The violation of human rights comes in many forms, and some are less overt than others. This October 24th, we look into the strike that broke the silence and inspired other labor groups to speak up and demand reforms from a government that failed to protect its workers’ rights.
On September 22, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos signed General Order No. 5, prohibiting rallies, demonstrations, picketing, and strikes in the Philippines, on the assertion that such group actions would inspire political dissent and aggravate what was seen as an already tumultuous political and social situation. This was done in pursuance of Proclamation 1081, signed a day prior, which had placed the country under a state of martial law. Violators were to be arrested and detained “for the duration of the national emergency,” or until ordered released.
The General Order hit hard on labor groups, who had historically been moved to conduct strikes in a bid to seize control when all attempts at diplomatically settling issues such as pitiable wages and insecurity of employment have either failed or been utterly ignored. With the outlawing of said group actions, how else were they to collectively demand redress for their grievances? So began a period of silence for workers’ unions around the country. From the day it was signed in 1972 to October 1975, no major labor action occurred. And yet, this did not mean that workers stopped demanding for change. Protests led by factory workers did take place as early as 1973 in Bicutan, Canlubang, and Quezon City, among a few others, and each had the support of religious organizations.
Had their needs been met and their rights respected, no worker would have fathomed the need to take drastic measures. General Order No. 5 was intrinsically yet another violation of their rights.
Tondo, Manila was at the time home to a particularly successful wine distillery, La Tondeña, loved for its sweet, juniper-flavored gin — the Ginebra San Miguel. The company was sealing its transition from being a brand for the elites to being a brand for the masses, advertising with such catchphrases as “Ang Inumin ng Tunay na Lalaki” and “Ang Inumin ng Tunay na Pilipino”. At its helm was Carlos Palanca, Jr., who at the same time was Chairman and CEO of the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company.
Unbeknownst to the common eye, simultaneously brewing within the distillery walls at Tondo was the bitter dissatisfaction of the casual and “extra” workers of the factory.
Chief among their grievances was their company’s routine hiring and re-hiring of workers under contracts lasting only eight weeks. Their status as non-regulars barred them from the opportunity to earn higher salaries for the same amount of work rendered under regular contracts. They were likewise calling out the company’s arbitrary dismissal of employees for what were seen as insufficient or unjustifiable reasons.
The La Tondeña labor group filed petitions to the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Commission in 1971, without success, then made up to 30 more failed attempts within three years from 1972. The last straw came when, early in October 1975, newly-introduced employment criteria required the workers to submit IQ tests and clearances from the police, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the military. This was the distillery management’s countermeasure to the suspected infiltration of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in the workers’ ranks.
Having thus exhausted their efforts toward negotiation and collective bargaining, the workers of La Tondeña voted to go on strike on the 24th of October and approached various sectors for support in preparation for the movement. Among those who rose to the occasion were priests and nuns who helped provide food and alternate and international media coverage.  The CPP, although initially held back by fears of the repercussions of open involvement in the strike, provided logistical and tactical support. All of this happened well within earshot of Malacañang, looming nearby in the district of San Miguel, Manila.
Already the labor union was making a mark on the history of the Philippine labor movement. No group action before this during Martial Law had gained such attention, and other labor groups that kept watch of the unfolding events were beginning to see the possibility of change.
On the date set for the occasion, more than 400 workers stopped the factory’s operations and declared the strike. Leaflets were handed out to passersby, and songs were sung on the streets by supporters in solidarity with the workers’ plight. Members of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines watched the event with journalistic eyes and published their account in the independent newsletter, Signs of the Times.
Their account says that on the evening of the 24th, military personnel repeatedly broke into the factory and threatened arrest. A contingent of labor officials led by Labor Undersecretary Amado Inciong arrived and held a dialogue with the workers, but the strike was pursued until the following day.
At 10:30 in the evening of the 25th, five cars driven by military personnel arrived at the factory premises. An order to vacate the area was blasted on loudspeakers once at this instance, and again at 1:15 a.m., but the workers remained in their posts. Seven Metropolitan Command buses and one Air Force bus then arrived at the compound. In defiance of the order to leave, the workers locked arms as they were forced out of the buildings and loaded into the buses. A group of nuns and priests barricaded the gates and clung onto the moving vehicles in an attempt to stop the mass arrest. Such a struggle was put up that the last bus left the compound a few minutes before 4:00 a.m. Like the others, it brought its passengers to Fort Bonifacio.
Those arrested were released on the afternoon of the same day. On Monday, the 27th, La Tondeña Incorporada owner Carlos Palanca, Jr. finally met with the leaders of the strike. He agreed to regularize half of the company’s casual workers and review the cases of those who had been arbitrarily dismissed. Most of the new employment criteria were also scrapped henceforth.
Although this may be viewed as a victory, not all of the workers’ demands were met; employment conditions at the factory would also later devolve into the same problems. However, the overwhelming support that they received emboldened other labor unions in the country to likewise demand decent wages and security; confronting headlong the risks of defying General Order No. 5. In the next three months, 40,000 more workers in factories around Metro Manila followed suit by conducting at least 25 more strikes.
By this time, they were also defying Presidential Decree No. 823, signed on November 3, 1975, which banned strikes and lock-outs and strictly prohibited the involvement of foreign organizations “from engaging directly or indirectly in all forms of trade union activities.” Additionally, all forms of assistance to any labor organization, whether by foreign or national entities were prohibited. Foreign violators were to be deported immediately and banned from re-entry. This was the administration’s reaction to the active support of foreign priests for labor unions in various protests, including the strike at La Tondeña. Thousands of nuns and priests, headed by Archbishop of Manila Jaime Cardinal Sin, thereupon protested the ban by holding a mass at the Santa Cruz Church of Manila.
In December of the same year, Marcos decided to amend Presidential Decree No. 823 to limit the ban on strikes to vital industries. Nevertheless, the government’s severe reaction towards the workers’ pleas had revealed a facet of Marcos’ New Society that increasingly drew flak from church and civil leaders, both locally and internationally.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the La Tondeña workers’ strike. As our country’s labor sector continues to grapple with low wages and unfair labor practices, let this day remind us to keep constant vigil over our rights as citizens and as workers.
 “General Order No. 5,” Official Gazette 68, no. 40 (1972): 7781-2, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1972/09/22/general-order-no-5-s-1972/.
 “Urban Missionaries of the Philippines,” Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, amrsp.org, https://www.amrsp.org/urban-missionaries-of-the-philippines.
 “Our History,” Ginebra San Miguel Inc., ginebrasanmiguel.com, https://www.ginebrasanmiguel.com/history/#.
 “Our History,” Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company, lepantomining.com, https://www.lepantomining.com/our-history.
 Resolutions filed by La Tondeña strikers to the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board in 2014. Accessed through the archives of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.
 Jennifer Conroy Franco, Elections and Democratization in the Philippines (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 141.
 “Urban Missionaries of the Philippines.”
 Mina Roces, “The Militant Nun as Political Activist and Feminist in Martial Law Philippines,” Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 1, no. 1 (2004): 11.
 Franco, Elections and Democratization, 142.
 Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, Signs of the Times (AMRSP: October 1975) as cited in the Resolutions filed by La Tondeña strikers to the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board on 2014.
 Franco, Elections and Democratization, 143.
 “Presidential Decree No. 823,” Official Gazette, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1975/11/03/presidential-decree-no-823-s-1975/.
 Robert L. Youngblood, Marcos Against the Church (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1993): 113.