An unsung hero remembered
By Roberto E. N. Rivera, S.J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:02:00 10/26/2009
Filed Under: Labor, Justice & Rights, Employment
“The memory of the just is blessed.” These words from the book of Proverbs are a reassurance of eternal recognition for the righteous departed. But in our time we have seen as well how the memory of those deemed just has blessed the fates of the living. The recent demise of a democratic icon, for example, has not only evoked fervor for historic times past, it may also very well determine political fortunes.
The memory of the just, however, is blessed in other ways, sans the public adulation experienced by the late President Corazon Aquino. There are those who leave our midst, in the mold of Rizal’s Elias, “without seeing the dawn.” Or to use an image evoked by the recent tropical storm that inundated Metro Manila, there are those who press on through raging storms for the good of the cause, without witnessing the fulfillment of sunshine’s bright promise.
Among these unsung heroes is Dennis Jorolan, who succumbed to a massive heart attack last Aug. 21 at the age of 52. And while he shared with another famous Aquino both this death anniversary and an abiding sense of commitment to country, Dennis neither enjoyed nor sought the trappings of fame. His latest career resumé is fairly nondescript: as a computer programmer and graphics designer, he used these skills over the past three decades in the fields of education, marketing and business.
But if the world of information technology was Dennis’ vocation, his avocation and perhaps his true passion was in labor organizing. Dennis was part of that idealistic generation which swelled the ranks of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) in the ’60s and ’70s. Founded by the Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn in 1924, the YCW sought to respond to the problems of labor and to uphold the dignity of workers. YCW concretized the famous “see-judge-act” approach formulated by Cardinal Cardijn: Young Christian Workers were encouraged to “see” the problems confronting humanity, to “judge” these issues based on the social teachings of the Church and to “act” on societal ills as a way of living out the Gospel message.
It was to this vision that Dennis dedicated his life, a vision that remained undimmed even as domestic and professional concerns occupied his later years. In 1998, Dennis co-founded, along with other former Young Christian Workers, the Cardijn Center for Development in Manila as a means to continue the struggle for workers’ rights in this age of globalization. As the very first director of the Cardijn Center, Dennis wrestled with the problem of labor flexibilization and the dearth of regular employment opportunities for the poor. In this regard, he lobbied vigorously in Congress for legislation to alleviate the plight of laborers. He also shepherded groups such as the Liga Manggagawa which organized contractual workers, informal laborers and the unemployed in impoverished communities, despite the increasing unpopularity of traditional factory- and trade-based unions.
Was Dennis on a Quixote-like quest, tilting at the windmills? Perhaps. With businesses retrenching and cutting down on labor costs, contractualized employment is becoming the norm in many industries and institutions. The National Statistics Office estimates national unemployment at 7.8 percent and underemployment at a staggering 19.8 percent. In the midst of the current economic crisis, conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that workers settle for whatever employment fall from the job opportunity table. But the conventional never constrained Dennis, and to his dying day he fought for the total welfare of workers.
And while Dennis never cared much for tributes, what may be the greatest affirmation of his work came from no less than the Pope himself. In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” issued just a few months before Dennis’ death, Benedict XVI acknowledges in no uncertain terms the need for organized labor: “…. trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome …. the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past ….” The Pope also emphatically reiterates the primacy of the worker: “…. the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.” A fitting summary, indeed, of all that Dennis stood for.