Published on May 1, 2023

The HRVVMC joins the country in commemorating Labor Day. We honor the significance and role that laborers play in the progress and development of the country. We also call attention to the long-standing history of the international workers’ movement, a testament to the persistence of structural barriers in achieving workers’ rights. In recalling this history, let us take a quick look at the Philippine workers’ movement under the Martial Law years of Ferdinand Marcos.


labor_day_1 Graffiti of strikes

Graffiti on a pillar of a bridge in Manila referring to strikes on March 28, 1985 (2 month duration), January 30, 1986 (2 month duration), Novemver 17, 1986 (1 year duration)
Image from Filippijnengroep Nederland (FGN) Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

Upon the imposition of Martial Law in 1972, Marcos, through General Order No. 5, prohibited rallies, demonstrations, and group actions, including strikes and picketing in key industries.[1] In October 1975, the workers of the La Tondeña distillery went on strike seeking permanent working status and fairer wages despite General Order No. 5 is still in place. The workers were led by activist Edgar Jopson and other labor activists. Their rally cry: “Tama na! Sobra na! Welga Na!”[2] At the time, the regime was particular about snuffing out any form of dissent. As such, the strike was eventually broken up and the workers were arrested.

The workers were also supported by church people, such as Sr. Asuncion Martinez of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM). Sr. Martinez, or Sr. Ason to many who knew her, was even seen clinging on to the bus carrying the arrested workers, challenging the constabulary forces of the Metrocom to arrest her as well. According to her later on, the La Tondeña strike allowed her to gain “a new understanding of [her] country’s history and [her] people.”[3]

The La Tondeña strike is considered one of the first major demonstrations that took place during Martial Law. This act of defiance smashed the fear that enveloped the country and inspired rallies and protests in the years that followed. In response to La Tondeña, Marcos passed Presidential Decree No. 823 in November, further prohibiting all forms of strikes, picketing, and lockouts, including work stoppages, slowdowns, mass leaves and other similar activities.[4]


May 1, 1985 Liwasang Bonifacio International Solidarity Affair delegates join Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) workers in celebration of labor day.
Sourced from HRVVMC archives.

Over the next years, the regime continued to clamp down on protests. Still, people kept protesting. The solidarity and courage exhibited in La Tondeña gave people the heart to follow in their footsteps.

On May 1, 1985, 190 sisters of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) released a statement of support for the workers who have “marched, suffered, struggled, and achieved some victories against the fascist, feudal and imperialist forces that try to break [them].” They denounced the sufferings, killings, salvagings, and tortures of workers at the picket lines and during mass actions. They also denounced the exploitation and abuse of women workers. In the same statement the ICM remarked that “from [their] courage, we draw courage.”[5]

In 1986, both the Church and workers figured greatly at the EDSA protests. As they took to the streets, a prominent rally cry was “Tama na! Sobra na! Palitan na!”, echoing the rally cry of the La Tondeña workers eleven years before.[6] However, the end of Martial Law did not herald the end of their struggles.

Anti-riot police beating up workers. July 9, 1984, Panghulo, Malabon.
Sourced from HRVVMC Archives.


Today, as we mark Labor Day, we remember the story of the workers during Martial Law and their courage to fight for their rights. Nearly 40 years on, many victories have since been achieved, but many of their grievances also remain. As long as workers around the world continue to be exploited, paid poorly, or forced to work in unjust or unfair conditions, we must continue to draw lessons from their struggles.


[1]General Order No. 5, s. 1972,Official Gazette of the Philippines, September 22, 1972, accessed April 26, 2023.

[2] Satur Ocampo, “Revisiting labor contractualization,, June 13, 2015, accessed April 26, 2023, 

[3]Sr. Asuncion C. Martinez, ICM,Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, accessed April 26, 2023. This was originally an article by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

[4]Presidential Decree No. 823, s. 1975,Official Gazette of the Philippines, November 3, 1975, accessed April 26, 2023.

[5] “I.C.M. Congress: Statement of Support, Labor Day, May 1, 1985,” in Ichthys Vol. VIII, No. 17 (3 May 1985), 12, ICHTHYS I, ICHTHYS 1985 (II), Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection, Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, Quezon City, Philippines.

[6] Pimentel, “Never mind EDSA: Remember the battles before the uprising.”

[7] Boying Pimentel, “Never mind EDSA: Remember the battles before the uprising,Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 9, 2016, accessed April 26, 2023.