The plight of the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (PALEA) has garnered a significant amount of public interest over the past seventeen months. What began as a strike against Philippine Airlines has grown into a large-scale movement against contractualization and unemployment. For over seventeen months, members of PALEA have set up camp outside the in-flight offices of PAL at Airport Road as a sign of protest, hoping that their fight would lead to their reinstatement as official employees of PAL. It is with this rationale that I chose to conduct my participant observation exercise at the PALEA campsite.
My visit to the campsite came at a very opportune time, as they were commemorating the seventeenth month of their struggles through a fellowship and a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. While hearing mass to commemorate the seventeenth month was not a usual event at the campsite, the members of PALEA would often hold fellowships at the campsite, giving me the perfect event to clearly observe how members of PALEA conducted their affairs as they continued to fight for their reinstatement.
However, while I operated under the assumption that I would be there to strictly conduct this exercise for class, what I got from this exercise would be something that continues to amaze me, maybe even overwhelm my mind and heart …
Notes on the Field
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I, along with my fellow members from our political party, the Christian Union for Socialist and Democratic Advancement (CRUSADA), took an hour ride from Ateneo to attend PALEA’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist, as well as their usual fellowship. This trip served to be the first time I got the chance to visit the PALEA campsite.
Just to provide a bit of a background, our political party has been heavily invested with the plight of PALEA, so much that a partnership was made between the two organizations in support of the other’s advocacies. As such, it was through CRUSADA that this trip to the PALEA campsite was possible. On my trip to the PALEA campsite, two fellow members served as my key informants, namely: Ryan, an alumnus of Ateneo and CRUSADA, and Mr. RR Raneses, political science instructor at Ateneo and CRUSADA’s faculty adviser. They helped in providing all the pertinent details regarding PALEA and their struggles, as well as accommodating me in the fellowship-mass, since they were two of the members of CRUSADA who kept close ties with PALEA.
As we arrived at the PALEA campsite, I could not help but feel a bit excited to meet the members of PALEA, who were really accommodating and pleased to have us as their guests. Taking a walk right outside the campsite, I was also amused that the campsite actually took up the entire parking lot of the PAL in-flight office. I never thought that the campsite could take up that much space that it seemed invasive, but then again, I had to remind myself that this act of invading the parking lot was a sign of their opposition against PAL.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the mass was about to finish. We took this time to take a quick smoke break before entering the campsite. Fortunately, we were just in time for the fellowship. As I entered the campsite, I took a quick walk around the area, observing their make-shift headquarters. While from the outside, the campsite didn’t appear as much besides the many tarpaulins conveying their struggles that hung from the walls, it was amazing to see that given their limited resources, they were able to create a space for them to dine, to gather, and even to sleep. Entering the campsite from the southwest corner of the area, we were greeted right away with the area that they allotted for fellowships, with most of the members of PALEA present in the area. This area was surrounded by areas that served as make-shift kitchens, pantries, and living quarters. The area dedicated for community gatherings was the center of the campsite, with an altar for Jesus Christ and Mother Mary placed in front. Beyond their make-shift community center, we could see an open space in which members and visitors used as a smoking area, with tents dedicated for gaming and more lodging located at the sides. It didn’t seem as much, but to the members of PALEA, it was home. And throughout our visit, I truly did feel at home.
Once we exchanged pleasantries with some PALEA members, we were escorted to the front of the crowd, where they asked us to be seated. Once we took our seats, the fellowship began with a simple address from the president of PALEA, Mr. Gerry Rivera. While he was delivering his speech that drew robust laughter from the crowd, as well as passionate applause, I was trying to get a hold of my notes, since I was overwhelmed with the passion that these members showed in support of their fellow member’s pleas for continuing their fight. While I already knew of their struggles through our political party’s partnership with them, it was during this moment in which I truly felt and understood the magnitude of this issue. Hearing them talk about receiving what is right and just struck a nerve in me, and from that moment on I truly wanted to be a part of their struggles as well. It felt as if we were truly in solidarity with one another, even if we came from two completely different groups, as it appeared that both groups were fighting the same fight.
