(This Newsbreak article first appeared on Feb 14, 2005, in the aftermath of a violent strike that occurred in Hacienda Luisita. We are publishing this again in light of the April 24, 2012 decision of the Supreme Court ordering the distribution of the land to farmers.)
TARLAC, Philippines – Farmers can only shake their heads as they gaze at yet another
sugarcane plantation that was destroyed by fire. This has been a common sight at Hacienda Luisita in Concepcion, Tarlac, since the start of a strike on Nov 6, 2004, and they wonder when it is going to end.
The sugarcane plants had mysteriously caught fire in ungodly hours. The obvious suspects are the striking workers, who lost lives at the picket line on Nov 16, 2004, when authorities tried to disperse them.
There have been better days in the hacienda. January is harvest time, and it used to be that there was work to do, there was income, and by June, after a bountiful harvest, workers would await a handsome bonus from their employer, the Cojuangco clan, one of the country’s most wealthy and powerful families.
When we visited the area, we came across workers drinking their worries away and sharing a vegetable dish. “We drink to ease hunger (pains),” says sugarcane farmer Roderick Sigua.
Norberto Cudia says he drinks to forget his problems. His eldest son has stopped going to school, electricity in his home has been cut, and he has no idea where the next meal will come from. Now and then his children catch rats and snails to be cooked for lunch.
People forage in their pantries for anything edible; a pot of newly cooked rice can vanish quickly. To have something to go by, some grab steel railings and iron bars from bridges and cemeteries, wherever they can be found, and sell them for a few pesos. Strike leaders have had to warn their comrades that those caught stealing would be punished.
Violence and rage at the Luisita picket line is but one face of the labor dispute, which has dragged in the national government, a former president, and the communist movement.
Peace once prevailed in the 10 barangays where plantation workers and their families live, but an invisible line now divides them: on one side are five barangays branded as “pro-management” and on the other side are the other five, called “pro-communists.”
Two unions are involved: the labor union at the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) milling company, composed of 700 millers, and the bigger United Luisita Workers Union (Ulwu), composed of plantation workers numbering 5,000. Both companies—the milling company and the hacienda—are owned and run by the Cojuangco family, specifically Pedro Cojuangco, the elder brother of former President Corazon Aquino.
Two-thirds of the CAT workforce stayed away from the strike, while only half of the Ulwu members joined the picket line. The dispute has halted milling operations. Of the 387 hectares in Barangay Parang, for example, only 2.5 hectares of sugarcane has been harvested and milled.
The barricade at the CAT compound has paralyzed the mill, which is the one earning because it accepts milling jobs from other sugar-producing provinces. Hacienda farmers cannot harvest mature sugarcane plants, leaving them no choice but to let them go to waste.
Millers who had chosen to work were forced to spend the holidays inside the CAT compound. Jesus Fino, chairman of the board of the millers’ union and one of 11 union officials who had opposed the strike, stayed inside for fear of being stoned by strikers. Fino told NEWSBREAK that someone recently tried to burn his unattended house. Neighbors put out the fire.
One female employee recalled that, to be able to work, she sneaked into the CAT compound at four one morning, when the strikers were fast asleep. Others wore police uniforms and rode in a police patrol car to get past the strikers.
We visited the hacienda on the day the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) ruled on the labor strike involving the CAT labor union or Catlu. The ruling dismissed 35 union leaders, ordered the rest of the strikers to return to work, and told management to increase their daily pay by P15.
Pending resolution of their own case, the plantation workers of Ulwu were also told to return to work. As of this writing, however, the strikers have yet to heed Dole’s order.
The strike was triggered by a deadlock in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between management and the two unions. Things turned for the worse after the Nov 16, 2004 strike dispersal that killed at least seven people.
The CBAs of both the plantation workers and millers expired last June and renegotiations with management followed. Talks were proceeding smoothly until Aug. 24, 2004, when management laid off 326 plantation workers, including Ulwu president Rene Galang and nine other union officials.
To Galang who was elected president just two months earlier, this was plain union busting. It showed that management wanted to derail the negotiations, he told NEWSBREAK.
What riled him further was that union officials then passed a resolution appointing a new union president. It was obvious, Galang said, that the new union representatives were pro-management.
Acting Ulwu president Ronnie Alcantara denies the charge. He says he assumed the post in the interest of the workers, who wanted to continue the negotiations. Alcantara also pointed out that the majority of the retrenched workers accepted management’s decision and that only 80, including Galang, continued to protest the move.
On Sept 30, 2004, Galang, complaining of unfair labor practice, filed a strike notice with Dole. Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas sent the case to the National Labor Relations Commission for compulsory arbitration.
