The UFS was the only labor union for seafarers that has posted unprecedented growth, in which for only 25 years, the union has grown by leaps and bounds
with its influence encompassing nearly all ports worldwide and its membership have grown 56,000 seafarers and counting.
But the UFS has not only experienced triumphs, but also tons of setbacks. But in its relatively young history, UFS can lay claim to being the most dynamic, most responsive and most member-interactive union in the Philippines, second to none in its advocacy of issues where the welfare of Filipino seafarers, be they belong to its fold or not, are concerned.
UFS was literally born under the trees of Luneta Park and hatched in an empty cartoon box, where the early documents and other files of the union were kept.
Armed with nothing but courage and driven only by their dedication to that mission, these men – Engr. Ramirez and five other marine officers and seafarers’ rights advocates – met on December 12, 1994, to formally organize UFS into a union. In less than a month, on January 9, 1995, UFS was accredited by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) as a maritime union authorized under the laws of the Philippines to represent seafarers and enter into collective bargaining agreements with shipping companies, their agents or authorized representatives.
For UFS, the recognition by DOLE was only the first step to reaching its collective goal. If the union is to survive and sustain, its commitment to the seafarer, it must broaden and strengthen its ranks.
In the throes of new challenges to the seafaring profession, the rounder “declared” Luneta Park their first office. It was where they began the arduous task of building UFS. From a handful of Luneta Park regulars, who believed in their cause, the union drew its initial membership. It steadily grew as the intensity by which its founders incessantly underscored the need to collectively address the problems besetting the profession and the challenges imposed by new regulations seared into the hearts and minds of those who listened to their collective sounding call.
As the voice of the founders reverberated in the four corners of Luneta Park, the numbers of those who listened increased. Eventually, those who listened became believers. And those who believed joined UFS.
As the UFS goes on with its mandate, other concerns surfaced. Two of the more active seafarers’ organizations – the Concerned Seamen of the Philippines (CSP) and the Southeast Asia Mariners, Engineers, and Navigators (SEAMEN) – have just lost their figureheads, leaving a vacuum of leadership. More than that, however, there is a crying need for a fresh and dynamic leadership.
Given their innate talents of a good leader, which is responsible, dynamic, transparent, active, sensitive, and effective, the UFS was presided by Engr. Ramirez, along with his comrades, and bolstered the young union’s membership to several thousand seafarer-members, less than a year after its inception.
Gathering strength in numbers, the burgeoning union began to mount a massive information campaign aimed at both generating public attention and engendering open discussion on issues affecting the seafaring profession. By and large, the campaign also boosted the membership of UFS and bolstered its call for genuine reforms. Moreover, UFS filled the need for a true and dedicated members.
Through its eloquent style of battling problems that hounds Filipino seafarers, UFS began to gain the attention it needed to advance its cause, as maritime honchos particularly those of related government agencies and the leading industry organizations, took notice of the real and legitimate issues being raised by UFS.
While primarily aimed at fostering unity among seafarers under the wings of UFS to create an effective mechanism for representation and bargaining, the union also broadened its activities and initiated interaction with other sectors, taking full cognizance of the whole gamut of issues that affect the entire maritime industry. In the process, it gained a broader perspective of the issues involving seafarers.
Like an engineer who must make his ship’s engine contend with and survive the marine elements while on a long voyage, UFS knows too well that no union can last and survive without sailing through and interacting with the other elements in the maritime environment.
Putting in place a responsive and dynamic collective bargaining mechanism within UFS, the union expanded its involvement in the task of representing and protecting the interest of seafarers vis-a-vis that of their local employers or agents of shipowners. Gradually, it became involved in a larger community where seafarers are an integral part of a social, economic, political, cultural and moral structure that goes beyond sectoral and national boundaries and is an indispensable part of a newglobal order.
Promoting social justice and human rights between and among Filipino seafarers may be one of UFS’ objectives, but this end is every human being’s goal in the global community. So are upholding the democratic right of every seafarer with regards to his working and living conditions, privileges and benefits in accordance with all lawful and accepted standards, which, invariably is more international in scope. Part of the objectives also includes advancing the growth and development of the seafaring professions and rendering a hand to seafarers and their families, no matter what the odds.
UFS responded well with the communication revolution of the 90s that shrunk the world and gave birth to the global community. More than answering the call of a new global order, it became an active player in the Philippine socio-political mainstream, getting involved and actively participating in a wide range of activities. Its members and their families became a regular and familiar fare in school, community, church, government and other activities.
