DECEMBER 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 12
U.S. Bases, U.S. Bosses
by Paul Hutchcroft
"To the Americans it's a salary; to the Filipinos it's alms," read a sign carried by a Filipino worker outside Subic Naval Base in the Philippines. The worker was referring to the meager wages he receives for his work at the American military base.
On October 3, more than 20,000 Filipino workers at Subic, Clark Air Base, and three smaller U.S. military bases in the Philippines began a strike calling for a ten percent wage increase. The strike, which lasted four days, highlights longstanding Filipino dissatisfaction with working conditions in the U.S. facilities. Clark and Subic, which together occupy over 150,000 acres of land, are of vital importance in the deployment of U.S. forces and nuclear weapons in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Together they contribute approximately five percent of the country's GNP.
The U.S. military enjoys the Philippines in much the same way as do many U.S. and Japanese multinational corporations: as a haven of cheap, accessible, and highly skilled labor. Because Philippine wages are the second lowest in Asia, the Navy likes to use the Philippines as much as possible for the repair, refueling, and transshipment work of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet. The fleet's scope of activity includes East Asia and the Indian Ocean.
"You get a lot for your money out here," a Subic commander once boasted to U.S. Congressional representatives. Subic handles sixty percent of the Seventh Fleet's repair work, and the Navy pays the Filipinos little more than one-eighth of what it would pay Japanese workers for the same tasks. A 1976 Philippine Department of Labor study found that while the average monthly salary of a Philippine base worker is $65, the Korean and Japanese base workers receive $200 and $400 respectively.
The disparity becomes even more dramatic when one compares Filipino salaries with the salaries of Americans working on the bases. One Filipino, who started work at the base in 1945 and retired in 1975 as an office services manager, ex plained that his highest wage after 30 years of seniority was the same as the lowest wage an American could receive. Children of American naval officers can earn $2 an hour in summer job training, a higher wage than that received by a second level Filipino foreman. This unequal pay for equal work is a continual source of discontent among Filipino workers. One labor leader described how Filipino instructors will receive only $1-2 per hour doing a job with the same responsibility as an American instructor making $14 per hour and, he said, "usually the Filipino will work harder."
The strike is the latest expression of protest from Filipino workers against an increasingly difficult economic situation. Since the August 1983 assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino, the country's economic decline has greatly accelerated, and workers have been hard hit by steep price increases for food, medicine, clothing, electricity, and motor fuel. A 21.4 percent devaluation of the peso in October nearly doubled the inflation rate, and wage increases are not keeping up.
In striking for higher wages, the base employees join thousands of striking workers throughout the Philippines. !n October alone, twelve thousand public teachers, 7,000 telephone workers, and thousands of factory workers went on strike in Manila. And in the same month. 25,000 workers blockaded the Bataan Export Processing Zone, a low-tax, unionfree factory zone set up for foreign manufacturers.
While base workers suffer many of the same economic difficulties as other Filipino workers, they must also face daily encounters with the racism of the U.S. military. The Philippine media, for example, earlier this year exposed a memo issued by Subic naval officer R.B. Stuckey calling all Filipino workers "thieves" %+ho should be watched like prisoners of war. Stuckey's memo required that Filipino workers be escorted even to the restrooms because "they are known to pick up anything that is not nailed down."
"We're treated as no-class citizens on the base, but we are the host country!" one Clark worker exclaimed to this reporter in 1981. At Subic, a young Filipino apprentice said that workers are often insulted and sometimes "treated like dogs." According to base workers, Marine guards routinely search workers without bothering to obtain search warrants, and it is not uncommon for guards to force the workers, both male and female to undress.
One glaring example illustrates the clear discrimination that operates on base. Juanito Casaway, a Filipino electrician, worked at Subic's Ship Repair Facility for 28 years. In all his years on base, Casaway had never been charged with any offense -until one day in 1976, when he was stopped at the gate of the base on his way home from work. According to a Philippine union official, the U.S. marines caught Casaway trying to walk off with two dollars worth of scrap copper wire. He was charged with theft, and fired from his job.
