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On (Not) Understanding The KMU Trade Union Centre In The Philippines

By Peter Waterman

02 November, 2015


This piece concerns the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, the May First Movementtrade union confederation) in the Philippines. Or the understandingits nature and activities.

The article was certainly provokedby discovery of the unpredicted – even mysterious - transformation of the KMU,within six months, from a body proudly displaying its radical nationalism and anti-imperialism (at its31st ‘International Solidarity Affair’, May 2015), to its joining of the Eurobased, Eurocentric,social-liberal, International Trade Union Confederation(ITUC)!

But itis, in the first place, a response to a report on that KMU International Solidarity Affair (ISA) by my old friend and interlocutor,US labour academic/activist, Kim Scipes.[1] It can not claim to be more than a partial challenge since I only once visited the Philippines, though this was in the fateful year, 1989,[2] and I have had difficulty finding serious academic and/or activist writing on unionism there for a decade or more (see, however, my In/conclusions below).I have, however, followed, as far as I could, the international activities of the KMU. So if Kim or anyone else can provide me with more substantial research, I would be more than grateful.

I will pose my challenges in terms of a series of questions.[3]

1. What comparative or theoretical argument exists for the exceptional national and international role of the KMU?

Is the KMU, as Kim states,

one of the most dynamic and developed labour centres in the world?

And, in so far as

it explicitly proclaims it is “militant, genuine and anti-imperialist”,

is this sufficient to prove it so?Kim presents no comparative evidence for his statement. Which are the similarly ‘dynamic and developed’ trade unions? What does ‘developed and dynamic’ mean? What weight, in any case, should researchers give to an organisation’s own self-characterisation? (Kim himself says that whilst a KMU-related educational programme is unclear about its socialism, it is also unaware of the Leftgovernment experiences in contemporary Latin America).[4]

What, in the Philippine or international context does ‘militant’ mean, or ‘genuine’, or even ‘anti-imperialist’? All three terms could carry empirical political weight, or could be simply rhetorical. ‘Genuine’, for example, implies that other union centres in the Philippines are … what … ‘False’? This would imply a binary or even Manichean opposition (Virtue v. Vice) that hardly allows for the variety of unions existing in the Philippines or the USA and that we know of more widely.

I raise this question because my impression(note the stress) is that since a peak of activity, under the Marcos dictatorship (1965-86), the KMU 1) absented itself from the EDSA ‘Peoples Power’ demonstrations of 1986 that finally toppled him; that it 2) later suffered serious splits, following from this and related decisions; thatit now 3) concentrates its activities on the kind of defensive wages, rights, conditions issues that concern trade unions nationally and globally – possibly more militantly.[5]Finally, KMU condemnation of its neo-liberal regime and of international imperialism is common to a range of Nationalist, Populist, Socialist and Communist unions in the Global South – developed and dynamic or not.[6]

If the KMU has toned down its socialist rhetoric or activities since the late-1980s, this is, again, common, if not universal, to unions throughout the Global South.[7] Two major cases that spring to mind would be the Cosatu in South Africa and the CUT-B in Brazil, both long self-subordinated to political parties/governments, both increasingly criticized from the Left. Even the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions which, like the KMU, is confronted by a continually and viciously hostile state, has had to trim its sails due to the neo-liberal tsunami.[8]

2. Does joining the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) advance global labour solidarity?

Kim says:

The ISA consciously works to build global labor solidarity between Filipino workers and workers across the globe.

He presents the ISA as a unique and politically-independent international solidarity event of the KMU. It may well be unique (though international invitations to national union Mayday events are common internationally), but such invitations to the Philippines also imply that the visitors are dependent on the KMU for what they get to see of unionism there. This is suggested by Kim’s failure to tell us anything about the other major union centres in the Philippines, even those of the Left.[9] Kim also tells us nothing about the possibly changing numbers, or constituency over time, of the unions/unionists/socialists/Maoists who may have turned up for the ISA over the decades.[10]

Kim, moreover, is evidently unaware that the KMU must have been preparing to join the ITUC, the West-European-based and Eurocentric union international, some six months after its ISA! This was announced by the Australian woman leader of the ITUC, in an unconditional welcoming message to the KMU Congress, September 2015.[11]Her video was reproduced, without explanation, on the KMU website. Was this matter discussed or even announced at the ISA? Was it discussed or even announced within the ‘membership controlled’ KMU?

