‘Cojuangcos Can’t Scare Us’ – Union Leaders Church group asks GMA to back workers’ demands

Union workers of Hacienda Luisita have accused the Cojuangco family– owners of the plantation and sugar mill in Tarlac – and armed authorities as being behind the series of physical harassment against strikers.


Union workers of Hacienda Luisita have accused the Cojuangco family– owners of the plantation and sugar mill in Tarlac – and armed authorities as being behind the series of physical harassment against strikers.

They also belied police findings that the Jan. 5 shooting where two striking workers were wounded was the result of a simple row between a group of workers and village homeowners.

This developed as the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) challenged President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to listen to the demands of the Luisita farmers and mill workers.

In an exclusive interview with Bulatlat, witnesses to the Jan 5 shooting in the 6,443-hectare Hacienda Luisita, 120 kms north of Manila, disputed the claim of the Philippine National Police (PNP)-Region III. Police authorities downplayed the incident as a mere altercation between the strikers and the homeowners of Las Haciendas de Luisita (LHL), an exclusive village inside the hacienda.

Jose Franco, one of the witnesses, told reporters in Quezon City Jan. 6 that there is no bad blood between the strikers and the homeowners. Franco, who is also a director of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) also mans the picket line in front of the LHL gate, the hacienda’s west gate. The gate is two kms away from the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) main gate and leads to both the sugar mill and Barrio Alto, the Cojuangcos’ exclusive residential compound.

“Nakikipag-cooperate pa nga sila sa amin” (They even cooperate with us), Franco said referring to the LHL homeowners. The homeowners – comprising seven households – have actually agreed to enter their vehicles’ plate numbers on the strikers’ logbook to avoid any trouble.

10 picket lines

The picket line in front of the LHL gate is the first of 10 picket lines put up by the striking sugar mill and farm workers since Nov. 6 last year. All picket lines are maintained outside all the gates leading to the sugar mill, preventing the ingress and egress of the cane trucks and other company vehicles.

CATLU president Ricardo Ramos said the strike has paralyzed all operations of the sugar mill since December.

But on the early evening of Jan 5, about 20 strikers manning the picket line in front of the LHL were caught by surprise when a gray Nissan Patrol coming from inside the compound rammed through their barricades.

A press statement by United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU), the Luisita plantation workers’ union, quoted eyewitness Malou Ricardo as saying that four men armed with .45 pistols and M-16 rifle alighted from their Nissal Patrol and barked at the strikers: “Bakit ninyo kami hinaharang? P—nyo!” (Why are you blocking us, you SOBs!), after which they began shooting at the strikers.

Another witness, who requested anonymity, said “Sinigawan kami tapos binaril na yung dalawang kasama namin” (They cursed us and they began shooting our two companions).

The two victims, Ernesto Ramos, 50, a CATLU union member and uncle of the union president, and ULWU member Jorge Loveland, 32, were brought to the Ramos General Hospital in Tarlac City.

Doctors pronounced Loveland, who sustained a bullet wound in the upper left breast, stable. Ramos, who was also hit by a single bullet in the stomach, was in critical condition and was to undergo a major operation.

Franco said seven policemen were guarding the LHL gate that night but none of them responded to the incident. “Kung namagitan sana yung mga pulis, hindi sana mangyayari ito” (Had they intervened the shooting could not have happened), he said.

Not homeowners

Other witnesses said the gunmen were not homeowners of LHL and suspect that they were either elements of the 69th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) or paid cohorts of the Cojuangcos, or both.

They added that Rep. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III of Tarlac and fifth generation scion of the Cojuangcos escorted about 200 soldiers toward Barrio Alto passing through the LHL gate in the evening of Jan 2.

They also said that reaching the LHL gate Aquino alighted from his vehicle and talked to the strikers manning the picket line in front of the exclusive subdivision. Witnesses quoted him as saying that any talk with them is doomed to fail.

In a phone interview with Bulatlat, ULWU president Rene Galang said the Jan 5 shooting was not isolated contradicting statements by PNP Region III Director Roland Albano that the shooting had nothing to do with the land and labor dispute in the hacienda.

Galang alleged that paid goons of the Cojuangcos are sowing terror all over the hacienda, citing as an example a case of harassment at the picket line at the Parawakan exit in Barangay (village) Parang on Jan 4.

He said village captain Rey Nemis, together with other village officials, mauled ULWU members Celestino Panelo and Noel Mallari. They also hit the motorcycle owned by Ben Pampoza, honorary chair of the peasant group Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala or Alliance of Farm Workers in Hacienda Luisita).

Nemis, Galang said, is a contractor for the Cojuangcos who imports sacadas (migrant seasonal cane workers) from Negros and other provinces in Central Luzon. He also owns a small sugar plantation in Tarlac where the CAT gets some of its cane for milling.

“Tinatakot nila (Cojuangcos) kami para umalis kami sa picket line” (The Cojuangcos are sowing terror to break our picket lines), he said.

He cited unconfirmed reports that the strike leaders will be arrested and detained and that the military will take over of the hacienda.

Seven striking workers were killed in a massacre union leaders said was committed by soldiers and policemen on Nov. 16. Another peasant leader was mowed down in front of his house night of Dec. 8.

Labor chief’s decision

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) is expected to decide on the long-drawn labor dispute involving the CAT where mill workers are demanding a pay increase, among others.

On Dec 20, the DoLE ordered the CATLU and the CAT management to submit their final pleadings in 10 days before Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas issues a final decision.

In a statement, CATLU said it did not submit a final pleading and chose instead to await the outcome of a certiorari case it filed in the Court of Appeals (CA).

Nenita Mahinay, counsel for both ULWU and CATLU said her clients submitted on Dec 8 to the CA a motion to stop the DoLE proceedings because the unions have ceased to honor any decision coming from Sto. Tomas.

Sto. Tomas issued an Assumption of Jurisdiction (AJ) Nov. 10 last year. Five days later, she deputized the Armed Forces and PNP to execute the order which led to the Nov. 16 carnage at the picket line.

With this, Ramos said Sto. Tomas has lost all moral basis and authority to decide on the dispute.

Ramos and Galang are expecting the DoLE to decide in favor of the Cojuangcos. Both union leaders vowed however that the striking workers would remain on strike until their demands are met.

They also warned that the DoLE decision to be issued next week may be a pretext for another bloody dispersal.

GMA’s suspicious silence

Ramos also hit president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for her silence over the land and labor dispute and the massacre that happened in Hacienda Luisita. “Her administration has done nothing or even said nothing about the massacre last Nov. 16,” Ramos said.

He added that the president should be mediating between the workers and the management, but her silence is rather suspicious and only benefits the Cojuangcos.

In this regard, the Task Force on Urban Conscientization (TFUC), a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), expressed its support to the striking workers of the hacienda.

No one can live in peace on an empty stomach, the TFUC statement said, as it challenged the president “to listen to her own people and attend to their urgent appeals even as she had offered to pray for calamity victims in neighboring countries.”

“If the hearts and conscience of GMA and former president Cory Cojuangco-Aquino are not disturbed by the cries of Hacienda Luisita workers who suffer extremely low wages, unfair labor policies and police-military brutality, then the true spirit of Christian compassion for the poor is lost among them,’ the TFUC added. Bulatlat.com

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