In contrast, John Cunningham, an American civilian superintendent at the same Ship Repair Facility was charged by the Navy several years later with defrauding the United States government of over $30,000. In 1978, Cunningham had begun construction of a 46-foot recreational yacht intended for his personal use utilizing Philippine labor and Navy materials. Even as he was being investigated, Cunningham continued to manipulate time cards and have the Filipinos work on his boat, according to Philippine press reports. But Cunningham was cleared of all charges in a hearing before U.S. civil service officials in Hawaii in 1980.
This injustice has its roots in the nearly absolute freedom appropriated by the U.S. when the Military Bases Agreement was signed in 1947. This agreement, while listing numerous rights to be assumed by the U.S. military, neglects any mention of the rights of Filipino workers. "Nowhere in the world are we able to use our military bases with less restrictions than we do in the Philippines," noted a 1973 U.S. Senate Staff report. As a result, the U.S. military is able to dictate the terms of labor management on the bases with even greater freedom than that enjoyed by multinational corporations in the rest of the country.
From 1947 to the early 1960s, base workers were forced to sign a contract promising not to join a labor union-although the basic rights to organize unions and practice collective bargaining were widely recognized in the rest of the Philippines. In 1968, under pressures exerted by rank-and-file union organizing, a Base Labor Agreement was finally concluded between Philippine authorities and the U.S. military. The agreement, however, kept the U.S. bases outside the jurisdiction of Philippine labor law. The wages of Filipinos, said to be determined by the "right to collective bargaining," are in fact calculated by the U.S. Armed Forces according to a complex "wage survey" which sets wages at the "prevailing rates" among the "progressive firms of the host country." As Juanito Casaway's case demonstrates, the provisions of the 1968 agreement that perhaps most compromise workers' rights are related to arbitration and job security.
In the words of a local priest in Olongapo, the city adjacent to Subic, the Navy "doesn't care a damn about the wages and working conditions of the Filipinos." The natural response among workers has been to try to build a strong union to fight for their interests. The most militant activity of base workers came before martial law in 1971 when the Filipino Civilian Employees Association at Clark was temporarily under radical, nationalist leadership. At the height of the Vietnam War, the union put out a newspaper "unmasking the repression perpetrated by U.S. military personnel," and even led two strikes against Air Force management. During the second strike, which began in June 1971, workers controlled the six gates of the base with the assistance of students from Manila, local residents, and even sympathetic U.S. servicemen. An average of 500-1,000 people were always on duty, surviving on food donated by local farmers. As one leader recollects, "we had tents set up with a general headquarters, and there were red flags at the gates. It was already like a war!"
The strike was broken in August 1971, after the government suspended the right to fair trial, declared the strike illegal, and rounded up much of the union's leadership. The remaining leadership was forced to "negotiate," but they achieved none of their demands. In a 1981 interview, one former union leader told how local thugs actually put a 45-caliber pistol to his head during a break in the negotiations. "You'd better sign the return to work agreement," they demanded, "or else you're a dead duck." When martial law was declared one year later, the government was able to preserve its gains and keep the union subservient.
Even today, the Filipino Civilian Employees Association remains essentially subservient to the U.S. management, and strikes are extremely rare. Workers maintain that the union leadership is both corrupt and closely tied to the Marcos regime. Many Filipinos suspect that one of the reasons the U.S. favored and rewarded the declaration of martial law in 1972 was to ensure continued access to the bases; as former Senator Jose Diokno charges, "our democratic system was totally subverted, among other reasons, because there was a very strong and growing demand from the Filipino people that the bases be removed."
Paradoxical though it may seem, some Filipino base workers have joined with other workers throughout the Philippines in demanding that their employer, the U.S. military, close up shop and leave the country. They share Diokno's observation that "the bases have become an excuse for the United States government to supply the Philippine armed forces with weapons and material which they use against Filipinos." In the 1983 review of the bases agreement, for example, the Reagan Administration pledged $900 million in assistance to the Marcos dictatorship in exchange for continued "unhampered military operations" from the bases. As long as such assistance continues, the U.S. ensures that the Philippine government will be able to continue the detention, torture, and executions of trade union leaders who dare stand up for workers' rights.
Paul Hutchcroft, who lived in the Philippines from 1981 to 1982, is coordinator of the Campaign Against Military Intervention in the Philippines (CAMIP), a coalition of disarmament, human rights, and Philippine support organizations. For more information on the campaign's efforts, contact CAMIP, c/o Clergy and Laity Concerned, 198 Broadway, Room 302, New York, NY 10038.