(This came out in my Candid Thoughts column in Sun.Star Cebu on May 21, 2008)
Ka Crispin Beltran died yesterday from injuries he suffered after he fell from the roof of his house in Bulacan. He was 75. But some wags just couldn’t resist noting that this was too ordinary an end for a long-time activist. That is supposed to be a joke but is instead a sobering observation. Activists, unlike superheroes, are mortals after all.
Beltran will be remembered more as a labor leader and less of a lawmaker. His having become a congressman was but a consequence of his commitment to the cause of the working class. There is reason why he was called “grand old man of Philippine labor” and was grand emeritus of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). He was unwavering.
The Ka Bel mystique, though, was shaped in a different era, in a period when this country churned heroes—many of them faceless—by the hundreds, even thousands. Funny how the darkest period of our history, as the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was called, could also become the brightest moment for the daring and the selfless.
When I look back at that period I remember, among the many, Felixberto Olalia, Beltran and the old KMU and Jaime Tadeo of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. They proved that the working class is capable of producing charismatic leaders who can very well articulate their grievances and demands. When Olalia died, Ka Bel became it.
The Marcos period was the “golden years” of the struggle. KMU was on its way to becoming the biggest labor center in the country (that was years before it fragmented) and challenged the ascendancy of the moderate Associated Labor Union-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. Olalia and Beltran fed on KMU’s strength and vice-versa.
The greatest tragedy of the militant workers movement was its plunge into factional strife years after the 1986 Edsa People Power uprising. The KMU is now but a shell of its old self and if not for the party-list provision of the 1987 Constitution, Beltran and the others would have lapsed into irrelevance. But to their credit, they persevered.
I don’t know if militant unionism can produce another towering figure like Ka Bel in the next decades. Present working class leaders still have to be tested by the kind of oppression and repression Beltran et al went through. Thus, the memories of Ka Bel and other militants of old should be cherished. The wait for their successors could be long.