Archiving the Philippine Labor Movement

Editor’s Note:

The Philippine Labor Movement Archive (PLMA) was launched in late 2022. We are very interested in efforts to document, preserve and transmit the historical memories of  labor movement. We reached out to the team working on the archive and interviewed Brian Sulicipan and Tel Delvo who are documentary filmmakers with the Mayday Multimedia in the Philippines.

Brian studied Film at the University of the Philippines. Tel studied Journalism at the same university, and is currently pursuing graduate studies under its Library and Information Studies program. Their documentary practices carry the goal of empowering workers through the visualization of the historical working class struggle and the proletariat’s continuing role in shaping the contemporary world.

ALR: I was very excited when I learned about the launch of the Philippine Labor Movement Archive last year. I see Mayday Multimedia as one of the core groups behind the archive. Please tell us about Mayday Multimedia.

Tel: Mayday Multimedia is a political video collective formed in 2005. It is part of the alternative media tradition in the Philippines, which works closely with people’s organizations. This tradition can be dated back to the practice of the AsiaVisions Media Foundation in the 1980s.

During the 2000s, many video collectives were formed because video cameras became more accessible. Mayday is unique in its focus on documenting workers’ struggles in the Philippines. We create short documentaries, news coverage, and other productions that feature unions, labor organizing, struggles for wage increase, regularization of work, and the right to organize.

Brian: Mayday’s notable early works include Sa Ngalan Ng Tubo (“In the Name of Sugarcane/Profit”) (2005), which documented the strike of Hacienda Luisita farm workers located in Central Luzon, Philippines. Another is entitled Proletaryo (“Proletariat”) (2006), a long-form documentary covering the history of the Filipino workers from colonial times to the early 2000s.

ALR: Why are you launching the archive now? What were the considerations that led to its creation?

Tel: The Philippine Labor Movement Archive is an archiving project initiated by Mayday in 2022. It is done in collaboration with other worker-centered organizations such as the artist collective Tambisan sa Sining (translated as “Interaction in Arts”), the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), Balai Obrero Foundation, and Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, “May First Movement”). PLMA aims to preserve and promote the Filipino workers’ historical struggle for just wages, decent and regular work, and trade union and human rights.

Tel: Most of the current materials were only sitting in the personal collections of different individuals. A lot of them were also stored in the national office of KMU.

There were earlier efforts to scan and digitize these materials, especially when it was needed for videos or infographics that we produce. A portion of the KMU collection was digitized by our interns in 2018. But the urgency to organize these materials into an archive came after the May 2022 Philippine Elections when the Marcos-Duterte tandem won the two highest positions in the country.1

Their electoral victory was built on a massive disinformation campaign that paints the Marcos dictatorship as a “golden age”, dismisses convictions against living members of the Marcos family, along with possibilities of electronic electoral fraud.

We wanted to challenge this narrative by highlighting the rich history of Filipino workers and their political struggles. Through the archive, we want to show that the Martial Law period was a time of massive strikes and protests led primarily by a dynamic labor movement in the country.

It is a crucial time to empower Filipino workers, especially when the global economic crisis is worsening and the working class, as always, is forced to bear the brunt.

ALR: What materials have you collected in the archive, and where are they from?

Brian: At the moment, the archive’s materials come from three different collections.

First is the audiovisual archive of Mayday Multimedia, which consists of mini-DV tapes from the early 2000s until the mid-2010s. These are footage and short documentaries made by the collective during the administrations of Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Noynoy Aquino.

The second major collection comes from the photographs and negatives donated by veteran photographer Boy Bagwis, which dates back from the Martial Law era.

Last is the archive of photo prints and documents donated by Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) since its establishment in 1980.

(An initial inventory of the archive, July 2022)

ALR: How are the materials organized and curated? And, what kind of labor history are you hoping to tell through the materials?

Brian: The materials are currently organized according to provenance and type of material e.g. documents, photos, negatives, tapes, etc.

In terms of curation, our framework is that of community archiving. We make a constant effort to bring the materials and their stories closer to workers’ communities via mobile exhibits, discussions, and film screenings. We also create short films and educational videos that use the archival materials we have on hand.

