By KIMBERLIE N. QUITASOL
BAGUIO CITY — He is a top caliber people’s lawyer who won millions in wages, compensation and benefits for the Cordillera workers. But after three decades of law practice he earned no luxury car, grand mansion or fat checks. What he earned was the admiration and love of the workers he selflessly served and colleagues he worked with.
The sheer number of workers who came to give their last respects during his wake last year despite the incessant monsoon rains (that toppled Philex Mining Corporation’s tailings pond 4) at the time proves how the Cordillera workers loved him.
Atty. Federico “Dick” Bunao was born April 18, 1947 in Albay. He died August 4, 2012 from a heart attack in Baguio City.
On the first year anniversary of his death, his colleagues together with his family held a small gathering in his memory. Fighting back their tears, they recounted their special memories of him and his unparalleled commitment to the working class.
A people’s lawyer
As Tony Baggay of the Cordillera Labor Center (CLC) puts it, the history of the Cordillera workers’ movement will not be complete without mentioning the contribution of Atty. Bunao. He said that right after graduating from law school and passing the bar examinations, Atty. Bunao was brought to the Cordillera by labor leader Felixberto Olalia sometime in 1979.
Atty. Bunao started as an apprentice until the Baro a Timpuyog ti Mangmangged ti Benguet (BTMB, New Alliance of Workers in eanguet) took him as their legal counsel in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, the national government issued a wage increase order which Benguet Corporation did not grant its workers. He served as a lawyer for the BTMB in their fight for the implementation of the wage increase.
He won the case and BCI was forced to pay their workers over P4 million in backwages. Unfortunately, a rogue labor leader ran away with half of the said amount. But unlike the heartless labor leader, Atty. Bunao distributed the remaining P2 million to the rest of the workers. He even waved his attorney’s fee because he knew that what was left was not enough to compensate all the workers.
In the early 1990s, the labor courts decided in favor of the workers of Philex and ordered the mining company to pay its workers long overdue benefits and backwages. Atty. Bunao ensured that the workers received what was due them.
Also about the same years, Atty. Bunao was also able to win the labor case involving workers of Coca-Cola in La Union. The workers received all their benefits and wages prescribed by law.
Within the same period, during the closure of another mining company, the Black Mountain, he filed and won the case for the workers collection of unpaid wages and benefits from the said company. The company, however, offered its equipment as payment to the workers. But the workers were not properly compensated because the company did not leave any equipment behind when it closed.
Atty. Bunao has also offered pro bono services to individuals, mostly workers defending them against oppressive and unfair labor practices. Hundreds of workers were able to claim their benefits and receive proper compensation and even reinstatement through his legal assistance. And when he said it was pro bono, it meant the worker will not pay for his services.
Embracing the worker’s struggle
After winning all those cases, Atty. Bunao realized that the courts alone cannot end the oppressive and unjust labor practices that enslaved workers. In earlier interviews he said that the legal battle is just secondary to the workers’ fight against oppression and exploitation.
“I was not the one who made you win but your collective action. Without it, it would be difficult to win the case,” he used to tell the workers. He also believed that only the workers’ unity and collective actions can free them from oppression and exploitation.
According to his colleagues at the CLC, he advised the workers of then Sangilo mines to defy the assumption of jurisdiction (AJ) issued by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) against the striking workers sometime in 1996. He told them that for as long as the workers are united in their fight the courts would be forced to decide in favor of the workers.
After three months of being on strike, the Sangilo mines closed down and was ordered to properly compensate its workers.
The workers of the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company had a similar experience in 2003 and 2005. In 2003, the Lepanto workers went on strike for a month, defying an AJ order. The company dismissed most of the workers who went on strike. But because of the workers’ unity and collective effort the company gave in to their demands. The dismissed workers were reinstated and were given proper compensation.
The Lepanto workers again went on strike in 2005. After three months of painstakingly manning and maintaining the picketlines, the workers got their demands. Instead of dismissing over 100 workers, through the collective strength of the workers, the company agreed to instead dismiss the 16 union officers. The officers were, however, fully compensated. The officers opted to sacrifice their jobs for the good of the majority.
All throughout the strike, Atty. Bunao was with the workers spending long hours of dialogue and negotiations. His CLC colleagues attested that Atty. Bunao is a soft spoken man but during negotiations his voice struck like thunder that even big shot corporate lawyers and company bosses were shaken.
He may have died without amassing worldly possessions but he shall forever be loved and admired by workers he served. His great contribution to the fight against oppression and exploitation is now written in the history of the working class. And his life of selfless service will not be forgotten by this generation and will be known by generations still to come. Northern Dispatch