On October 22, Galang filed a second strike notice, citing a deadlock in CBA talks even if management and the new set of union officials had yet to meet. Galang also accused management of negotiating in bad faith for recognizing the new union officers led by Alcantara.
At the CAT, negotiations with the millers also proceeded at a snail’s pace, according to Catlu president Ricardo Ramos. Union auditor Rizalino Tibule says they were asking for a P100 daily wage increase, but management countered it with a P1-a-day raise. After three meetings, management moved its counterproposal to P12 a day.
On October 25, three days after Galang filed Ulwu’s strike notice, Catlu lodged its own strike notice. Conciliation meetings with CAT management and union proved futile.
On November 4, Catlu union officials and management sat down again, but both parties stood their ground. Two days later, at 12 noon, officers of the millers’ union struck. Plantation workers led by Galang later on joined them.
Element of surprise
A few questions arise. Was there good sense in retrenching plantation workers in the middle of a CBA negotiation? Did management fail to read the signs that radical elements in the unions were dead set on a strike?
Alcantara admits the retrenchment that included Galang was a mistake—a wrong move at the wrong time—because this only gave Galang an issue to agitate, if not mislead, the plantation workers. Alcantara says the retrenchment was not totally unexpected.
An earlier retrenchment was carried out three or four years ago to prevent losses and remove redundant employees. That time, union leaders, including him, were able to persuade management to opt for workers’ voluntary resignation.
Alcantara says it was unfortunate that the second wave of retrenchment affected Galang’s unit, the motor pool, although the unit’s planned abolition had been known beforehand.
Neither Alcantara nor Galang can say exactly how many plantation workers actually joined the strike. Alcantara says that only 80 dismissed plantation workers, “some misguided members,” and many sympathizers from other provinces joined the picket line. He maintains that “there was no consultation and no strike vote was conducted.”
Galang admits this but says a strike vote could have forewarned management and removed the “element of surprise.”
What was crucial was for the workers at the milling company to agree to go on strike. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have made sense for Galang and other plantation workers to go it alone: milling operations would have continued.
CAT resident manager Joel Lopa says management was caught flatfooted by the mill workers’ strike for three reasons: conciliation meetings were ongoing, the mandated cooling-off period for both parties had yet to expire, and no strike vote was held. (Editors’ Note: Joel Lopa is a brother of Rapa Lopa, one of NEWSBREAK’s founders and a former member of its advisory board.)
Catlu president Ramos echoes Galang’s defense that a strike vote would have given management time to prepare. While Catlu didn’t hold a strike vote, Ramos insists there was “a consensus to stage it.” At least 400 of the 700 members of Catlu, however, decided not to join the strike.
Buried in the news are some important facts: a divided workforce, the union leaders’ failure to observe due process, and the continued dependence of many workers’ families on the Cojuangcos.
In the case of the Catlu or the millers, most of them went to work when the strike was called. In return, management provided them with free meals and overtime pay.
But after the last bundle of sugarcane stalks were milled, the machines ceased operating and the workers found themselves with no work. Leaving the CAT premise was an option, but threats and the possibility of not being able to go back left them with a difficult choice: to stay put. They communicated with their families through cell phones. To fight boredom, the management erected a makeshift platform where entertainment was held.
Asked to explain why only a minority joined the millers’ strike, Ramos, the union president, says that management had threatened the workers with termination if they walked out. “And how can they refuse the free meals and the overtime pay?”
This statement doesn’t do justice to the unity displayed by the mill workers in February 2002, when they struck in full force to protest management’s violation of certain CBA agreements like free hospitalization. A united Catlu forced management to give in. (The most recent strike is the third in the hacienda’s history; the first one was in the 1970s).
Fino, who was already a board member during the 2002 strike, says the union got the full support of the workers “because the process was followed.” Ramos was already the union president at the time.
Others say the patronage and goodwill that the Cojuangcos cultivated through the years with the residents also tempered the workers’ discontent. As one farmer who was not sympathetic to the strike puts it: “Napakabait nila sa amin para kalabanin namin sila (They’re too kind for us to oppose them).”
Bastion of feudalism
Indeed, the issues hobbling the hacienda go beyond the labor front.
To militants, Luisita is the remaining showcase of “feudalism” and they just had to infiltrate it. To academics like Allen Surla of De La Salle University’s political science department, what happened was but a “natural course of the feudal structure that the Cojuangcos nurtured through the years.” Surla grew up in Hacienda Luisita. His grandfather had worked for Don Pepe, the Cojuangco patriarch who acquired the hacienda from its former Spanish owners.
Known to be a benevolent man, the late Don Pepe felt it his social responsibility to provide for the needs of the barangay residents inside the hacienda. He hired them as plantation workers and millers when the CAT was built years later.