On the other hand, Engr. Ramirez led the union’s officers and directors in a constant and continuing dialogue with industry leaders and government officials on the plight of Filipino seafarers and the need to address their concerns. In a way, UFS underwent a transformation that gave it a name in the industry it vowed to promote and the country it is dedicated to serve.
Twenty-five years after its birth, it became a national federation of seafarers’ unions in possession of UFS charter certificates in an increasing number of shipping companies with their representatives in the Philippines.
In its first general assembly, held in Manila at the Bulwagang Plaridel of the National Press Club of the Philippines on December 1999, the leadership of this central committee of the union, was unanimously recognized by its members.
Engr. Ramirez, Captain Brando Lodriga, Chief Engr. Isagani Valmonte, Radio Officer Paul Esber, Engr. Noel Josue, and Prof. Roli Talampas were elected as members of the Board of Directors of UFS with the full mandate to carry on the existing programs and pursue other initiatives to advance the objectives of the union and its general membership.
With its growing number of card-bearing members worldwide, UFS has evolved into a very active, consistent and effective articulator of seafarers’ demands for reforms in the shipping, manning, and overseas employment sectors. As such, UFS now enjoys a prominence and influence that has direct impact on national policy.
Indeed, UFS has become a federation with a new culture tempered by the cutting-edge discipline of the marine profession, a profession that prides itself for its sense of responsibility. This kind of responsibility, the leadership of UFS vowed to observe and preserve.
Foremost in its task to promote the welfare and rights of seafarers is the need to have a strong legal component. Creating a legal assistance unit, UFS was able to provide the necessary representation to thousands of its members and more for other seafarers in dire need of such service.
Refusing to buckle to pressures by high-powered lawyers, the legal assistance unit of UFS fought and won all the monetary claims of its members, mostly in record-breaking fashions. The legal assistance unit remains undaunted by welloiled opponents who kow¬tow to every wish of the agents of shipowners they represent.
However, the court is not the only the arena where UFS fights its battles for benefits and welfare of seafarers, it also subscribes to voluntary arbitration in the matter of conflict resolution.
In fact, Engr. Ramirez has been accredited by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board as a voluntary arbitrator and trained to settle cases parallel to the objectives of a just, comprehensive, and meaningful industrial peace in the maritime sector. Oftentimes, the power of negotiation, which the UFS president exemplifies, saves agents of employers, including the UFS, legal assistance unit, precious time (even money) in going through the court grind, resolving issues even through phone calls.
In information dissemination, UFS is the unchallenged leader among local unions. With the publication of the bi-monthly newspaper Tinig ng Marino (Voice of the Seafarers), UFS touches base with over 500,000 seafarers all over the world. Distributed in more than 400 ports worldwide, Tinig ng Marino presents a clear, incisive, and objective insight into the issues concerning the seafarer and the evolution of the industry where they are part of.
The only globally-circulated Filipino maritime newspaper, Tinig ng Marino is daunting, but it observes the highest tenets of maritime journalism. It features industry updates, expert opinion through the various columns, news briefs, humor at sea, and incisive reportage on the travails of seafarer, whether at sea or on land. Today, apart from being the most widely sought-after read in the industry, Tinig ng Marino is the most influential maritime newspaper in the Philippines.
For a time, the UFS also complemented its massive information dissemination through Tinig ng Marino with five regular radio programs either hosted or co-hosted by Engr. Ramirez to further stir the senses of the seafarers and stalwarts of the maritime industry. Engr. Ramirez tackles the whole gamut of issues in the maritime sector in a very informative, yet unorthodox manner, making fiery commentary on burning maritime issues and laconic broadsides on government agencies and institutions, manning agents and shipowners, and other entities that make life difficult for seafarers.
Through his five radio programs that were once aired in local stations in the cities of Manila, Cebu, Iloilo, Ozamiz, Tagbilaran and Dipolog, Engr. Ramirez practically defied the norms of radio broadcasting and got away with his own brand of irreverence in castigating those who take advantage of seafarers, particularly maritime schools that shortchange their students, or maritime training centers that bleed their trainees’ pockets dry, or some scrupulous manning agents that capitalize on the gullibility of seafarer-applicants.
