Workers already had very low expectations coming into Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address. Years of living under the administration had already demonstrated to them and other vulnerable sectors of society what mere words in a speech cannot convey – that the Duterte regime is no more than a different face among many other previous regimes. The continued preservation of contractualization despite electoral promises of its abolition, the continuation of an unfair regional wage board, as well as the troubles that the COVID-19 pandemic had brought about such as the lack of aid are matters that will not be discussed in an event meant to celebrate the successes of the Duterte regime.

And true enough, none of these issues were given the slightest amount of attention. If we are to simply focus on how Duterte confronted these particular labor issues alone during his SONA, formulating an evaluation is simple – he did not. He did not mention any institutionalized government policy that would ensure aid to Filipino workers nor employment to the millions who lost their jobs due to the pandemic nor any just transition program for workers in critical industries such as transportation and energy despite the current climate crisis.

However, the peculiarity with talking about the situation of the working class is that because of how central their role is in society, most if not all policy pronouncements government makes will affect them in one way or another. This means that even without explicit mention of specific labor-related issues in the SONA, the attitude of the government towards the working class can be revealed in the hidden details of what WAS mentioned. As a case in point, insights from three (3) thematic points from Duterte’s SONA will be focused on in this reflection.

Precarity of work in Duterte’s SONA 

Many of the things that Duterte celebrated in his SONA conceals the negative effects of his policies on the working-class: from the inadequate COVID-19 response and the opening of the economy to the closure of ABS-CBN as well as the tax reform.

Front and center to the entire SONA was Duterte’s response to COVID-19. He boasts about how his administration was able to restart the economy and undertake infrastructure projects such as the LRT extension and the administration’s Build, Build, Build program despite the pandemic. He was also quick to highlight the stimulus packages in policies such as the COVID-19 Assistance to Restart Enterprises (CARES) and the Bayanihan 2 programs as measures of success of the economic response to the pandemic.

Yet workers and communities are still unable to avail of the promised aid in 2020 both from local governments units (LGUs) and agencies such as the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). At the same time, the unemployment rate has risen to 8.8% with 4.2 million workers unemployed – many of whom have been retrenched and laid off due to the pandemic.

Furthermore, the closure of ABS-CBN which has been framed by Duterte as a strike against oligarchy has done nothing for the 11,000 workers – many of whom are under contractual work arrangements – aside from unemployment at the onset of the pandemic due to the lack of measures by any government body to provide security of tenureship to those affected.

Beyond these statistics, companies have also been quick to exploit the pandemic to undermine workers’ organizations: unions with collective bargaining rights have had their collective bargaining agreements (CBA) held hostage by managements at threat of closure because of how easy it has been to close down workplaces due to the pandemic, strikes have been practically outlawed through selective implementation of social distancing regulations in workplaces, and filing cases in labor-related offices such as the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) have become problematic due to the offices’ intermittent operations and painfully slow processing of documents during the pandemic.

At the same time that the administration asserts that no more budget can be allocated for financial programs for workers., more laws and policies such as the aforementioned CREATE as well as the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST), Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy of the Philippines (ARISE Philippines), and the Rehabilitation Support Program on Severe Events (RESPONSE) programs are enacted ensuring that large firms and corporations are bailed out of their losses during the pandemic.

Arguments have been made that the continued operations of these large enterprises will also benefit workers by protecting their employment and yet workers are still at threat of unfair practices such as those mentioned above despite stimulus. The fact remains that no policy or provision in Bayanihan 2 has been given by government to protect workers against retrenchment and union busting in the midst of the pandemic. Instead it has taken a hands-off approach giving all prerogative and resources over to private corporations, manpower agencies, and management when it comes to employment.

Canned applause also plays while Duterte celebrates the increasing prices of consumer goods by lauding tax reform for funding infrastructure projects such as the LRT-2 extension. The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law (TRAIN LAW) shifts the tax burden away from the rich onto the poor by reducing corporate and inheritance taxes while increasing excise taxes on petroleum and sweetened goods by 6%.

This is the economic legacy of Duterte – work precarity and rising prices in the middle of a crisis.

Coddling the police and military

The only workers who were able to receive any attention in the SONA were the uniformed personnel in the police and military. While it may be controversial to group the police force as ‘workers’, it is important to acknowledge that like any other segment of the working-class they possess the requisites to be considered as such: they still sell their labor-power as a commodity to a beneficiary who will then use said labor-power to their own ends.