Later on, Mr. Rivera called on us to give a few words to the PALEAns. Seeing this moment as perfect opportunity to be one with them, I gladly took the mic and spoke my heart out on continuing my organization’s partnership with PALEA, hoping that sooner than later this fight will come to end and will bring upon what is right and just for the members of PALEA. I continued with how I, as a student, will support their cause, and that we, not as students nor members of PALEA, but as one community, will see to it that inequality in employment will be resolved not just for those in PALEA, but also for those who will become part of the work force as well. My few words managed to garner a huge round of applause from the crowd, and as I returned the mic back to Mr. Rivera, I was completely enamored with the thought that those few words managed to make an impact on them, that perhaps our support continued to give them hope in their battle against contractualization and unemployment.
Before we ended the fellowship, some members of PALEA invited us to their tri-weekly march around Airport Road. Of course, we gladly accepted this invitation, and we made our way outside to Airport Road, with us carrying some of the banners that they made in opposing PAL. We made one round while we shouted along with the PALEAns some of their chants: “Itigil ang contractualization!” “Ipagpatuloy ang laban!” This moment furthered my intense feeling of solidarity with PALEA, which I’m sure will remain with me even though PALEA hopes to resolve their dispute with PAL by the end of this month.
By the end of the fellowship, the PALEA members gathered to enjoy their dinner. As we left right when they began having their meal, I saw them once more coming together while sharing a few laughs and stories, and once again I was completely amazed in seeing how these workers, who I believe were always divided in terms of occupation as employees, were brought together by such an unfortunate circumstance. While I hope that their disputes would be resolved soon, I feel a bit saddened by the thought that once their struggle ends, this little community-that-could will eventually become nothing more than a memory, for getting a glimpse of their lives within the campsite was truly an inspiring and overwhelming experience.
Processing: Insights on Participant Observation
Sharing a few words with my key informants right after the event, I was told that PALEAns’ way of living was a true testament to what solidarity is. They also told me that the PALEA members were always accommodating towards their guests, and that they often enjoyed hosting guests, for these guests would always declare their utmost support in the cause of PALEA. One such story that they told me was that some foreigners would happen to stroll along the campsite by chance, and once these foreigners paid attention to the campsite, they would simply enter out of curiosity. By the time they leave the campsite, they have made friends with many of the members present in the campsite, and more often than not they would also donate sums of money or goods to PALEA.
In processing this experience, I feel that no amount of reading can truly grasp what it is that the PALEAns are fighting for. And as opposed to taking a part of their actual fellowship and march, it would have been impossible to really understand why the PALEAns have continued their fight throughout seventeen months through observing the campsite alone. In order to really understand a community, I realized that one must truly immerse himself within it for him to truly understand what it is that makes a community a community.
Having a key informant with me (two key informants for my sake) also helped in getting me acquainted with the community and issue at hand. Without them, I feel that my understanding of what I have experience would lack the basic facts that caused the creation of the campsite. While I could have gotten the said information through interacting with the members of PALEA, it would have taken up some time and the facts that were presented may be too prejudiced. Having a key informant, therefore, was essential in seeing the issue clearly before immersing myself with the community.
While it would have been easier to have conducted a survey to the members of PALEA instead of visiting the actual campsite, as it would have saved time and effort needed in getting the facts, I think that it betrays the “human” factor present behind these facts and data. What is presented as hard, cold data may be interpreted through various ways that may not completely convey the exact thought and feeling behind them, and doing a participant observation serves to give answers that are concise, exact, and speak true of what goes on within a community. As such, it becomes a dilemma to ask members in a questionnaire about what they think solidarity is within their community. You cannot simply ask these questions and quantitate them; you have to really see and feel what they feel solidarity is.
Lastly, while questionnaires do not really apply to situations such as the PALEA campsite, questionnaires do come in handy when it comes to studying situations that people perceive to be intimate or private. You simply do not observe how a man and woman have sex in trying to study how they view sex, nor do you observe how someone feels during the act of stealing money. While doing these observations may be for academic reasons, it still does not justify the need for directly observing these situations. Therefore, a questionnaire becomes a key tool in trying to analyze such situations.
Raphael Guio A. Martinez
2 AB Communication
Chief Whip, CRUSADA
SA21 – U