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Philippine labor leader’s historic U.S. speaking tour makes waves

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Contact: Berna Ellorin
Secretary General, BAYAN USA

On the cusp of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s third lavish visit to the United States, another prominent Philippine leader is currently in the US speaking to audiences about the dire economic and political situation in the Philippines. Elmer “Ka Bong” Labog is the esteemed chairman of the national, and internationally-renowned, Philippine labor federation known as the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). Labog’s visit and speaking tour down the West Coast of the United States–at various universities, colleges, and labor unions–was organized by the US Chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, or BAYAN USA, an alliance of twelve Filipino social justice organizations in the United States, in conjunction with the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Labog is the first member of the KMU to enter the US since the country was under martial law, a feat not even shared by the late KMU Chairman Emeritus Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran.

Labog’s speaking tour comes at a time when multiple international human rights monitoring bodies have confirmed a disturbing epidemic of politically-motivated killings and abductions in the Philippines, including wide-scale trade union repression, rivaling patterns similar to the repression of trade unionists in Colombia acknowledged by President-elect Barack Obama.  BAYAN USA and other groups in the US are urging the President-elect to withdraw aid to and relations with the Arroyo camp in the Philippines, as US support is viewed as largely responsible for the human rights crisis in the country.

Already Labog’s tour is making waves with a mix of people, both Filipino-American and not. Since his entry to California on November 15th, Labog has participated in workers’ pickets, including a demonstration demanding back wages for workers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, to the wide appreciation of unions in the US. Labog has also spoken to standing-room only audiences at churches and universities, such as Stanford, San Francisco State University, and UC Berkeley.  Labog will conclude his trip with a speaking engagement at the Cuba/Venezuela/Mexico/North America Labor Conference-V in Tijuana, Mexico on December 5-7.

The KMU itself has been under consistent attack by the Arroyo administration since 2001. A total of 22 KMU members have been killed and three are still missing. Labor attorney Remigio Saladero Jr., chief legal counsel of the KMU, is currently in detention under false charges. The KMU was a significant contributor to the downfall of the tyrannical Marcos dictatorship in 1986 as well as the corrupt Estrada regime in 2001, and has remained an ardent critic of the policies of the Arroyo administration.

“Ka Bong speaks at a time of great political and economic repression in the Philippines,” states BAYAN USA Chair and Los Angeles-based trade unionist Chito Quijano. “With the dawn of the Obama administration, it is even more imperative to educate Filipino-Americans and others in the US about the link between the US tax dollars and the human rights crisis in the Philippines. We must build a strong movement from the United States that will pressure the new administration to wash its hands of the bloody counter-insurgency operations of the Arroyo government in the Philippines by cutting all forms of aid.”

Earlier this week, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed reports that President-elect Barack Obama, in a return phone call to Arroyo herself, ensured an upkeep of “good relations” between the US and Philippine governments. Arroyo spent millions of Philippine government funds last week to try to catch a physical meeting with Obama, but was not able to meet with him. The unpopular administration of Arroyo remained a strong loyalist to the Bush camp’s “Global War on Terror” campaign and even mimicked the US Patriot Act with the Philippines’ Human Security Act last year.

“If US voters can ultimately reject more of the same with McCain-Palin-Bush, then US taxpayers should also reject more of the same with Arroyo,” Quijano added. “The only good type of relations between the Obama and Arroyo administrations is no relations at all.”