There are numerous issues here:

1) Was the KMU not here joiningthe ‘non-genuine?’ or ‘yellow’ Filipino unions in their membership of the ITUC?

2) Is this same ITUC not being increasingly criticized internationally (including by the South African Cosatu) for its limitations in the promotion of a meaningful global solidarity?

3) Has not the ITUC become quite promiscuous in its search for members or allies? It has been playing confidential footsie with the Chinese state union confederation (something announced from Beijing rather than Brussels), and collaborating with another state-controlled union in Uzbekistan (condemned by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers)?Is the KMU aware and approving of such a policy?

Might not, in sum, this KMU-ITUC partnership be better understood in terms of an increasing disorientation of unionism internationally in the face of a so far almost irresistible multinational capitalist wave of aggression against workers, unions and any hypothetical signs of labour resistance or counter-attack?

Another possible way of considering the matter might be in terms of the Lois West (1997) discussion of the tension between the KMU’s reformist and revolutionary activities. Or, again, in terms of those between ‘militant particularism and global ambition’ (Harvey 1995).

3. Is the KMU still pro-Maoist/Communist or not?

Kim says (though only as a bracketed aside):

(For those who know about the Philippines, they are aware that a militant Communist Party of the Philippines or CPP has been fighting the state since 1969. The CPP is stronger in some areas than in others. The CPP operates underground as well as clandestinely in above-ground, legal organizations. Its influence among the Left is substantial, and it has provided ideological leadership for a group of organizations collectively referred to as “National Democrats” or NDs. However, despite arguments to the contrary, my research over a number of years has shown that the KMU, while self-consciously a ND organization, is not controlled by the CPP, but is controlled by its own members.)

Now, to start with, the CPP is not simply ‘militant’ - or even ‘Communist’ in a traditional generic sense - it is more specifically Maoist. Any doubt about this can be resolved by reading Sison’s total identification with Maoism, which he presents in Manichean opposition to the present Chinese regime. It also has a history of not only demonizing Trotskyists, in traditional Stalinist manner, but even of assassinating CPP dissidents and other Leftists.

Kim accepts the CPP’s self-evaluation. And he ignores its historical absence from the EDSA ‘Peoples Power’ demonstrations of 1986 (evidently because this was the ‘wrong’ rather than the ‘right’ kind of uprising, an evaluation apparently endorsed by the equally-absent KMU). He also ignores the dramatic and violent splits that occurred within the CPP in following years.

The National Democratic Front (to give its full name), presented by Kim as if this were an independent entity, merely under CPP ‘ideological leadership’ was and is, in fact, a front organisation of the CPP.

Kim’s ‘research over a number of years’ consists of a series of assertions, based on noevidence of accord/disaccord between the policy and leadership of the CPP and those of the KMU.[12]In the absence, moreover, of any evidence of discussion and voting within the KMU about its National Democratic affiliations, what weight are we to give to the notion that the KMU is meaningfully controlled by its members?

Unfortunately for Kim, Jose Maria ‘Joma’ Sison, the founder, self-glorified and follower-sanctified leader of the CPP, a longtime exile in the Netherlands, thinks otherwise. He recently addressed a congress of the KMU in terms that strongly suggest that is the labour front of yet another CPP front, the International League of People’s Struggles (which is also apparently legal in the Philippines). Joma Sison is, as its website demonstrates, the personification also of the ILPS. And in his ILPS capacity Sison gave the ‘keynote address’ to this 2015 KMU Congresses, as well as to the very 2015 ISA Kim attended and reports on!:

In representation of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle, I convey warmest greetings of solidarity to all the participants of the 31st International Solidarity Affair. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the host, the Kilusang Mayo Uno, for having served as the genuine labor center in the Philippines in the last 35 years, for having waged struggles in defense of workers’ rights and for having won brilliant victories.

