulnerable or powerless. The threat of capital flight is a powerful argument often used by investors to insist on doing business "their way": if governments or workers do not like the way they do business, they can always put their money elsewhere. In the 1980s, export processing zones were created as "union-free zones" precisely to keep capital flowing into the country.
Aside from the business-friendly policy environment, investors also have the resources necessary to protect their interests. These investors often come with an army of highly paid corporate lawyers ready to defend corporate interests. Workers, meanwhile, can only rely on unions to defend them. In the absence of unions, they simply learn to suffer in silence. Needless to say, workers do not have the resources to wage legal battles.
Thirdly, while unions can and do disrupt businesses through labor strikes, it is not true that economies cannot grow with unions. The most advanced economies of the world, in fact, grew with very strong unions. In the United States, post-war growth can be attributed to the 'social compromise' between government, capitalists and workers. This was brokered by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who insisted on full employment as part of the "New Deal" and on the role of unions and collective bargaining in ensuring said employment.
In the United Kingdom, trade union development grew alongside the country's development and in the early 20th century, this union development was translated into the creation of the British Labour Party that served as a vehicle to advance the interests of workers.
In the '80s, all this changed when Thatcher in the U.K (Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990) and Reagan in the U.S (President from 1981 to 1989)insisted that profits of businesses were falling because unions had become too strong. Since then, the norm has been to make labor flexible and to weaken labor movements. Since then, strong labor has been deemed bad for markets and therefore bad for everyone.
Simply put, growth without unions is capitalism without workers' rights. This is a model that has been in place since the 1980s. If the next government genuinely wants "change", it will have to change this model of capitalism. Said change doesn't have to entail a shift to communism because as stated above, historically, there have been capitalist models that allowed or even required unions to thrive.
It is not the absence of unions but the presence of industrial peace that brings about development. Silencing unions only conceals industrial conflicts -- it does not resolve them. What the Philippines badly needs is industrial peace that is anchored on workers' rights.
Silencing unions may not even be possible. Labor unions are centuries-old institutions that may now be weak but will probably never die. For as long as there are workers whose rights are trampled, there will always be unions. It is not possible to "kill them all".
The author is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept of the Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches political theory and international political economy.