Labor secretary’s power to ‘assume jurisdiction’ begets violence in a picket line

As of the latest count, fourteen people have died, two of them children, in the violent dispersal of a farm workers’ picket line at Gate 1 of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac or Hacienda Luisita. These people died from gunshot wounds, poison gas and broken ribs. One victim sustained three bullet wounds: one in his heart, another in his lungs and a third in his leg. Two bodies with gunshot wounds were found in a nearby sugarcane field a day after the attack.

The officers and men from the police and the armed forces who were involved in the unfortunate incident have been relieved on orders of President Macapagal Arroyo. The one who issued the order that prompted the military to attack the picket line with water cannons, tear gas and armored vehicles remains untouched like a ten foot pole. The point has been raised that three of those who died tested positive for powder burns. Dead workers don’t fire guns.

The worker’s right to strike is guaranteed by the Constitution. This proceeds from the recognition that labor is a primary partner in social and economic development. The right to strike, like the right to self-defense, is an inherent right. The worker’s right to strike is what the right to lockout is to the employers.

When a worker go on strike he or she is exercising a most sacred and potent weapon accorded to him or her by no less than the Constitution. When it is so restricted by statutory limitations or by whatever contrivance, the right to strike descends into a useless weapon for worker’s protection.

Presently, there is no coherent law that governs the workers’ right to strike. What we have are a number of restrictions embedded in the rules implementing the Labor Code. Most of them we inherited from the martial law regime and the rest a new adaptation of the old repressive culture of control and domination in the labor movement. One such objectionable feature is the absolute power of the Secretary of Labor and Employment to assume jurisdiction over a labor dispute or to certify a case for compulsory arbitration.

The order to disperse the striking workers at Hacienda Luisita was prompted by the decision of the Labor Secretary to “assume jurisdiction” over the labor dispute involving deadlock in collective bargaining negotiations. The police had been deputized to enforce the order with wooden clubs, water cannons and tear gas. The picketers questioned the “AJ” order (assumption of jurisdiction) and stayed on the picket line. Soldiers were called bringing with them their weapons of war: M-16s and armored vehicles. Their objective: remove the picket and disperse the strikers.

This is a perfect formula for violence in the picket line.

Defending a picket is like guarding your gate from intruders. You are prepared to get hurt or die. It is simply naive for the DOLE Secretary, the police and military officers and men to assume that no one could get hurt when they had high powered guns and protected by metal shields and armored vehicles confronting an unarmed planters and workers with their families, children and friends. The police and the soldiers should have been issued rubber clubs, water cannons and guns without live bullets. Then no one would have died from bullet wounds or suffocation from poisonous gas or broken ribs from high-pressure water cannons and the resulting stampede.

Trade unionists agreed that presently, the right to strike is enormously restricted. There are just too many procedures that complying with them nullifies the fundamental essence of waging a strike. If the rules on strike were invoked in the war on Iraq, the US government would not have made that preemptive strike that paved the way for a “victorious” ground war.

Granted that you follow all the steps prescribed under the rules, the efficacy of the strike weapon is rendered useless when the Labor Secretary “assumes jurisdiction” over a labor dispute. An “assumption order” means that a planned strike can no longer be executed or when one is underway, it must be lifted and the strikers must go back to work. The issues that led to the strike are left unresolved and at best compromised by the weakening of the worker’s bargaining position. It is the Labor Secretary who will now decide who gets what, when and how if a dispute involve wages or money claims as in the case of the Hacienda Luisita.

Purely reminiscent of an authoritative mind-set or paradigm in resolving dispute, this power of the Secretary of Labor and Employment must be exercised with restraint and ultimately expunged from the Labor Code. This is the only way to avoid an unnecessary and useless violence in the picket line. #

Manggagawa para sa Kalayaan ng Bayan – MAKABAYAN
National Confederation of Labor – NCL
Federation of Fre Workers – FFW
Bukluran ng Manggagawa para sa Pagbabago – BMP
Alliance of Progressive Labor – APL
Kongreso ng Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawang Pilipino – KPMP

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