We in the ILPS appreciate highly the contributions of KMU to the ILPS as a whole and for Commission No. 5. The KMU has served as the lead organization in the commission and has played a key role in the establishment of WORKINS and the issuance of statements on outstanding labor issues in the world. The ISA and WORKINS are complementary instruments of the international proletariat.

Let us leave aside the fantasy proletariat of Sison’s archaic imagination. And rather look for evidence of the marginally more-empirical Commission 5 and WORKINS. On a 2011 webpage, introduced by a video of the ubiquitous Sison (who else?), there is a resolution of its Commission 5 that reads in part:

The Workers’ and Trade Union Workshop meeting at the Fourth International Assembly of the ILPS calls for genuine trade unions everywhere to create an anti-imperialist united front to fiercely resist the intense attack on public services, pensions, and workers’ rights in all countries by big finance capital, and secondly to educate and mobilise a global workers’ movement for democratic pro-people transformation of our economies.
Trade union movements in all countries have mobilised to some extent to confront these dramatic challenges, but have largely accepted the framework of global capitalist production and marketing relations in their efforts to develop a policy response…
While union leaderships around the world may be trapped in outdated frameworks, working men and women everywhere are deeply questioning the system and in many countries have taken to the streets to fight for deep change, in both rich and poor countries.
A new international movement of working men and women will help transform the global workers’ struggle because all genuine union leaders are open to new ideas about how to meet today’s challenges, and democratic unions can renew their leaderships as the campaigns and struggles develop in the coming months and years.

Now, this comes over to me as an implicit condemnation of the ITUC and its union affiliates, which would then logically apply also to those in the Philippines. Followed – well here proceeded – by an intention to create a new international working class movement, if of a quite unspecified nature.[13]

Perhaps Kim (or anyone else?) can inform us about WORKINS, since I can find no more about this on the ILPS or KMU websites.[14] But elsewhere online I note that the ILPS has been confronted by one of those splits and/or purges familiar from CPP history.In the meantime, however, we have to consider the relationship between the Commission 5 of the ILPS 2011 and the 2015 KMU affiliation to the ITUC. How, in the absence of further information, are we to take the transmogrification of the ILPS-affiliated KMU from its alternative anti-imperialist proletarian international to the umpteenth affiliate of a stagnant social-liberalone?

I would be inclined to take the ambiguities of the KMU in its changing relations with the ILPS and the ITUC (also of the ITUC with the KMU) asfurther evidence of thedisorientation afflicting trade union organisations internationally. In the case of the KMU, however, it could also be a matter of broadcasting different messages to different audiences, or for different and unexplained pragmatic purposes. In 1989 when I was in the Philippines, I noted that the KMU was adept at doing this. For example it widely circulated a simplistic booklet, Genuine Trade Unionism (EILER 1988), replete with Maoist-style heroic worker images, whilst, on the other hand, promoting human-rights and ‘community organising’ messages to (wilfully?) naïve Western funding agencies.[15]


The information Kim gives about worker repression and KMU militancy I am quite prepared to accept. As also the repression it has suffered.[16] Thiscould be compared with, for example,the less-bloody labour history of Peru and its Communist-aligned Confederación General de Trabajo (CGTP).[17] The information, however, is inevitably limited by Kim’s ‘identification solidarity’ with one Filipino trade union centre, rather than with the Filipino labour movement or its working people more generally. Such a ‘self-subordination to the victim’ is an impoverished understanding of solidarity, implying an inverted form of paternalism in so far as it treats its objects as if they were incapable of a dialogical relationship that would allow for criticism.[18]

It further occurs to me that attendance at an International Solidarity Affair of the KMU, being its invited guest, and entirely in its hands, is analogous to those delegations of friends to the so-called socialist countries, critiqued by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1976/1973:227) in his ‘Tourists of the Revolution’:[19]

