Like a typical Filipino village at dusk, men chop firewood, women tend the kitchen and children play around in this clump of 10 huts. This is the Hacienda Luisita Gate 1 in Tarlac City, where the main picket line of striking workers has evolved into a community, as the strike turns one year on Nov. 6.
By Abner Bolos
Like a typical Filipino village at dusk, men chop firewood, women tend the kitchen and children play around in this clump of 10 huts. This is the Hacienda Luisita Gate 1 in Tarlac City, where the main picket line of striking workers has evolved into a community, as the strike turns one year on November 6.
The 5,000-strong workforce of the plantation and sugar mill, along with the more than 40,000 residents of the 10 villages in the hacienda, had in one way or another taken part in the strike. As the strike dragged on, entire families helped maintain the picket line. Many came to stay here and a new community was born.
Community spirit overcomes tragedy at the picket line. A year ago, on November 16, seven striking workers and their supporters were killed, many others were wounded when Phil. Army soldiers and police sniped at strikers and fired tear gas to break the picket line.
Felix Nacpil, 63, member of the United Luisita Workers’ Union (Ulwu) who has stayed at the picket line since Day 1 said that the strike is in itself a community effort.
“We are not only fighting for jobs and wages. We are fighting for the survival of our communities, so everybody helped,” he said. His son, Felix Jr. and his wife, and two of his grandchildren live in one of the huts, along with people from his village.
This sense of community is one reason why repeated violent attempts by the police and the military to dislodge the workers have failed. “Not only workers and their families come to the picket line during dispersals but even our relatives, friends and neighbors. It is very encouraging to see that support during difficult times at the picket line,” Nacpil recounts.
Tirso Cruz, a barangay (village) council member in Barangay Pando and ULWU member, was interrogated by soldiers about his alleged involvement in activities of the New People’s Army. He denied the accusations, but Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) officers later told media that he was the “secretary of the revolutionary committee’ in his barrio. He has since been hounded by the military.
“The picket served as a sanctuary for us who were targets of the military. Our lives drastically changed as the strike dragged on,” he said. For Cruz, and scores of union leaders and members who were forced into a life without a job and under constant surveillance, the picket line offered a safe haven.
Not only their lifestyle changed but also the way they deal with people. Gil Palaganas, a union leader, explained that they have to learn to be more patient to be able to lead hundreds, even thousands of people.
“When tension is high or when there is not enough resources to go around, a lot of things can go wrong. Without a lot of patience and a sense of self-sacrifice, we could not have lasted this long,” he said.
Palaganas said a strong sense of unity and organization arose among the people. “Everyone tend to look after each other knowing the dangers they face everyday. Following the advice and instructions of leaders has become a way to survive,” he said.
Some had chosen to raise their family at the picket line. Arnold Cunan, 37, a farm worker and father of five kids, brought his entire brood and his wife, Merly at the picket line when soldiers started stalking his home.
“We live as a family here even though the children complain about the lack of many things,” said Merly, who also cooks in one of the common kitchen. Financial aid from friends and supporters in and out of the hacienda help keep three of their children in school.
Those stationed at the kitchen recalled their own stories. Ten days into the strike and counting three failed dispersal attempts by the police, the strikers prepared for the worst. Cecilia Romero recounted that she and other kitchen volunteers boiled beans to serve an early dinner on Nov. 16. That fateful day, they didn’t have the chance to serve dinner.
“We lost everything. Our cooking pots and pans were destroyed or stolen by the soldiers. They took at least 10 sacks of rice, canned goods, vegetables, our personal belongings and tore down our tents,” Cecilia recalls.
They went back to the picket line the next day, this time to feed the mourners at the wake at Gate 1. They had since set up a system of food distribution and cooking to meet the needs of the striking workers.
After one year, the strike remains unresolved. Still, the workers keep a “list of triumphs”. ULWU president Rene Galang said: “The fact that we are confronting one of the country’s most powerful family—that of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino—yet managed to maintain the picket lines for one year is in itself a victory.”
The strikers had rejoiced over the recent decision of the Department of Land Reform to revoke the stock distribution option, which the Cojuangco family used in order to evade land distribution. The DAR decision “proves that the workers were right all along” and that the Cojuangco family is now “like an eagle whose wings were clipped,” Galang said in a statement on the SDO revocation.
Union leaders say that if it weren’t for the strike, the company would have terminated more workers and converted the land to non-agricultural use. “We would have been left with nothing and would have been forced to leave the hacienda,” Galang said.
“That negotiations with the Cojuangco clan continued despite the assumption of jurisdiction issued by the DoLE is in itself a victory,” said Rene Tua, a Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) adviser. He said that a tentative agreement has been reached between CATLU and management and the strike might soon end if ULWU can also reach an agreement with management.
The bungkalan or cultivation this year was also a big victory for the strikers. They had planted, and harvested vegetables and rice in more than 300 hectares of idle hacienda land. Before the strike, only sugar cane is planted in the hacienda and people were prohibited from planting food crops.
“For the first time in decades, the workers and the people of hacienda now enjoy the land’s bounty,” according to Galang.
The strike also temporarily stopped the construction of the P28 billion Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway Project which is part of the management’s plan to convert more lands in the hacienda, according to the unions.
Last Oct. 25, striking CATLU members received some P8.8 million in wages earned before the strike. In spite of a decision by the DoLE, the company failed to pay the workers. Some 8,000 bags of sugar from the sugar central where levied by DoLE on Oct. 22, the proceeds of which was used to pay the workers. At about 9 p.m. that night, as the workers celebrated their victory, CATLU president Ricardo Ramos was killed by a sniper shot.
“Litany of killings”
The brutal killing of Ramos is the latest and the 13th in a “litany of killings” in Hacienda Luisita. The seven victims of the Nov. 16 massacre were Jhavie Basilio, Jun David, Juancho Sanchez, Jesus Laza, Jimmy Pastidio, Adriano Caballero and Jessie Valdez.
After the massacre at the picket line, the killings continued, targetting the leaders and supporters of the strike in their homes: peasant leader Marcelino “Ka Marcing” Beltran was shot and killed in his home in Sta. Ignacia on Dec. 8, 2004; Tarlac City Councilor Abelardo Ladera was assassinated in Tarlac City on March 3 this year; Father William Tadena was killed in an ambush near his church on March 13 in La Paz, Tarlac;
Regional peasant leader Ben Concepcion was shot to death in Angeles City, Pampanga on March 17; Bayan Muna leader Florante Collantes was shot and killed in his home in Camiling, Tarlac on Oct. 15; and just 10 days after, CATLU president Ricardo Ramos was shot and killed near his home in Barangay Mapalacsiao in Hacienda Luisita.
The unions blame the military for the killings. Since March, hundreds of troops from Nolcom have been deployed in the hacienda. Leaders and supporters of the strike have been receiving death threats and were subjects of harassment and surveillance, the unions claim.
“The deaths of our leaders and the continuing militarization in the hacienda is intended to sow fear and dampen our resolve to maintain the picket line,” said Joey Romero, an ULWU director.
He said the government even lied when it declared that the military has withdrawn form the hacienda after Ramos’s death.
“A hut in one of our picket lines was burned by the soldiers and they continue to forcibly enter the homes of our members after the announcement. They were only transferred elsewhere inside the hacienda,” Romero said.
In spite of the odds, the strikers are confident that they will win in the end. “We have gone this far, and we will continue to fight. We have achieved significant victories while the Cojuangco family continue to be exposed as the callous and murderous landlords that they are,” he said. (Bulatlat.com)