Norma Rae, Sister Stella L, and newspaper union organizing under martial law

Book cover of “Labor and Mass Media in the Philippines” which describes economic and political conditions of media workers during the Marcos regime.

They said it couldn’t be done.

It was martial law, after all, and among many freedoms suppressed by Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s repressive regime (1965-1986) was the right to organize a legitimate union. Strikes were banned, and only government-friendly unions were recognized.

But a hardy group of journalists at the Journal group of publications (Times Journal, People’s Journal, People’s Tonight, Taliba, People Magazine, Women’s Journal), fired by the enthusiasm of youth and fueled by a desire to help colleagues in the printing press and the motor and clerical pools who did not get the same privileges as many of us working journos, decided to test the waters by forming a union in 1981.

It was the first successful attempt at unionizing in a newspaper owned by a Romualdez. The Times Journal was one of three of the national newspapers, along with the Marcos-crony-managed Daily Express and Bulletin Today, published then.

With the majority having no families to support—organizing was mainly an initiative of the reporters; the press men, drivers, janitors and clerks, as well as other editorial members were too intimidated to confront the management—we had nothing to lose but our jobs. We were willing to take the gamble.

Recruiting members was not easy. Although the idea of a union was met with much enthusiasm, not too many signed up initially. As far as I can remember, I was the only desk person who joined. Some were supportive but begged off because of the expected repercussions, such as harassment from their bosses or, worse, the threat of job termination. At least one, a proofreader, had a flimsy motive for signing up: She thought the elected union president, George Brooks, was “cute.”

A few of us had family members who were active unionists: Edmundo Nolasco, the father of Journal and Philippine Daily Inquirer colleague Joey Nolasco, was a labor organizer; Amante Paredes, Journal (and later Malaya) co-worker Joel Paredes’ dad, and Francisco Dipasupil Sr., my father, were also union members of the postwar Manila Chronicle. We had an inkling of how it was to live, love and cross the lines with an unyonista. 

Where to assemble

When the membership grew, with those from the motor pool and proofreading sections and filing clerks from the library and secretarial offices turning in their applications, finding a venue to hold our meetings became a problem. It was compounded by the fact that the reporters had varying schedules and days off. Gathering a sizeable group was next to impossible, especially when the management got wind of the fact that a union was rapidly taking shape right under their noses. Invoking editorial prerogative, the editors, pressured principally by the big bosses, reshuffled reporters to different beats far from the Journal office in Port Area, Manila.

At a time when communication lines were hardly sophisticated, many reporters were required to report to the Port Area office where they would write their stories. Union assemblies, when possible, were held in reporters’ homes or in a Chinese restaurant that served cheap noodles but had bad air-conditioning and catered to noisy, cigarette-smoking diners. On several occasions, we had spirited discussions inside a motel room on Harrison Street in Manila, courtesy of a union member who kept a yearlong pass to the themed establishment in his shirt pocket close to his heart.

Along the way, we lost friendships, but forged new ones. The fearful shunned our company, looked the other way, or took the longest route just to avoid bumping into us, scared of guilt by association. On the other hand, we met people whom we had never thought would cast their fate to the same wind—like the driver Mang Enteng, who risked unemployment and the demands of raising a family of five because he believed in the cause.

For valuable legal advice, we relied on Prof. Perfecto Fernandez, a constitution and labor law specialist and revered faculty member of the University of the Philippines College of Law. Being a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines himself, Pekto Fernandez easily found common ground with fledgling journalists like us. We spent many weekends visiting his home on the sprawling campus of the University of the Philippines Diliman to listen to stories of thinning picket lines, collective bargaining agreements, and what’s new on the labor front.


