BACOLOD CITY (May 17, 2011) – Jessie Ortega has been at it for decades.
He has been secretary-general of the United Negros Drivers and Operators Center (UNDOC), the activist transport organization in the province that has weathered many political storms, endured many presidents and has continually run the gauntlet of oil firms.
And today, on what could possibly be the 20th transport strike led by UNDOC, Jessie remembers that he has been with it for the past 20 years – leading it and serving as its main public figure
The figure on the strikes is just Jessie’s estimate, “it could be 18 or more than 20 in the course of two decades,” he said, his voice raspy due to the series of radio and television interviews during the two-day action that saw drivers taking to the streets again to protest the continued rise in petroleum prices.
“Indi na gid mahapos magpangabuhi sa dalan (It’s not easy to make a living on the road),” Jessie said to describe the condition of drivers who had to contend with more than a dozen fuel increases – or adjustments as the petroleum industry calls it – since the start of the year.
The increases have already whittled down the income of the drivers.
By Jessie’s estimate, at least P50 have been taken away from the bentahan – earnings that are enough to buy a kilo and a half of well-milled rice or more than a dozen eggs.
And that is only half the story.
Public utility drivers – those driving the jeepneys especially – are seen as an undisciplined, uncouth, uncooperative, dirty lot who blow their noses on grease-filled rags and wipe their motor-oil smeared hands with clean handkerchiefs.
Aside from dwindling incomes, they have to contend with a public that might not really be sympathetic to their plight even if that public forgets that most drivers still accept P7 even if fare rates have been increased to P7.50 or even if the drivers do not complain that students still enjoy the privilege discount during Sundays and on holidays.
They stop at corners, cut into other motorists’ lanes, run red lights, wear slippers while driving, don’t take a bath before the biyahe, smoke inside the jeepneys and spit on the road among the other “horrors” that they commit.
They are derisively called “mga hari ng dalan” who would not even yield to an ambulance, speed off even when a passenger’s foot is still on the stepboard or conk up their stereo to volume levels befitting a barrio benefit dance.
And they might be guilty on all counts.
Even when paralysis today reached up to 90 percent according to organizers and 75 percent according to the police, listeners of radio stations were still blasting at them for the abovementioned “sins.”
“Puro lang reklamo (They are always complaining),” one texter said.
“Rali-rali, amo man na gihapon (Rallies are still the same),” another added.
“Ang kay Jessie kag kay Nilo (Frias, deputy secretary general of UNDOC), pormada na lang na ‘ya (Jessie and Nilo are just posturing),” one of them said.
Most media outlets even covered the event like some kind of incident straight out of the police blotter, keeping tabs mainly on the “peace and order” condition while the strike is being carried out.
And when a lone driver was nabbed for allegedly puncturing the tire of a jeepney with a steel spike, a radio commentator characterized the strike as “magamo” and blamed organizers for failing to reign in their members even if the driver was not a member of UNDOC and not even when the police chief himself said that the driver acted on his own and out of personal motives.
Days before the strike, the police was talking about security preparations, as if a terror attack was impending, a provincial government official discouraged businessmen from closing shop while some people who called themselves transport leaders were questioning the necessity of such a political action.
“We cannot blame them, that is what they think but you cannot say that does not mean that our demands are not for the common good,” a driver and UNDOC official, Bebot Santillan said.
Less attention was paid to the drivers who deliberately stayed off the streets, drivers whose families had lesser food for two days because their tatay wanted to protest the continuing increases.
Drivers like Alex whose two children – aged two and four – had to drink su-am, a watered down substitute for milk formula made primarily from the boiling water of cooking rice. Such substitutes are common among the poor in the Philippines, especially those that cannot afford milk like Alex.
“Duha ka adlaw man lang ni, pakita ta lang nga mabato man ta ah (This is just for two days, let’s show them that we will also fight),” he said.
Jessie hopes that on his 20th year in UNDOC, things will be better for the drivers.
But he believes that it should be fought for, not only hoped for.
“This is a continuing struggle, there is nothing more for us to do except to struggle,” he said.
Days before the strike, petroleum companies lowered prices by P2. While Ortega does not claim that this was brought about by their action, he said this will bring a bit of relief for the drivers.
But things are far from being over.
Jessie said UNDOC will continue to push for the scrapping of the Oil Deregulation Law, the lifting of the Value Added Tax on petroleum products and the nationalization of the oil industry.
These, however, can only be realized when those in power really look after the welfare of the nation and its people.
As the transport strike ends, it’s back to the manibela for the drivers, back to other organizational concerns for Jessie.
Alex will ply the Bata-Libertad route once more. His children will be drinking Alpine evap again.
Jessie has been at it for more than two decades. And so is the nation.*Manibela means steering wheel in Ilonggo. Also used in Filipino. Loaned from Spanish.