Through his previous radio programs and and his hard-hitting regular column in Tinig ng Marino, Engr. Ramirez has earned the moniker of a “fearless critic,” lambasting government agencies, and its officials, that give seafarers the runaround and fleece them of their hardearned cash. He also scoffs at individuals and other private entities, intentionally transgressing the civil language of broadcasting with employment contracts and also during the period from pre-departure to the first salary of new seafarers.
UFS has also set up a loan assistance package that charges social interest rates to provide seafarers a hedge against loan sharks that prey on seafarers badly in need of bridge financing. An average of P5 to P7 million is being extended to seafarers every month with thousands of UFS members and non-member seafarers already availing or the low-interest cash loans.
Faced with the peculiarity of the seafaring profession, when it comes to organizing and consolidating the ranks of its membership for specific actions, the leadership of UFS has evolved a system wherein any member on land or on vacation can be called on short notice. This enables the union to mount rallies and other forms of mass action to promote its objectives.
Likewise, its ability to call its members on short notice has proved useful in its advocacy of social issues that also affects the seafarers and their families. Among these are the fight against drug abuse, to which, UFS regularly mounts mammoth rallies at the Quirino Grandstand and other public places like Mendiola in front of the official residence of the President of the Philippines to ventilate the dangers of drug abuse and the threat it poses against society.
In conducting coastal clean-up and in participating to various anti-marine pollution campaigns, a large contingent of UFS members are easily noticed with their now all-too-familiar streamers and t-shirts with the UFS logo and the union’s three-letter acronym in bold, easily- recognized color and letters.
In recent years, however, the advocacy of UFS for seafarers’ rights and welfare has taken a more challenging and broader course. With members needing representation and assistance while onboard ocean-going vessels, the UFS leadership has no recourse but to “face the problem and resolve the problem where the problem is.”
The UFS has also actively embraced the challenging task of conquering borders and negotiating with shipowners of every nationality to protect the interest of seafarers, especially those of UFS members. In many instances, the union comes face to face and nearly in direct confrontation, with such giants as the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF) and the International Shipping Federation. But in many of these encounters, UFS stood its ground and won his battles, Engr. Ramirez sums up the formula of UFS’ victories with his own rephrase of a famous saying: “Being right is being might.”
The most recent of UFS’ victories over the ITF came in January 2007 in Sweden when a Swedish labor court ruled in favor UFS and the Greek shipowner whose vessel had an existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with UFS but nonetheless boycotted by a local Swedish labor union. Immediately following the boycott by the Swedish union on the vessel Rickmers Tianjin in 2000, Engr. Ramirez flew to Sweden, along with an official of the Greek shipowner to negotiate with the local union that shortened boycott on the ship. But since financial damage has already been done on the part of the shipowner, the Greek shipowner and Engr. Ramirez filed charges against the local Swedish union for going ‘out of bounds’ in the case and the recent decision of the Swedish labor court just proved that the UFS CBA is indeed a force to reckon with even in the international front.
In many of his official sorties abroad, Engr. Ramirez takes advantage of the opportunities these travels offer. He makes use of the brief respites between negotiations to create a UFS international network.
In Rotterdam, he has organized the Friends of UFS which is now being coordinated by his brother Bobby and his wife Elly, with a lot of help from their son Philip and daughter Cathelijn.
In the United States, the Kaibigan ng UFS was set up with the help of Fr. Cornish Espino and Fr. James Kollin. Together with Aida Grace Ramirez-Maniwang, sister of Engr. Ramirez, and her husband, lawyer Nilo O. Maniwang, the seafarers’ center was set up in suburban New Jersey.
In the years that followed, Engr. Ramirez was invited by the Korean Seafarers’ Federation of Busan, South Korea, where he signed an agreement with Capt. B.S. Sae, leading to the creation of a seaman’s center there that will assist Filipino seafarers during their stay in that country.
During the trip to South Korea, Engr. Ramirez was introduced by Capt. Bae to a former Russian second officer, Kovalev Olez, also known as Alex, with whom he laid down plans for the creation of another seafarers’ center for Filipinos in Vladivostok.
Likewise, several members of the UFS has established residence in different parts of the world and has since formed country units of the maritime union, the latest being the formation of UFS Greece Chapter in mid-2006.
In the local front, UFS has also built and strengthened fraternal ties with government and private agencies, institutions, and organizations working for seafarers. These include the International Transport Workers Federation, Kaibigan ng UFS, Apostleship of the Sea, International Labor Organization, International Maritime Organization, Center for Seafarers’ Rights, International Christian Maritime Association, South Korean Seafarers Federation, and many others.