Socialism becomes an internal and secretive affair, only accessible to those who have the opportunity to peek behind the mystifying façade…(T)he Left is thrown back on anachronistic forms of communication if it is dissatisfied with the information and deformation provided by the bourgeois media. Among these surrogates the trip, the visit, the eye-witness report play an important role…Considered as a whole, it is paradoxical the social-socialist movements in the West have been generally dependent on individual views…(T)hey have had to rely on a pre-industrial messenger service…

Not that the KMU is a socialist state – even if might imagine itself as the sole official trade union within such a state. Nor that the Western Left does not today have at its disposal such resources of the ubiquitous Web as I have been here inevitably condemned and privileged to use. But there is still a Leftist tendency to over-identify with the ‘noble savages’ of the Global South, who seem so much more revolutionary than we are in the corrupt and slothful North. I was myself a ‘tourist of the revolution’ in Cuba, 1964, as well as at a Chavez state-funded conference of international revolutionaries in Caracas, 2009. Whilst my report on the first would have been in the same mode as that of Kim, 2015, I would like to hope that that on the second struck a more sceptical note.

It is, again, my impression that the KMU has been, since its crisis around 1990, decreasingly active internationally, and decreasingly a star on the horizon of the new ‘global emancipatory movements’.[20] These tend to eschew both total identification and ideological dogmatism. They tend to believe that rather than the end justifying the means, the means prefigure the ends. Consider here critical Left opinion and analysis concerning ‘21st Century Socialism’ in Venezuela, and the problematic ‘pink tide’ in Latin America.[21]

But whilst this transformation of the Left has been occurring more generally, the KMU has moved quietly and cautiously. This was first into an Australian-funded and Australian-based Southern Initiative for Global Trade Union Rights (Sigtur), where it would have also met such earlier Leftist affiliates of the ICFTU as the Brazilian CUTB and South African Cosatu. And now, apparently, it has followed these into the ITUC! Regrettably, this Southern Wave has led to no open debate, discussion or dialogue between these unions and the ITUC, with the exception of the one public criticism by Cosatu to which the ITUC offered no public response. So it seems thatjoining the ITUC is a way of burying any such alternative labour internationalism as the KMU might have dreamed of in 1990.

Finally this.

There exists a Filipino study on ‘Union Revitalisation and Social Movement Unionism in the Philippines’ (Aganon, Serrano and Certeza 2009). Based on a discussion of theory, a national union survey, and on comparative national cases, as well as a friendly disposition towards the KMU (though not this centre alone), it happens to cite Peter Waterman on SMU theory/strategy and Kim Scipes on SMU and the KMU! I found it, obviously, not as a guest at a KMU International Solidarity Affair but searching (somewhat desperately) on the Web. No doubt there is more to be found there.This is not the place/space to respond to this rather systematic and challenging study. I hope to do so in the future. One wonders whether it has ever been circulated to KMU member organisations or discussed in its educational courses. Or even critiqued by some KMU-friendly academic. In so far as Kim has a continuing interest in the past, present and future of the labour movement in the Philippines, I look forward to his eventual response to this challenging study also.

Born London 1936, Peter Waterman worked for the International Union of Students and the World Federation of Trade Unions in Communist Prague (mid-1950s, later-1960s). Later he became an academic specialist on international labour and social movements, internationalisms (and electronic communications relating to such). This was at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (1972-98). Since retirement he has published various books, compilations and papers (Search on line: “peter waterman the hague”, or here: ResearchGate). He spends several months a year in Peru, where his wife, international feminist activist and writer, Virginia Vargas, lives. He recently published his autobiography, From Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory Movement: Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist, online and free. It includes his experiences in India, early 1980s. Email: peterwaterman1936@gmail.com