It is more accurate to use the term ‘class traitor’ when describing the class character of the police and military in capitalist society as their labor is used by the state exclusively to repress every other member of the working class to preserve the status quo of the ruling elite. As such, they are armed and well-maintained in order to ensure loyalty and effectivity.

Yet this practice by the government can also be attributed to the private sector as companies have always relied on segmenting and dividing the labor force to avoid and resolve labor disputes.

While I was staying the picket line of the Cosmic Enterprises independent union during their strike in early 2020, workers and organizers alike were constantly wary of an attack from company management – an attack on a legally sanctioned strike for the regularization of contractual workers that would eventually happen led not by police or security but by former union members who were promised preferential treatment by company management. The picket line would be forcefully taken down by this act of aggression and the strikers illegally removed from their jobs.

Meanwhile, in other companies, unions controlled by management would be set up with favored workers to weaken independent unions demanding better benefits and working conditions. This minimizes the concessions that companies must give their workers from collective bargaining.

The concessions that the Duterte regime are willing to give the police and military in the SONA show very similar motivations. Much like corporations, the capitalist state provides a certain portion of the working-class exclusive benefits like the military pension reform bill in order pit them against other workers because the losses they incur from doing so is considerably less than if they were to respond to the demands of the labor movement. At the same time, policies such as the provision of free legal assistance to uniformed personnel would also ensure that they would be more effective in stopping these very same demands.

As with any capitalist state, dividing the working class and the provision of tools and resources to that co-opted portion is critical for the Duterte regime to ensure that policies that will impair the interests of capital such as contractualization and greater union rights will be implemented unhindered.

Continued anti-communist insurgency

There was also a considerable amount of time in the SONA talking about the success of the NTF-ELCAC. While Duterte is quick to make claims that his administration has “made great strides in addressing the root causes of this [armed communist] conflict”, much of these ”successes” came at the expense of legitimate workers organizations.

Earlier this year on March 7, Emmanuel Asuncion of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) was killed alongside eight other labor and community leaders as part of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ raids by the police and military in the CALABARZON region – the highest number of fatalities in a single incident according to the Commission of Human Rights (CHR). Three weeks later, Dandy Miguel, the vice chairperson of labor center PAMANTIK-KMU was also killed after being repeatedly red-tagged by the NTF-ELCAC in the days leading up to his assassination.

Furthermore, labor organizers from Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) including myself have also been recently tagged as members of the New People’s Army (NPA) by the local police force in company presentations to workers following our participation in strikes in Valenzuela and Caloocan.

It is these forms of violence which are hidden under Duterte’s pronouncements of success.

Those most affected by the government’s rabid anti-insurgency campaign in urban centers such as Metro Manila are workers whose struggles have been simply reduced by government to mere rebellion allowing them to sidestep any accountability for the discontent brought about by the precarity of work-labor relationships and the miserable working conditions in the country.

The anti-communist insurgency has done very little to curb the armed conflict in the countryside precisely because contrary to the president’s claim, it does not address the root causes of the conflict as much as it exacerbates it by restricting the space through which legal organizations can articulate their demands.

As is the case in the countryside, the government should not expect armed conflict to disappear when trust in legislation falters as bills such as the security of tenure law gets vetoed by the president, when confidence in the justice system weakens as companies manipulate courts, and when spaces to express discontent become limited.

What does labor take away from Duterte’s SONA?

This SONA, like every other SONA before, has only shown us that it is high time to realize that there is no such thing as a pro-capital, pro-labor policy. The interests of the former are in direct contradiction with the interests of the latter and any policy that benefits one will inevitably hinder the other.

This is the reason why the administration and their rich financiers celebrate the policies outlined by Duterte during his SONA: from their perspective, there is much to be celebrated. They have emerged from the crisis relatively unscathed as workers bear the costs of the pandemic, as the loyalty of the police and military have been secured while they suppress any dissent that may emerge – legal or armed.

For workers, the SONA is only a time of disappointment and broken promises as the current state is one whose interests lie with capital. The only way it becomes a time of hope and celebration is if they unite in the streets, the factories, the blockades, and the pickets to take the very power used to oppress them from the hands of capital.