Belated tourists of a postponed-revolution

A close look at the KMU Trade Union Centre in the Philippines suggests that joining the ITUC has buried any alternative labour internationalism of the kind dreamed of in 1990.

Peter Waterman
13 January 2016
open Movements

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Kilusang Mayo Uno (logo).

Kilusang Mayo Uno (logo).Wikicommons/ May First Labour Movement Centre. Some rights reserved.This article seeks to analyze the recent unpredicted – even mysterious - transformation of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, the May First Movement Trade Union Confederation) in the Philippines, from a body proudly displaying its radical nationalism and anti-imperialism (at its thirty-first ‘International Solidarity Affair’, May 2015), to its joining of the Eurocentric, social-liberal, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), based in Europe.

But it is, in the first place, a response to a report on that KMU International Solidarity Affair (ISA) made by my old friend and interlocutor, US labour academic/activist, Kim Scipes[1]. I have tried, over the decades, to warn or wean Kim from his KMU worship. Evidently without success. Let me hope that an up-front public confrontation will - finally - have the desired effect.

I cannot claim to issue more than a partial challenge since I visited the Philippines only once, albeit in the fateful year, 1989, - fateful because the KMU first identified itself with the Chinese state repression of the Tiananmen demonstration, then made successive mealy-mouthed qualifications to this. Having failed to condemn a state-Communist massacre of unarmed and peaceful workers and students, it lost most of its western financing and much of its international leftwing credibility[2]. Though not all, since other former KMU believers, some of whom I approached with drafts of this piece, prefer to remain silent about their loss of faith or enthusiasm.

Moreover, I have had difficulty finding serious academic and/or activist writing on unionism in the Philippines for a decade or more. I have, however, followed, as far as I could, the international activities of the KMU in order to open a public discussion.

The exceptional national and international role of the KMU

Is the KMU, as Kim argues, 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 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?

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 suggest a binary or even Manichean opposition (virtue v. vice) that hardly allows for the variety of unions existing in the Philippines or the USA , or those we know of more widely.

I raise this question because my impression is that since a peak of activity under the Marcos dictatorship (1965-86), the KMU:

- absented itself from the EDSA ‘Peoples Power’ demonstrations of 1986 that finally toppled him;

- that it later suffered serious splits, following from this and related decisions;

- that it now concentrates its activities on the kind of wages, rights, conditions issues that concern trade unions nationally and globally – possibly more militantly.

- Finally, KMU condemnation of its neoliberal regime and of international imperialism is common to a range of nationalist, populist, socialist and communist unions in the Global South – whether ‘developed and dynamic’ or not.

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, not to speak of the North! Two major cases that spring to mind would be the COSATU in South Africa and the CUT in Brazil, both long self-identified with formerly leftwing political parties/governments, both increasingly criticized by a more contemporary 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 neoliberal tsunami.

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 inevitably 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. One of these - Sentro - was, late-2015, active in protests with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy at the Climate Conference in Paris.

Yet, surely, any evaluation of the KMU has to consider this in relation to other such bodies nationally. Is the KMU, for example, more internationalist than Sentro? Kim also tells us nothing about the presumably changing numbers, or constituency over time, of the foreign/international unions/ unionists/ socialists/Maoists who may have turned up for the ISA over the decades.

Kim, in replying to an earlier version of the present piece, says he was aware that the KMU was joining the ITUC. He had evidently not considered this reversal of KMU policy worth reporting, far less commenting on in his 2015 ISA report. And this despite previous promotion of the KMU as providing a model for labour, internationally. So, for this dramatic change of policy, we had to wait for an announcement by the Australian leader of the ITUC, in an unconditionally welcoming message to the KMU Congress, September 2015. Her video was reproduced, without explanation, on the KMU website.

There are numerous issues here, international as well as national:

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

2) Has this same ITUC not been 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)?

4) 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, however, be in terms of the Lois West discussion of the tension between the KMU’s reformist and revolutionary activities, for which see this review. I do not recall Kim ever reviewing, even less confronting this work.

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 CPP leader, Jose Maria ‘Joma’ Sison’s works, which show clearly his total identification with Maoism, which he presents in Manichean opposition to the present Chinese regime. The CPPP also has a history of not only demonizing Trotskyists, in a traditional Stalinist manner, but even of assassinating CPP dissidents and other leftists.

May 1 protest rally in Manila. 2014.

May 1 protest rally in Manila. 2014. Demoted/ J Gerard Seguia. All rights reserved.Kim, again, here 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 ‘coincidentally’ endorsed by the equally-absent KMU). He also ignores the dramatic and violent splits that occurred within the CPP in the years that followed.

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 repeated personal assertions, based on no evidence of accord/disaccord between the policy and leadership of the CPP and that of the KMU.[3] 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, Sison, the founder, self-glorifying 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 it is the labour front of yet another CPP front, the International League of People’s Struggles (which is likewise 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 and impoverished  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 fin0ance 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 at least 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.[4]

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-liberal one?  

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), as further evidence of the disorientation 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 (endorsed, if not illustrated, here), replete with Stalinist/Maoist-style heroic worker images, whilst, on the other hand, promoting human-rights and ‘community organising’ messages to (wilfully?) naïve western funding agencies.


The information Kim gives about worker repression and KMU militancy I am quite prepared to accept. It requires and deserves international solidarity here. His information, however, is inevitably limited by Kim’s ‘Substitution Solidarity’ with a single 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.[5]

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 in his ‘Tourists of the Revolution’:

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, were it successful, it would be the single official trade union within such a future one). 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. (Actually, of course, neo-liberal globalisation is increasing the analogies between union situations, North and South).

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’. It does continue 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. This website headlines two stories linking Joma Sison and the KMU. Now, the new emancipatory left tends to eschew both total identification and ideological dogmatism. It tends 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 (even before the disastrous 2015 elections), and the problematic ‘pink tide’ in Latin America[6]. But whilst this transformation of the Left has been occurring more generally, the KMU has moved cautiously and quietly, if not secretively. 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 CUT 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 that joining the ITUC is a way of burying any alternative labour internationalism of the kind that 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’. 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 ‘social movement unionism’ theory/strategy and Kim Scipes on the KMU as a ‘social movement union’! 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 research-based 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 study also.

[1] For some of Kim’s repeated/repetitive paeans of praise for the KMU see this 2014 piece and its bibliography.

[2] See ‘The Philippines: Not Communicating Labour Internationalism’ in my autobio.

[3] 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).

[4] 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).

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

[6] For one of the critics contributing to the debate see this item and other pieces on the same site by Edgardo Lander.

How to cite:
Waterman.P. (2016) «Belated tourists of a postponed-revolution.», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 13 January. https://opendemocracy.net/peter-waterman/belated-tourists-of-postponed-revolution


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