Aganon, Marie, Melisa Serrano and Ramon Certeza. 2009. Union Revitalization and Social Movement Unionism in the Philippines: A Handbook.Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and U.P. School of Labor and Industrial Relations.
EILER. 1988. Genuine Trade Unionism. Quezon City: Educational Institute for Labour Education and Research.
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. 1973. Raids and Reconstructions: Essays in Politics, Crime and Culture. London: Pluto Press.
Harvey, David. 1995. Militant Particularism and Global Ambition: The Conceptual Politics of Place, Space, and Environment in the Work of Raymond Williams. Social Text. No. 42, pp. 69-98.
Lambert, Rob. 1990. ‘Kilusang Mayo Uno and the Rise of Social Movement Unionism in the Philippines’, Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work. Vol. 3, No. 2-3.
Ness, Immanuel. 2016. Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class. London: Pluto.
Waterman, Peter. 1998/2001. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London: Mansell/Cassell. Pp 125-7.
Waterman, Peter. 2014. ‘The Philippines: Not Communicating Labour Internationalism’ in From Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory Movement: Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist.http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/from_coldwar_communism_to_the_global_emancipatory_movement/reviews/.
West, Lois. 1997. Militant Labour in the Philippines. Philadelphia: Temple Press.


[1] Kim and I have collaborated and clashed over two or more decades, either over the nature of the KMU or the concept of ‘social movement/the new social unionism’. I will let interested readers do the relevant web search for these, though some are listed in the piece by Kim I am here critiquing.

[2] 1989 was fateful because the KMU first identified with the Chinese state repression of the Tienanmen demonstration, then made successive mealy-mouthed qualifications to this. By failing to condemn a massacre of unarmed and peaceful workers and students it lost most of its Western financing and much of its international Left credibility (see Waterman 1998/2001: 125-7, and my Philippines chapter in Waterman 2014).

[3] I have to here preempt any suggestion that in what follows I am ‘exposing the KMU to repression’ or ‘playing into the hands of the enemy’. I had such suggestions leveled at me during and after my visit to the Philippines, 1989, by both Filipino and international friends/collaborators of the KMU. To my later embarrassment I permitted such to dissuade me from then publishing a full and frank report of my research. Such accusations or suggestions are disingenuous in so far as 1) the KMU’s own activities reveal where its sympathies lie (see further below), 2) the national and international capitalist hegemons and their security agencies are much better informed about such than I, and 3) the KMU, the National Democrats and the International League of Peoples Struggles are recognized legally in the Philippines despite their public association with the veteran leader of the CPP, Jose Maria Sison – and his frequent public identifications with the KMU as the labour agent of his long-hoped-for and long-postponed Maoist revolution.

[4] This is the only point at which Kim uses the word ‘socialism’ in relation to the KMU, which used to be a big one for that confederation in the 1980s. But Kim himself makes no reference to Left criticism of the ‘socialist’ regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. See here Endnote 13.

[5] In an attempt to buttress my meagre internet sources, I asked a former CPP leader to comment on a draft of this paper. This friend responded that the

KMU has not changed much really. It's still very much a front of the CPP, as you have stated…The rhetoric has not changed at all - the language KMU uses is not much different from the language of the 1980s. Today's KMU is much weaker compared to the KMU of the 1980s. It never really recovered from the split of the 1990s.

This friend also recommended me to pay attention to other Left union centres in the Philippines. Given, however, the limited web presence of - or even journalistic reports - on such I am unable to evaluate their strength relative to that of the KMU.

[6] For a recent consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of other national trade union organisations in the Global South, see Ness (2015). He argues that the traditional existing trade union and industrial relations models are being dramatically challenged by shopfloor movements either within or beyond the existing structures. Ness seems to consider the ideological inspirations/ pronouncements of such traditional unions as hardly significant in distinguishing them from one another.

[7] For a sympathetic but sober journalistic account, from an ITUC-affiliated site see here. Readers might consider this account relevant to ITUC unions also in the Global North!

