Piston’s George San Mateo, a progressive transport leader

Piston and some of its national leaders have become popular, and as such targets of vilification, because they consistently oppose the exploitation of drivers and Filipinos in general by the oil cartel and all those who “collude” with it.


MANILA — When transport leader George San Mateo and other leaders of Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) board a bus, there are times when its conductor would not allow them to pay their fares. “We in Piston would tell the conductor and driver: ‘Thank you, but the company might deduct it from your own pay,’ and we would insist on paying. But they wouldn’t let us,” George told Bulatlat.com in an interview.

He quoted some bus conductors as telling him: “We are comrades – and you have been helping us a lot.” That thought never fails to count for San Mateo; he had thought Piston is more known among jeepney drivers than bus employees.

Since 2007, San Mateo has been serving as the national secretary general of Piston, an organization whose members so far came mostly from organizations of jeepney and FX taxi drivers and small operators.

Today, George San Mateo and Piston are household names in consistently questioning the abuses of the monopoly oil companies, the oil deregulation law that made it legal and possible, and the seeming paralysis of the government in checking alleged oil overpricing and runaway profit margins. Piston has also distinguished itself from other transport organizations in having resolutely sought to oppose “unjust oil price increases,” rather than immediately asking for fare hikes or other ‘non-solutions.’

In this way, Piston has courted the support and sympathy of the riding public, as the group urges the public to see the mass transport drivers for what they are— a part of the downtrodden, exploited and oppressed people in Philippine society— and not the ‘enemy’ or ‘undisciplined traffic violator’ that the government would have anyone believe. For the tag of the ‘enemy,’ Piston leaders and members have pointed its finger to the oil cartel instead. And to whoever is taking the side of this oil cartel, for example, as Piston often said, the energy department and President Benigno S. Aquino III himself.

Since Aquino’s last-minute “dialogue” with transport leaders failed to derail the impending transport strike, while their energy undersecretary’s initial efforts to sow confusion among the public about Piston’s supposed suggestion to “strengthen”, and not repeal, the Oil Deregulation Law, also reportedly failed to remove public support to Piston’s calls to protest oil overpricing, Malacañang and other officials have appeared preoccupied in belittling the strike and those who led it, such as Piston.

Now, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda is questioning the leadership of Piston, while the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) has formed a task force with the aim of countering future transport strikes and similar protests. Did Lacierda have basis for casting aspersion on San Mateo’s legitimacy as transport leader?

A taxi driver opposed to contractualization

Seven years ago, San Mateo was a newly retrenched driver pounding the streets of Metro Manila in search of another job as driver. He could have stayed on in his old company as driver, he said, if he would only agree to be rehired as a lower-paid, non-unionized contractual.

“I guessed I was the last employee to be regularized in that company,” San Mateo recalled. As such, he was one of the first to be laid off when the car rental company went full blast into implementing contractualization. They at least had a provision in that company that called for “last in, first out” in case the company needed to lay off employees.

The said car rental company refused to regularize their employees who had successfully passed through the usual casual and probationary status after six months or even after a year. George said that other drivers who came in at about the same time he did were no longer regularized but only offered job contracts.

“At that time, we were over 100 regular drivers. In 2001 they started hiring contractuals. It was in 2003 they decided to contractualize big time, retrenching workers via first in last out,” said San Mateo.

San Mateo had worked in different car rental companies for a total of four years. Before that he had worked as family driver to a boss in a construction company and then as multi-tasking driver to a commercial advertising company. He was its van driver there who also got called in to assist in holding the microphone or the lights and do other odd jobs for the company.

In his first job as driver for a car rental company, he had ferried the cabin crew of Philippine Air Lines to and from their residences and the airport. In the next car rental company he transferred to, he worked again as a smartly uniformed driver who, this time, ferried executives, tourists and other clients of the car rental company.

He told Bulatlat.com that as a driver in this company, he also got intimately acquainted with the city’s “tourism industry,” as he had been assigned to what they call in the industry as “limousine” service for hotels, airports, gambling dens, and other tourist spots and meeting places of the busy executive or the rich.

In that job as driver, San Mateo also drove limousines and other types of “sweet-smelling luxury vehicles” for their company’s VIP clients.

George said he left the car rental company when he got a chance to buy, with his savings, a second-hand car which he decided to use as taxi, with himself as the driver.

He was a taxi driver-operator for three years. But the continued rise of oil prices, taxi maintenance and servicing, traffic woes and stiff penalties and kotong (illegal bribes), later forced him to sell his taxi and return to working as driver for another car rental company.

San Mateo easily found work in another car rental company where other former co-drivers were working. It was here where he was eventually declared as “regular” on the job, only to be laid off soon and offered to be rehired as contractual driver. He refused the offer.

An activist leader ‘lost and found’

While looking for another job as driver in 2003, San Mateo said he met up again with friends from the days when he was a student activist.

