Angry, Wary and Defiant : Luisita workers resume talks with management

A week after their murdered union leader was buried, striking farm workers in Hacienda Luisita resumed negotiations with management—still angry, wary and defiant. They want the strike to be resolved but at the same time they do not want to compromise their rights.

By Abner Bolos

Bulatlat.com

In the afternoon of Nov. 10, hundreds of striking workers packed the chapel in front of Gate 2 of the sugar mill in Hacienda Luisita to listen to the management. After the murder of Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) president Ricardo Ramos, the workers were doubly wary about the safety of their leaders but were determined to continue their fight.

Pagkatapos ng pagkamatay ni Ka Ric, galit at masama ang loob ng aming mga myembro, at pinagdududahan nila ang intensyon ng management ngunit kailangan nating ituloy ang laban (After Ka Ric’s death, our members are angry, bitter and doubtul of management’s intentions but we have to carry on with the struggle),” said United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU) president Rene Galang.

Galang and union lawyer Nenita Mahinay sat in the front pew of the small church along with other union leaders, as hacienda manager Ernesto Teopaco opened the talks. “Dumating ako dito upang alamin ang inyong kahilingan upang sana ay matapos na natin ang problema (I came here to know about your demands, and I hope we can resolve the problem),” Teopaco told the crowd, as he sat on an ordinary monobloc chair in front of the altar.

In turn, Galang asked Teopaco about their money claims and the reinstatement of the dismissed officers and members of the union. He added that the strikers would also like to know about the management’s position on the revocation of the stock distribution option (SDO) by the Department of Agrarian Reform and the plans of the Cojuangco family on the resumption of operation of the sugar mill and the plantation.

Money matters

Tungkol sa “money matters,” obligasyon namin yan, hindi namin uurungan (About money matters, those are our obligations, we will not backtrack on that),” Teopaco said.

Galang explained that their financial claims consist of unpaid wages and the Christmas bonus of the 5,000 plantation workers, as well as separation benefits, in case the plantation no longer resume operations.

Kung dati, maliit na halaga lamang iyan, pero ngayon ay walang pera. Gagawa muna kami ng paraan para humanap ng pera (Before [the strike], that was a small amount, but we have no money these days. We still have to find ways to raise money),” Teopaco said.

He added that he cannot guarantee the reinstatement of the remaining 45 of the 326 permanent workers who were retrenched last August unless the workers agree to go back to work as casuals. He said that the company needs to start all over again and may hire only casual workers.

Teopaco explained that an agreement with ULWU will have to be reached before normal operations can resume. “Hindi puwedeng maayos ang Central [sugar mill] kung hindi pa tapos ang problema sa ULWU (The sugar mill cannot resume operations if the problem with ULWU is not yet resolved),” Teopaco said, quoting the words of Ramos in past negotiations.

CATLU members work in the sugar mill while ULWU is the sugar plantation’s work force.

The union and management agreed to resume talks on Nov. 16, the day of the Hacienda Luisita massacre.

“Death squads”

Ironically, negotiations between the unions and the Cojuangco family had twice been followed by killings.

A negotiation was held in February but the talks were stalled after Tarlac City Councilor Abelardo Ladera, a supporter of the two unions, was gunned down on March 3.

Another negotiation between CATLU and management, represented by Teopaco, culminated in a tentative agreement on Oct. 20, five days after which Ramos was murdered.

The unions said that 13 people have been killed for supporting the strike in the vast sugar estate owned by the family of former president Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino. The victims include two peasant leaders, a city councilor, a priest, a union organizer, and lately, CATLU president Ramos. The unions blamed the Cojuangco family and the military for the killings.

The murder of Ramos has brought a new wave of terror among union leaders and members in the 10 villages comprising the 6,000-hectare sugar plantation. The workers fear that ULWU president Rene Galang, among other leaders and supporters of the strike, is the next target.

Militant groups stressed that “death squads” have proliferated in Central Luzon and were responsible for the recent wave of killings. “The death squads are funded by the U.S. government and operate alongside the military and the police,” Pol Viuya, secretary-general of the Tarlac chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan, New Patriotic Alliance) said.

Qualified beneficiaries

Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman endorsed the revocation of the stock distribution program (SDP) to the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC). If approved, the revocation will pave the way for the transfer of land ownership from the Cojuangco family to the farm workers.

Hindi namin kokontrahin yan dahil batas yan (We will not go against that because that is the law),” Teopaco said.

His statement appears to contradict earlier published statements of Cojuangco scion and Tarlac Rep. Benigno Aquino III and management lawyer Vigor Mendoza. Both have stated that the Cojuangco family will oppose the legality of the DAR decision in court.

Union leaders said that the revocation opened the possibility that in the future they will be the one to manage the sugar plantation as land owners.

Since Nov. 7, farm workers have trooped to the main picket line in Gate 1 to fill-out documents issued by the union certifying that they are qualified beneficiaries of the possible land distribution.

“This is a victory that we intend to keep,” said Galang. He said that more than 3,000 union members or more than half of the beneficiaries have already come to the picket line to fill-out individual forms. He said that this disproves the claim of the company that the farm workers are not interested in land distribution.

PARC has set a one-month period for the “revalidation” that will end on Nov. 19. On Nov. 22, the PARC evaluation team will meet with ULWU officers. PARC has also asked the union to submit its list of SDP beneficiaries.

Post-strike scenario

Both parties appear to accept the possibility that if the strike is resolved and the picket lines are lifted during this milling season, only the sugar mill will resume operations.

The sugar milling season, also the harvest season, starts in October every year and ends in April the next year.

Teopaco told farm workers that management wants to resume operations in the plantation, but lacks the money to do so. He said banks are not willing to lend money to the company and that investors have backed out since the strike began.

The farm workers envision a post-strike scenario when the sugar mill continues to be run by the Cojuangco family as the plantation is being gradually taken over by the farm workers.

“We will continue to push for the revocation of the SDP and cultivate the land with whatever means we have,” Galang said.

“This milling season is a critical period for all of us. We want the strike to be resolved as soon as possible but we cannot compromise our rights that we have sacrificed so much for,” he said. (Bulatlat.com)

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