The name Felixberto Olalia Sr. bespeaks of a great labor leader who had served the labor movement all his life. Strict and serious, everybody calls him Ka Bert, a term of endearment that befits the “Grand Old Man of the Philippine Labor” whose life had spanned charted events that changed the course of labor history.
Ka Bert was one of the political figures who had the most number of times imprisoned in his lifetime that stretched from when he was a young labor leader up to his old age. He was twice incarcerated during Martial Law, the last was when he was in hospital arrest at V. Luna Hospital where he died a few months before he should have turned 80.
Born to a poor peasant family in Bacolor, Pampanga on 3 August 1908, he worked as a servant for a rich family in Tarlac. He had this chili story that he always tells the youth and workers in his heyday: His landlord in jest pointed out the poor must not eat chili because it whets the appetite; sort of saying he has no right to eat more as a growing kid because he has less, a personal pain he will soon trace to economic and political issues.
Ka Bert stopped schooling early and his family moved to Manila to try their luck in the city. He always looks back to his experiences as a 13-year old boy in the shoe factory in Sta. Cruz, Manila where he worked as an apprentice. It was here where he had his baptism of fire as a union organizer.
The self-taught intellectual started off as a member and messenger of the Chineleros y Zapateros de Filipinas at age 17. He rose from the ranks, became the union secretary for five years and eventually became its president. Standing for the union, he had bargained for an eight-hour work per day putting an end to the daily 12-hour work they render in the shoe factory.
Ka Bert, while a union president, helped organize the Katipunan ng mga Anakpawis (KAP), a federation of labor unions where he became its general secretary. He had been one with Crisanto Evangelista, known to be the Father of Trade Unionism, in campaigning to unite the workers. He helped Evangelista in forming the Collective Labor Movement (CLM) where he became its elected vice-president in 1938.
When the CLM failed, he and the other labor leaders organized the Manila Labor Council. He was elected its secretary general in 1940.
During World War II, he became a member of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Old Party) that Evangelista established a decade earlier. Ka Bert was chosen to be the secretary for the Manila-Rizal Bureau and later, commander of Hukbalahap’s (Army of the People Against the Japanese) Manila squadron.
The war did not break his spirit. Taking the nom-de-guerre Ka Diego, he arrested Guillermo Capadocia for collaboration charges upon the Party’s instruction. The Japanese had freed Capadocia to send their message that they will not kill their prisoners Evangelista and Pedro Abad Santos provided the Party does not oppose to their occupation. Ka Bert brought Capadocia to Central Luzon where he was given a disciplinary action, among them being assigned to the kitchen of Wa Chi.
When the Japanese killed Evangelista when they failed to use him as a bargaining tool, Ka Bert helped Vicente Lava escape from Tanay, Rizal to Mount Arayat to be able to replace the martyred Evangelista as head of the organization. When Lava, however, imposed the “retreat for defense” policy, Ka Bert vehemently rejected the mandate and was given a disciplinary action. Later, he will be proven correct in his stand.
He immediately organized a Labor Day rally on 1 May 1945 when the war dust and smoke had barely settled to reconnect with the workers. He later established the Congress of Labor (CLO). Ka Bert impugned what the Communist Party of the Philippines (New Party) calls “adventurist line” of Jesus Lava. He was expelled from the old Party, resigned from CLO and formed the Katipunan ng Kaisahang Manggagawa (KKM) where he became its president in 1948.
Ka Bert tried to form again the Council of Trade Unions in the Philippines but was arrested on charges of rebellion. When he was released, he formed the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU) in 1957 and later the Lapiang Malaya in 1959.
He was leading the workers and peasants delegation to China when Martial Law was declared in 1972. Ka Bert thought that the fight remains in the Philippines that he opted to return to the country despite China’s offer of political asylum. He was immediately whisked away from the airport and was detained at Camp Crame for five months. He had been telling Major General Prospero Olivas that he was no longer a member of the underground Party but he was charged with rebellion just the same.
When then President Ferdinand Marcos initiated the formation of Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), Ka Bert walked out of the TUCP founding congress knowing that it will kowtow to the Marcos government.
Instead, he formed the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and became its first chairperson in 1980. Two years later under Marcos rule, he will be charged with conspiracy to rebellion.
Prison life had been too harsh for the old man . He died of rheumatic heart disease and pneumonia nine months after he was incarcerated. He left his wife Basilia Mariano whom he calls Chabeng , and five children whom he all sent to school. One of his sons, Rolando Olalia, a labor lawyer, will be brutally killed by suspected rightist military group three years after Ka Bert’s death.
Ka Bert lived and died a labor leader; his legacy lives on. (Gloria Esguerra Melencio)
Llanes, Ferdinand C., Mga Huling Mayo Uno ni Ka Bert Olalia in Tibak Rising: Activism in the Days of Martial Law, Anvil Publishing Inc.: Manila, 2012.
Filway’s Philippine Almanac, Filway Marketing: Makati, 1998.