It was in the 80s, when San Mateo was a student residing at his grandmother’s home in Parañaque, that he first joined a progressive youth organization in their community, the Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (Kadena). San Mateo’s mother hailed from Pampanga, his father from Bataan. But his parents met and raised all their children, including George, in Manila. George is the fourth in a brood of five.

He was elected as chairman of Kadena-Parañaque and he served in that capacity from 1985 to 1986. By 1987 he was tapped to be the national spokesperson of Kadena. He served the youth organization as spokesman from 1987 to 1991. After that, he briefly worked in Baguio City as mass leader for a Cordilleran alliance called Tuntungan ti Umili. But he was asked by his parents to return to Metro Manila in December of 1992, to help support the family “for a while.” By that time, said San Mateo, his elder siblings had married and he, being still single then, became the one depended on to help support the elderly parents.

San Mateo reportedly agreed. Financially supporting his family “for a while” began in 1992, with him working as company driver for a succession of two different employers, then as driver to a succession of three different car rental companies, interrupted by years when he was a taxi driver-operator. He worked as driver for more than ten years.

In 2003, San Mateo gravitated to Piston and to friends from his youth activist days. When some drivers and active members of Piston learned that he was looking for a “job,” they invited him to Piston as one of its “volunteers.”

San Mateo said he started working as public information officer of Piston in 2004, just when its well-known leader, Medardo Roda or Ka Roda, had just suffered a stroke. San Mateo’s first “job” at Piston combined elements of his last task as activist in the 80s, that of being a national spokesperson, and his knowledge and experience of being a driver and a taxi driver-operator.

He told Bulatlat.com that although he had not worked side by side with Ka Roda, he had seen Ka Roda in rallies and transport strikes back when he was the national spokesperson of Kadena. The chairman of Piston when he entered the transport organization was Mar Garvida, who was “not that in touch with the day-to-day life of ordinary drivers”, said San Mateo, so he and other leaders of Piston who have deep familiarity with the drivers’ situation, problems and demands, had to spend time “updating and briefing” Garvida.

In 2005, San Mateo was elected secretary general of Piston-National Capital Region. At the same time, he was appointed as national spokesman of the transport organization.

In 2007, Garvida left Piston for 1-UTAK, a group that calls itself a transport partylist, and who has for leaders then a lawyer such as President Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita lawyer, Atty. Vigor Mendoza, and for a time, even the late former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) general Angelo Reyes.

In the third national congress of Piston, San Mateo was elected as its secretary-general and then secretary general Steve Ranjo was elected as president. Leading a national organization such as Piston is a full-time job in itself, its leaders said.

As leaders of Piston, San Mateo told Bulatlat.com that they are not the desk-bound, office-based leaders who had to be briefed about the plight of public utility drivers— they are roaming leaders who work and live with public utility drivers, eat with them, meet and study with them. He said that they seek to expand and strengthen Piston and build alliances with other transport federations to “defend and advance” the interest not only of the transportation sector in the country, which is a “vital ingredient for the nation’s progress,” but also of the riding public and when all of them are good, the people in general.

Filipino drivers pride themselves for being “sweet lovers.” San Mateo’s busy job takes him all over the country to meet, swear in, consult with various local chapters of Piston. Since he started working as a driver, he said he had had a succession of three failed relationships. It was at his fourth serious relationship that, he joked, he had perhaps finally learned how to strengthen his girlfriend’s helmet so she would understand his long and consuming working hours.

Piston leaders, said San Mateo, “share leadership role, staff work, area-work and they’re part of the nitty-gritty of the drivers’ life. If not, you will be out of touch with the drivers. You need these to respond to crucial transport and people’s issues,” he said.

That a presidential spokesman would now question the “legitimacy” of someone like George San Mateo and his leading a group such as Piston could only mean that Lacierda probably needs to ride the public transport more often, and not only during a national day of protest or transport strike, said San Mateo’s supporters. In fact, even an intern from Bulatlat.com recalled how just by name-dropping San Mateo and Piston, an over-charging FX taxi driver would quickly give his protesting passengers the correct change.

San Mateo laughed when he heard this, thinking it was another drivers’ joke, as they say in humble roadside eateries where drivers often congregate for meal breaks. But when reassured that the intern was serious, he said such views of Piston can only be attributed to the prestige it has built since 1981. (http://bulatlat.com)

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  1. I have read that the Palace questions George San Mateo’s legitamacy to speak to for the Transport Sector. I presume that his Credentials of Citizenship and Voter registration would be sufficient, but if the Palace Criterion for Legitimacy is wealth and influence (San Miguel, Shell, Petron and Meralco),then San Mateo and 99 million other Pilipinos may, indeed, be “illegitimate”.
    Since the Oil Companies own DOE and Meralco owns ERC, which Government Agency should George own in order to be heard? Please advise.

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