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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Kim Scipes' KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994

reviewed by R. Burke, Industrial Workers of the World, Gateway Green Alliance

KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994. By Kim Scipes. 1996. 315 pages. Paper. Available from Sulu Arts and Books, San Francisco. 415-777-2451; fax: 415-777-4676

In the Philippines in the 1980's a small but influential union arose. The Kilusang Mayo Uno or May First Movement is the most militant left wing labor organization to emerge from the struggle against Ferdinand Marcos. In his book, KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994, author Kim Scipes traces the rise of this dynamic union and shows us its place in the struggles for democracy in that nation.

In a country where trade unions exist in order to maintain the status quo, the KMU has pushed for socialist reconstruction of society independent of the Philippine Communist Party and the insurgent N.P.A. (New People's Army). Non Leninist in its approach, the KMU has preferred to work as much as possible within the existing system. Its members and leaders have weathered the repressive actions of both the Marcos regime as well as right wing goon squads. Despite this adversity they have often achieved great success.

The KMU has been involved with issues beyond traditional labor concerns, such as the campaign to deny renewal of leases to U.S. military bases. They have developed the tactic of the peoples strike in which the larger, non-member population has been brought out into the streets over political battles. These actions have brought cities, provinces and even (in 1987) the entire nation to a standstill and won victories in matters such as reversing fuel price hikes.

Mr. Scipes tells us of the founding of the union in 1980, of its successes and travails. Willing to take on challenges the establishment labor centers shied from, the KMU organized in the Baatan Export Processing Zone which was generally seen as untouchable. In 1981 a dispute at the Inter-Asia Corporation by the workers, over an increase of the machines each worker was expected to operate, led to a general strike. Victory in this matter was followed by other actions in the Zone. The union has been conscious of a need to oppose the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A welcome focus of the book is its chapter on women in the KMU. The Kilsun ng Manggagawang Kababaihan (KMK) or Women's Workers Movement has addressed not only traditional labor issues but has dealt with the specific concerns of women such as sexual harassment on the job. Fighting idiotic and bizarre practices such as pregnancy tests and underwear registrations, the KMK is an independent organization within the KMU federation. The KMK works to organize women at the grassroots level while pushing women's departments within the union. Unfortunately women continue to be under-represented in the national leadership and often do not get the recognition and support they deserve.

Despite his admiration for the KMU Mr. Scipes has criticisms of the labor center. When the final downfall of Marcos occurred, the union played little part and adopted a "wait and see attitude" towards Corazon Aquino before recognizing her anti-labor attitudes. Other problems occurred when a hastily made statement supporting the Chinese government's crackdown at Tiananmen Square was issued in 1989. Though the Public Affairs Office had been ordered to change the declaration and a retraction was made soon after, this incident indicates a lack of clarity regarding the KMU's conception of socialism. Unfortunately, for many people socialism has been associated with coordinatorism and centrally planned command economies rather than a Guild Socialist or Participatory Economics model. There has also been a recent split of some unions from the KMU, which reflects a more general confusion amongst the Philippine left. Happily, much of the rank and file in those unions have chosen to stay in the federation.

While the story Mr. Scipes tells is fascinating, the book is not without some flaws. While the author claims that he is not writing a sociological study he seems to have that model at the back of his mind. This leads to a somewhat disjointed and heavily footnoted presentation of his material which does not flow smoothly. Mr. Scipes should feel free to adopt a more narrative approach to a story both compelling and true. Despite these drawbacks his book is definitely worth reading.

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