Pampered and among the privileged few on the payroll of Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, Imelda Marcos’ younger brother, whose ownership of the Journal publications was not a secret, we swiftly became the company pariahs. A round-trip ticket to Paris promised by Kokoy was already within my grasp when it was hastily withdrawn by the management after they learned that I was one of the union organizers, along with former campus activists like Paredes, who later assumed the post of Philippine Information Agency head; Chuchay Fernandez, now editor of the Business Mirror; and the late Antonio Modena, who would later become a foreign service officer.

I was also “demoted” (but not in pay) from desk person to the police and entertainment beats usually reserved for reporters just starting out. The editors thought I would hate the transfer because, I heard it said, “she had just arrived from studies in Paris and the new beats would be ‘baduy’ (provincial/no taste) for her.” Au contraire, I loved covering Manila’s colorful Western Police District and its assorted characters, and I was (and still am) a star-struck movie fan.

We were inspired by “Norma Rae,” a movie about a North Carolina woman (played by Sally Field) who went through hell and back organizing a union in a factory where she worked as a mill hand. Much later, and in similar circumstances but a different environment, we were captivated by the award-winning “Sister Stella L,” a film based on the struggles of a real-life nun (played by Vilma Santos) confronted with labor- and strike-related issues in the course of her work with the poor and disadvantaged.

Ninoy Aquino’s funeral

Nearing the eventual fall of the Marcoses, the entire Journal reportorial staff, unionists included, were plucked from wherever we were and assigned by the editors to report on the assassinated Ninoy Aquino’s funeral on Aug. 31, 1983. After being on the job as early as 6 a.m. to cover the 11-hour funeral procession from Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City to Manila Memorial Park in Paranaque, we rushed to the office to write our stories, only to find our efforts thrown into the trash bins. The Journal report the following day—about a man hit by lightning while up a tree watching the funeral procession—was the butt of jokes for days on end.

After a new reshuffle of beats and positions, I was assigned to a new Journal sister paper that closed as fast as it opened. We knew that the end was in sight. Towards the end of 1983, each of the 300-plus union members was given a notice of termination and severance pay. 

Those were tumultuous yet fascinating years throughout which lessons were learned, bruised friendships healed, and new opportunities beckoned. Many of us, including driver Mang Enteng, joined the staff of press freedom icon Joe Burgos’ Malaya and We Forum, “mosquito press” pioneers (where we would also put up a union post-Edsa 1986) and the Inquirer (where, as in Malaya, the union also engaged the same lawyer, Cesar Maravilla).  

In our individual careers, we would write stories on perennial labor issues such as contractualization and unbearable conditions at the workplace, low wages and job security, as seen in our accounts of strikes by workers as varied as SM saleswomen and Christ the King Seminary carpentry shop workers.

Flores and Olalia  

l met the wives of labor leaders Ceferino Flores and Rolando “Ka Lando” Olalia whose stories of survival and hope we would write about. Flores’ family continues to dream of the day when the hotel worker and unionist who disappeared in the 1980s would show up at their doorstep.

We would treasure memories of Ka Lando, he of the light banter with a detectable Kapampangan accent, impeccably dressed in a crisp barong. When my sister Sonia Dipasupil Barros (since deceased) and I were working at Malaya, Joe Burgos sent us both to identify Ka Lando’s mutilated body which had been dumped by murderous Army soldiers in an isolated grassy field in Antipolo. Sonia would later work as a pro bono lawyer for the trade union center Kilusang Mayo Uno founded by Felixberto Olalia Sr., Ka Lando’s father. 

Soon after and together with writers and labor advocates Ed Villegas, Ave Perez Jacob, Roger Ordonez, Recah Trinidad and James Jasmines, we set up the Amado V. Hernandez Resource Center (named after the late nationalist writer and labor leader) that focused on labor issues and related publications.

The fight for workers’ rights never ends, especially with totalitarian governments on the rise in recent years. Working shoulder to shoulder, arms linked in perpetual struggle, we’ve had a long, bumpy and contentious, but thoroughly exhilarating and life-changing, ride.

See: Detention, ‘town arrest’ under martial law

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