[8] I visited South Korea briefly in 2007and had a sobering exchange with staff of the KCTU’s international solidarity department. They gave me the strong impression that the KCTU leadership was at that time rather more radical than a membership confronted with the threat of job loss due to the ruthless neo-liberalism of local capital and state.

[9] For a Filipino state vision of the union scene in the country, see here. Unfortunately, this does not deal with national union confederations/centres. A piece published by an ‘International Communist Current’ is long on history but short on the more contemporary period. It nonetheless provides additional data on certain national-level developments since the later-1980s, including splits within the KMU. For a 2012 journalistic report on the declineof union membership and labour protest in the Philippines, see here.

[10] We do have figures for the 25th ISA in 2009, so a comparison of the numbers and nationalities of those attending (if not their union or political affiliations at home) could be made by Kim, should he so wish.

[11] Actually it seems the rapprochement was suggested before the May ISA by a KMU declaration on the site of the ITUC-linked Equal Times site, late February 2015. It was accompanied by photos of Filipino ‘Right to Strike’ demonstrations, amongst which were those of other union centres in the Philippines. These, however, seem likely to have been added to the KMU declaration by Equal Times itself.

[12] For a more-serious examination of the KMU, particularly of the tension between its ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reformist’ aspects, see Lois West (1979). She also considers the democratic claims of the KMU, but primarily in terms of this confederation’s relations with its member unions, not the workers within such (1979:60 ff).

[13] Actually, the KMU did once seriously consider the creation of a new tricontinental labour international. This was in 1990, after major local shocks to the KMU’s previous international visions. It produced a fascinating (draft?) document. I do not think the proposal was ever made public. It seems to have been dropped before it was launched (Waterman 1998/2001: 125-7).

[14]Correction. November 1, 2015, I finally discovered the site of WORKINS (Workers International Struggle Initiatives), evidently yet another front organization of the ILPS. This, amongst other campaigns, declares solidarity with striking Chinese shoe-factory workers, adding ‘The global trade union movement must continue to develop solidarity relations with all parts of the Chinese workers’ movement’. The consistency of this with KMU membership of an ITUC carrying out secret negotiations with the Chinese state-controlled union confederation remains to be explained.

[15] The community organizing messages were inspired by the North-American Saul Alinsky, possibly familiar to KMU activists of Social-Catholic background or university education. As for the willful naivety, it was revealed to me by a Dutch development agency representative in Manilla, who said that he knew the KMU was associated with the CPP but, given its anti-dictatorship activity, he was prepared to ignore this (well, at least till the KMU’s Tienanmen disaster).

[16] See here for a recent report on massacres of labour activists in the Philippines. Any evaluation of KMU sectarianism or opportunism has to take these into account.

[17] The CGTP was founded by the famous Latin-American Communist pioneer, J.C. Mariátegui. It is still married to the self-isolated World Federation of Trade Unions, for which it provides its Deputy General Secretary, Valentin Pacho. The WFTU is still openly Communist (State-Soviet variety), noisily anti-imperialist and anti-ITUC. The CGTP however, is simultaneously involved with projects of the ‘labour imperialist’ American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS, Solidarity Centre). And then with those of the equally Northocentric but more socially-reformist national union centres of the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Norway, Belgium and Finland. All of the latter, if I am not mistaken, are affiliates of WFTU’s major competitor - if not its primary enemy - the ITUC.

[18] For a reconceptualization of international labour solidarity see Waterman (1998/2001: Chapter 3).

[19] Note that despite the epoch separating the two reports, this brief 1988 one strikes the same notes as that of Kim. So, more academically, does a paper by Rob Lambert (1990), where he seems to be arguing that although the KMU considers itself to be ‘National Democratic’ it can be better understood in terms of ‘Social Movement Unionism’.

[20] Though it continues to be recognized by ‘Marxist-Leninists’ internationally, as shown by this 2010 website, headed by portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. It headlines two stories linking Joma Sison and the KMU.

[21] Left identification with Venezuela is, of course, easy to find. For one of the critics contributing to the debate see this item and other pieces on the same site by Edgardo Lander.



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