One of our first endeavors as PLMA was to research and to feature prominent strikes during the Martial Law period. In 1985, a year before Marcos Sr. was ousted from power, more than 360 strikes were launched nationwide. We reproduced copies of available photographs from some of those major strikes and created a mobile exhibit that could be brought to the streets during protests and forums.

For discussions, we would invite a veteran trade unionist or labor organizer to talk about their experiences. The films and videos we’ve made also deal with this particular era and the importance of studying the history of workers’ struggles.

We plan to further sort the materials chronologically and improve preservation. That said, we are still in the initial stage of introducing the archive through the aforementioned programs. Our main consideration, as of now, is the present state of the movement and its major campaigns. We’ve learned that syncing with organizer and worker-led events on the ground is key to this.

Tel: There is a large uphill battle in the country in terms of fighting disinformation. The majority of young workers today also have little to no prior knowledge of “a dynamic labor movement” due to shrinking union memberships and neoliberalism.

PLMA would like to reintroduce the rich militant history of Filipino workers through the archive. We hope to someday have materials that cover labor from the 1900s up to the present; however, the focus right now is to start from the Martial Law period onwards because this was when the sector experienced the height of fascist attacks from the state. At the same time, this was also the period when they fought the bravest: leading mass protests and organizing general strikes that fought for the democratic rights of other sectors of society as well.

We hope to highlight historical details during this period that might be of relevance to contemporary labor issues and organizing. One example that has been discussed within our group is the history of wage hikes during this period. A series of wage fights had been won by workers, particularly during a 1989 strike attended by hundreds of thousands of workers, a major feat considering the Cory Aquino regime’s political climate.

(The mobile exhibit: reprinted photos attached on several sako, or rice sacks, stitched together. This can be hung on a wall or brought out in a mobilization | Photo from PUP The Catalyst)

ALR: Is there any material in the collection that you particularly like?

Brian: When we met veteran photographer Boy Bagwis, we asked him about any prominent or memorable labor strikes during the Martial Law period. His ready answer was the strike launched by Samahang Manggagawa sa Artex in 1984.

Artex Development Co. was a textile and thread manufacturing company that had more than 1,200 workers. Workers were fighting for higher wages because they were receiving only Php 44.00/day, which was half of the minimum wage rate during that time (Php 89.00/day). They also didn’t receive any social protection benefits from the company.

That strike was brutally dispersed by police and military personnel, with many workers severely wounded and one worker was killed. The company was owned by Typoco, a crony of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

Photographs of the Artex strike are proof of the workers’ bravery. 1984 was a crucial year. There were hundreds of strikes launched that year, and picket line violence – violent dispersals and killings of unionists – at the hands of state forces were on the rise. And yet the labor movement stood strong and militant. Apart from their local calls for higher wages within the company, workers also had a national perspective of criticizing Marcos Sr.’s criminalization of strikes and protests as part of his Martial Law declaration.

ALR: I understand the work to build archive is still ongoing. What is your plan for its further development?

Brian: Right now, we are in the last stages of the archive’s physical survey and accessioning. The short-term goal is to finish scanning the materials and have a digital archive, under the framework of post-custodianship. However, we are still open to developing a stable physical space for the archive if funding becomes sufficient. There are efforts in getting funds, materials, and volunteer support to ramp up the process.

In the long-term, aside from the physical requirements in maintaining an archive, we hope that PLMA will be further embraced by Filipino workers, utilized in their union and association activities, and become a reliable resource for their collective memory and struggles.

Tel: We also hope to collect more materials from veteran trade unionists so that their experiences and stories are captured by the archive.

  1. Bongbong Marcos is the son of dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled and plundered the country’s resources for 20 years. In 1972, Marcos Sr. declared Martial Law in the entire Philippines before the people’s movement ousted him from power. Meanwhile, Sara Duterte is the daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte, who ruled the country from 2016 to 2022 with an “iron fist”. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating him for his notorious drug war, which has killed thousands of Filipinos.