The violence that marred the strike of plantation and milling workers of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita on Nov. 16 was bound to happen and government authorities may have to account for it.
By RONALYN V. OLEA AND DABET CASTAÑEDA
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac City – The violence that marred the strike of plantation and milling workers of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita on Nov. 16 was bound to happen and government authorities may have to be held accountable for it.
This appears to be the finding based on accounts, testimonies and results of fact-finding missions gathered by Bulatlat. The same reports pointed to the fact that military and police forces, acting on orders of the labor department, appeared intent on breaking up the picket of the striking workers days before the Nov. 16 dispersal that claimed the lives of seven strikers and the wounding of at least 200 others. (Other reports said 14 were killed.)
About 5,000 sugar farm workers and 500 sugar mill workers went on strike on Nov. 6 (Saturday) to demand, among others, the reinstatement of 327 workers led by union leaders earlier laid off by the Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI) management. Two unions led the strike: the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU, union of the plantation workers) and the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (Catlu) of the milling workers. ULWU strikers manned Gate 1 – the entrance leading to the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) – located south of the hacienda, which is a one-hour walk from the MacArthur national highway while those from Catlu took their position outside Gate 2 north of the 6,000-ha plantation. Human barricades had formed outside Gate 1 to block trucks loaded with sugarcane from entering the sugar mill inside the hacienda.
The hacienda, which is owned by the family of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, is about 100 kms north of Manila.
For four days beginning Nov. 13, responding to the tolling of church bells, thousands of residents and sympathizers of the striking workers came in droves every time police authorities came and threatened to disperse the picket line of the sugar farm workers. Thousands of other residents from 10 villages comprising the hacienda, ULWU leaders said in a statement on Nov. 13, would mass up at night at Gate 1 in anticipation of a violent dispersal.
Threats of dispersal placed the workers in high alert after Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) issued on Nov. 10 an Assumption of Jurisdiction (AJ). Sto. Tomas ordered the striking workers to return to work so the company could resume its operations in 24 hours. Apparently, the labor secretary’s order also directed the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to dismantle the barricades put up by the strikers and break up the strike.
That the dispersal order was to be executed by all means was not remote, ULWU president Rene Galang said in an interview with Bulatlat during the early stage of the strike. Since Day 1 of the strike the workers were already being driven out of their picket lines.
At around 6 p.m. on Nov. 6, policemen used tear gas and water cannons to drive the strikers out of the CAT gate. Another dispersal took place at the crack of dawn the following day where at least 80 people including children and the elderly were hurt.
Farm workers interviewed by Bulatlat said tension rose on Nov. 15 as the 6,000 strikers were reinforced by 9,000 residents from the hacienda’s 10 barangays (villages) at Gate 1. They stood their ground as about 300 policemen came and in formation tried to break the strikers’ ranks.
To ease the tension, about 10 policewomen deployed themselves at the police front line. This prompted about 50 women strikers to also take the frontline to face the policewomen. At the right side of the ground, male strikers stood across the male policemen.
The police were armed with truncheons and shields while the hacienda workers had their own truncheons made of pieces of wood, said Rene Tua, a sugar mill worker and adviser of the CAT labor union (or Catlu).
Sensing they were outnumbered, the police were forced to negotiate with the strike leaders, Tua said. Tulakan lang (just pushing and shoving). No coming into blows, tear gas or water cannon.
At the count of three, Tua said, the combined forces of the plantation and sugar mill workers pushed the entire police contingent. Seemingly winning the battle at this point, Tua said, the workers became jubilant, others even laughing and jumping until the police, humiliated by their setback, started hitting the strikers with their truncheons.
In the scuffle, the workers confiscated five police shields. But they returned the shields after the police said they will be paying for them if they got lost, Tua said.