Don Pepe was a patron, a provider of the tenants’ needs, and they were his obedient subjects. “He was generous to a fault,” says a former official of CAT. “He provided for the residents’ needs from cradle to the grave.” (Don Pepe died in 1976.)
Don Pepe converted part of the hacienda, now known as the Don Pepe Cojuangco Homes, for the farmers’ housing, with free water and electricity. He showered them with generous medical benefits, including free hospitalization. But he drew up a master list to ensure that only residents there qualified for the jobs available.
He added a personal touch to this management style. Third-generation workers at the hacienda likened Don Pepe to a doting grandfather, a fact that even the striking workers recognize. “Para sa amin isa s’yang santo (To us he was a saint),” concedes striking Catlu vice president Eddie Gregorio. As a child, Gregorio recalls Don Pepe summoning all children to his residence to distribute gifts at Christmas.
“Lahat ng luho ibinigay n’ya,” adds Anselmo Tibule, 65, another striker. “Di ko alam kung ano’ng nangyari sa pamilya ngayon,” he says, referring to the third-generation Cojuangcos.
The goodwill that Don Pepe cultivated came in handy when the hacienda was subjected to agrarian reform under the Aquino administration. The farmers agreed to the stock distribution option enabling them to become shareholders of the hacienda instead of land distribution.
Ulwu president Galang says the farmers were misled into thinking that the stock option was the better option.
Don Pepe’s children, in particular Don Pedro who took the reins in the 1990s, kept his legacy. Don Pedro was liberal with money, even when the hacienda was in the red.
In exchange for not owning the land, farmers receive benefits such as a service bonus (given in June), Christmas bonus, and profit sharing. These plus their children’s school bus allowance, free hospitalization and medicines for them and their dependents at the St. Martin de Porres Hospital inside Hacienda Luisita. They also enjoy a rice and sugar ration, plus an educational loan of P4,000. No interest is imposed on loans. Workers were also each given a 240-square-meter housing lot. Income is based on the number of workdays that a farmer has delivered.
Factory workers in CAT enjoy the same benefits and privileges, especially since it is the milling company that’s earning. They get P100 monthly medicine allowance (P50 for dependents), 25-day sick leave convertible to cash, P15,000 burial help, and P9,000 assistance to the beneficiaries. In their last CBA negotiation, they received P15,000 signing bonus each. Hospitalization outside St. Martin de Porres Hospital is also shouldered entirely by the company.
The CBAs of other milling companies, like the Lopez Sugar Corp. and Victorias Milling, both in Negros Occidental, show that CAT employees get more.
While Victorias Milling merely provides housing quarters and allowance for its workers, CAT granted each of its employees a 240- square-meter lot for free. CAT employees also receive a service bonus, which is not found in other CBAs. In their last CBA, they received a daily wage increase of P48. Lopez Sugar workers received only P10.
But where people are used to getting what they want and a shift in the power structure occurs, discontent and rumblings follow, Surla says.
A long-time employee of the family says the third-generation Cojuangcos, realizing that reforms had to be instituted, adopted a different management style. Joel Lopa explains that the change in management direction was necessary for the company’s long-term viability. This includes tightening the purse. “I cannot give what I cannot afford.” Lopa says the Dole’s decision granting a P15 daily wage increase would hurt the company’s financial health.
The union is also asking for a P30,000 signing bonus, but the management is offering only P12,000. The Dole granted a P12,500 signing bonus. While the mill may be earning, Lopa says that falling worldwide sugar prices, escalating operational costs, capital expenditures, and other external factors have affected its profitability.
Such dynamics, Surla says, are beyond the understanding of the average worker. In a feudal structure, he notes that once the patron fails to provide a certain level of satisfaction, an upheaval may follow. This somehow allowed space for leftist groups to easily penetrate the barangays and indoctrinate them about class warfare. Farmers say that leftist groups have been organizing residents as early as three or four years ago, which management failed to check or, or as some say, ignored.
The Dole decision may buy some time for management.
On the day the millers’ union received the Dole order, Ramos and other leaders met with their members and asked them not to abandon the union leadership. They warned the workers that management would retrench them eventually.
“Don’t fall into their trap. If you allow them to dismiss us, you will soon follow suit,” Ramos told the assembly. He declared the strike a success, saying that management was forced to raise its wage increase proposal from P12 to P15.
The workers simply listened, then left the assembly immediately after his speech. It had been two long months of bombast. – Newsbreak
(This Newsbreak article first appeared on Feb 14, 2005, in the aftermath of the violent strike that occurred in Hacienda Luisita. We are publishing this again in light of the decision of the Supreme Court ordering the distribution of the land to farmers.)