Felixberto Olalia Sr., known to generations of unionists as Ka Bert, was born to a family of poor farmers in Pampanga. He stopped formal schooling at fourth grade and worked briefly as a houseboy in Tarlac. Later he and his family left to try their luck in Manila and went to live in Bagumbayan (the site of Sta. Cruz and Tondo today). Pampanga migrants lived in enclaves there, attracted by the potential for work in various manufacturing and commercial establishments nearby.
The young man found work as an apprentice in a shoe factory. He also began to perform in theatre groups, then popularly called the vaudeville, often travelling with them all over Luzon. The experience gave him confidence and skill in public speaking, which would be very useful to him later. It also broadened his view and showed him how other poor people lived and struggled.Political Involvement
His first exposure to the cause that would direct his whole life was when he was elected union secretary and later president in the shoeshop where he worked. At this time, he had also become interested in the then national debate over Philippine independence. The young Bert, who had barely learned to read and do sums in school, started reading newspapers and saving money for books, and reading up on the current issues of the day. He joined rallies urging Philippine independence from the United States, and still more rallies calling for eight-hour workdays (the standard then were 12-hour workdays).
Ka Bert modeled himself after fellow unionist Crisanto Evangelista, whose bold and principled leadership of labor unions was extolled even by then Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon.
During World War II, Ka Bert joined the resistance against Japanese occupation, leading several Huk squadrons. After the war, he and other labor leaders who survived it rebuilt the unions and resumed agitating for reforms. Ka Bert also rejected the formal grant of independence, stating that the post-war relationship between the Philippines and the US perpetrated colonialism and not “genuine” sovereignty.
Labor played such a strong role in post-war national debate that by the 1950s, its leaders, including Ka Bert and poet Amado Hernandez, were arrested and thrown into jail on charges of rebellion. After his release, Ka Bert, then in his 50s, went back to union organizing and advocacy for genuine independence.
In 1957, he helped organize the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU). He was a fiery speaker and a fierce negotiator and his reputation as a forceful and effective union and political leader grew.
When Ferdinand Marcos came to power, unionists were at the forefront of the protest rallies. They protested Philippine support of the Vietnam War and other local issues such as oil price increases and police brutality. They denounced the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971. Such heightened understanding of national politics among unionists and factory workers may be said to have been partly due to Ka Bert’s efforts.
In 1972, on the eve of martial law, Marcos sent him as emissary to China preparatory to establishing relations with that country. News of the martial law and the ensuing mass arrests reached him in China. He was offered temporary asylum but he decided to return — and the minute he reached the airport was arrested and thrown into jail where he joined other NAFLU leaders earlier arrested.
After a few weeks’ incarceration, Ka Bert was released and he steadfastly went back to union work. He was the obvious candidate to become chair of the newly-organized Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) in 1974 but martial law authorities objected and he never got the position.
Most union activities under martial law were seen as actual and virtual acts against martial law. The dictatorship saw unionism as a violation of the prohibition against organization, and awareness-building campaigns as subversion against “established authorities.” Yet NAFLU persisted, calling for worker activism and campaigning for trade union rights. Ka Bert helped establish the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights and the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights to draw the participation of sympathetic professionals and church people in the defense of trade union rights.
To challenge Marcos’ claims of economic development under martial law, NAFLU under Olalia launched sustained information campaigns and called for workers’ strikes which exposed the sweatshop conditions of Filipino workers, particularly in export processing zones.
The militant labor sector eventually organized itself in 1980 into the Kilusang Mayo Uno. Ka Bert, then called the “grand old man of Philippine labor,” was its first chairperson. Militant labor’s crucial role in the anti-martial law struggle has become so established at this point that participants to the KMU founding congress not only included unionists, but a broad cross-section of oppositionists to martial law. Marcos ordered a crackdown on labor not long after. Soldiers raided the KMU and NAFLU offices and the homes of its leaders and threw these leaders into prison. Ka Bert, then 79, was imprisoned a third time.
Circumstances of Death
Ka Bert was not in the best of health by the time of this arrest. He became even more ill in prison due to terrible jail facilities. He was eventually released on “house arrest.” He died not long after. He was 80. He left behind a brand of nationalist unionism that permanently changed the landscape of Philippine politics and the Philippine labor movement. He could have chosen the smoother path, the path taken by labor leaders before him, the path of comfort, cooptation, and even corruption. He could have retired when martial law conditions made unionism difficult and dangerous, using age and infirmity as excuse. But Ka Bert loved his country and was dedicated totally to labor. Not age, illness or adverse conditions stopped him from facing life’s challenges squarely and living his principles boldly.