Workers got wind of the plan of Pentagon Steel to reopen in the same location but under a different name and set of workers.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Some 136 longtime workers in Pentagon Corporation, a steel products factory in Quezon City, finally and formally lost their jobs a few days after the closing of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Manila, which had promised jobs and growth. Negotiations between representatives of Pentagon Steel and workers’ union regarding separation pay took a week to wrap up. But their lock-out/strike dispute lasted nearly three years. It had been marked with violence especially the first three months as the factory owner deployed “hired goons” and policemen to disperse the strikers’ picketline.
On April 13, 2013 the workers of Pentagon Steel Corp. launched a strike in response to mass termination implemented by Mariano Chan, owner of Pentagon, and his human resources chief, Pablito Alcover, brother of a known anti-communist. The workers filed cases of illegal dismissal, saying the company was merely trying to evade their united demands for a wage hike and healthy work condition – something which, they said, their federation, PTGWO-TUCP, had never fought for them even as Pentagon Steel kept posting profits.
A statement released by Kilusang Mayo Uno last week said the termination and the subsequent repression and violence of the steel workers stemmed from Chan’s and Alcover’s refusal to hike the workers’ wages and improve their working condition. “It’s because they don’t want any cut in their huge profit from their operation and their alleged smuggling of materials.”
Struggle for humane work, wages
The sudden loss of their job rendered at least 12 families homeless, prompting them to live on the sidewalk by the picketline of the Pentagon Steel workers.
After working 10 to 20 years in Pentagon Steel, most of the laid off workers think their prospect for jobs has grown dimmer – even if they are still willing and they are trained on the job making steel products in Pentagon. “Most of us are more than 40 years old now, no one will likely employ us anymore,” said Jerico Canciller.
With the finalization of their retrenchment, he said, many will likely pursue odd jobs.
For the past two years and seven months, the strikers lived off the support of their families and fellow workers who found odd jobs. They also got by with support of students and workers advocates visiting the picketline.
When the workers experienced daily harassment and they had to ensure that they had the numbers to be able to defend their picket, their families had to subsist on what each family member could contribute or make do with. “My family members tightened their belt. There were times we ate only twice a day,” said Jerico Canciller, 44, union president of Pentagon workers.
Canciller’s wife, for example, had to work to help feed the family. She earned P100 per day’s labor (frequently 12 hours) as “trimmer” in a small garment’s factory. When this closed down, and violence in the picketline had somewhat abated, Canciller said he was forced to look again for a job.
Pentagon workers endured three months of nearly daily scuffles with the police called by Pentagon management to drive the workers away from their picket at Pentagon gates. As a result of these skirmishes, a security guard was killed and two others had their legs amputated. This happened when management, according to KMU, tried to run their delivery truck over the strikers.
“The skirmishes happened for a long time. It only stopped when a security guard died,” said Jose “Kabayan” Pepino, a steel zyklon wire operator in Pentagon Steel for 19 years. After the guard died the company stopped trying to bring scabs to work.
Role of collective action
This last week of November, the Pentagon workers and their families dismantled their picketline following the signing of their agreement with management for separation pay. Assisted by the Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center’s lawyer Remigio Saladero, the workers won their case of illegal dismissal against Chan. Their “victory” prompted the banks which, in claiming debts and interests owed by Pentagon had nearly overtaken the company, to deal also with the workers.
The workers gathered afterward at the nearby village hall to “celebrate.” If they had not launched their strike and fiercely guarded their picketline, the workers said they will just be summarily removed without even the law-mandated compensation for every year they had worked with Pentagon Steel. They described the job as “dangerous”, with scantly personal protective equipment even as they handled chemicals, big machines and tons of steel.
Workers’ demands for a more humane work condition and wage hike had been met with constant rebuff, the workers told Bulatlat.com at the start of their strike more than two years ago.
“Since I started working here 19 years ago, our union had been an affiliate of “yellow labor federation,” said Pepino.
At the close of their strike, he affirmed his findings: “What the workers need now are genuine unions and not “yellow unions.” He recalled how the yellow labor leaders “have a lopsided view of society.”
As an example, he cited the oft-repeated statement they used to hear from their yellow leaders, the one about how the workers should supposedly be thankful for the management for giving them a job.
“It’s the management who should be thanking us — because of our hard work, they’ve gotten wealthier and wealthier,” Pepino told Bulatlat.com.