Ka Nhitz Gonzaga: From student to woman labor leader

She entered the National Labor Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU) as a graduating student doing her practicum for a secretarial course; little did she know then that she would learn more than doing office work.


MANILA – Nenita Gonzaga or “Ka Nhitz” as she is called in Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) is the national labor center’s elected vice president for women for three consecutive national congresses now. As she celebrates her 75th birthday this month, on Araw ng Kagitingan, she shares recollections of her life as one of the leaders of a labor center whose two former leaders — Felixberto and Rolando Olalia – she considers like father and brother, respectively. How she got involved in the country’s progressive labor movement was in part due to the father and son tandem.

Ka Nitz Gonzaga says she was detained for months during martial law. (Photo by J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)
Ka Nitz Gonzaga says she was detained for months during martial law. (Photo by J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)

Slim and quick to greet you with a smile and brave and fun stories of workers organizing against the odds, she continues to perform her duties as VP, even as she admits that at her age, she can no longer do “double-time” (run instead of march) during rallies, which she still attends. She still speaks for women in rallies and forums. She is currently putting up a mobile photo exhibit related to the Kentex factory fire victims, who are mostly women workers.

“Gusto ko tuloy pa din hanggang di pa bumigay ang tuhod,” (I want to continue until my knees give out), she said.

Neat margins, cool efficiency

Before she became “Ka Nhitz” who can talk tough and play sweet for workers and progressive unionism, crack jokes and raise her finely shaped brows while demanding discipline and order in their activities, she entered the National Labor Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU) as a graduating student doing her practicum for a secretarial course at the Philippine College of Commerce (currently the Polytechnic University of the Philippines). Then barely 21, she was “neneng nene” to the leader of NAFLU, Felixberto Olalia. The year was 1962, NAFLU was barely five years old, a labor federation formed from the ravages of the last crackdown on progressive labor movement in the Philippines.

NAFLU was formed 1957; federations and labor centers espousing militant tradition of unionism were crushed and dissolved in the early 50s. But to deter the workers from forming genuine unions, the government then apparently pushed for ‘economic unionism,’ compelling the registration of unions, regulating its activities from holding local or certification elections to mulling a strike, giving some labor leaders some perks, directing unions away from political actions to just focusing on collective bargaining agreements (CBA) and grievance machineries.

NAFLU, in its account when it turned 50, said it sought to do the prescribed, regulated union activities, but with avowed sincerity and aversion to corruption or selling-out of workers’ demands. At the same time it also participated in political activities.

NAFLU’s founder, Felixberto Olalia, also formed a farmers’ organization called MASAKA.

These motley groups of farmers and workers held meetings in the NAFLU office, which included people like Jose Maria Sison, then an activist student leader, coming and going and discussing heatedly with Ka Bert, all of which Nhitz could listen to. This was the atmosphere in which the young Nhitz worked her practicum.

She had begun her practicum with classmates at the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) but she was pulled out and moved to NAFLU.

“I was the one sent to NAFLU because I was more ‘obedient.’ But looking at the holes in NAFLU’s roof and remembering the air-conditioned GSIS offices, I asked myself, ‘what had I gotten myself into?”

After a few days though, she came to appreciate the kindness being shown her by the people there, especially by Felixberto “Ka Bert” Olalia.

“Whenever he went to the countryside to organize farmers in MASAKA, he left me to run the office and handle its funds,” Nhitz said.

She received a passing grade of 80 from Ka Bert. “Kuripot,” said Nhitz. Yet, the labor leader asked her to stay on as office secretary and do administration tasks, besting the others who did their practicum ahead of her but were not asked to stay.

She thought she heard Ka Bert saying he liked her straight, balanced margins in letters and legal briefs they prepared. It must have helped to deliver their messages better. He had also noted she was listening to their discussions.

“You’re the only one to take that interest,” Ka Bert told her. Including the labor leader’s tacked on joke that at least, ‘you listened aside from reading romance novels.’

Nhitz had other job opportunities – there was the lawyer of the Tuazon family whom she had met, and who had taken her on as working student, while her family and the entire neighborhood association were paying amortization through him for their home lots in Manila.

But remembering the kindness of the people in NAFLU, and what she called as many “opportunities for learning,” she decided to stay on.

There was no talk of allowance, she recalled, their allowance being “subject to availability.”

Working amid developing stories of farmers and workers’ struggle

With NAFLU office having no dividers between rooms, Nhitz heard tales and tactics in workers’ struggles, reports and discussions about the excesses and errors of the Lavas and Tarucs which eventually helped bring down the first Communist Party and caused the defeat of farmers’ uprisings.

She heard of the need for the “first great rectification” in the revolutionary movement – as Ka Bert took part in investigating and exposing the wrong practices of the Lavas and Tarucs when he organized MASAKA.

‘The Communist Party is not a family corporation,’ she heard him saying.

Nhitz learned from stories and sharing of workers and farmers that their basic alliance is said to be the foundation of any meaningful struggle for real change and reforms. Working with the likes of Bert Olalia, she witnessed some of the actions that would later contribute to the founding of a new Communist Party, and, more than a decade later, the founding of a new progressive labor center in Kilusang Mayo Uno.

Eventually she was no longer just a witness but in varying degrees, also a participant.

With members of Kabataang Makabayan encouraging her, she requested to also take education courses of activists. She often left the relative safety of the office to be with workers during protests or strikes, to attend rallies as the one she clearly remembered in Plaza Miranda, when she first heard Ka Bert Olalia delivering a moving, fiery speech.

Although she considered her family poor, she was still shocked at the poverty that forced workers’ families to live dangerously under bridges. Her stomach rejected the stench of the canals.

By the time former president Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, in 1972, Nhitz had grown closer to Ka Bert Olalia and his principles for advancing genuine trade unionism (as opposed to ‘yellow’ pro-government, pro-capitalist unionism) and national democracy. She had also developed close ties to his son and labor organizer and training lawyer in NAFLU, Lando Olalia, and to their respective wives; and to activist youths and unionists she constantly met in NAFLU.

From “neneng nene,” she evolved to, “Aba! Maganda ka pala!” in Ka Bert’s estimation, after she got a make over by unionists from Kokuryu cosmetics sales. They were holding meetings in NAFLU.

Aside from her expanding “family” in NAFLU, she had married her childhood sweetheart and was a mother of a 7-year old and 5-year old when Martial Law was declared.

Defying Martial Law

That Thursday Martial Law was declared, NAFLU officers surmised in a meeting that they would most likely be arrested. So, they entrusted the office to Gonzaga.

But the following Saturday, Sept 23, she was one of the first to be seized by state soldiers.
“They wanted to squeeze information from me hoping that they could use it against the others,” said Gonzaga.

But, she told Bulatlat, she had been “prepared” before by Ka Bert on how to conduct herself with the interrogators.

“When he heard talk of Martial Law in media watering holes even before it was declared, he taught me ways to handle it,” said Gonzaga. She said she put to good use all the tips Ka Bert gave her in the questioning, all-night long, of the same questions asked her over and over.

It was on the way to the military camp that Nhitz Gonzaga became “Ka Nhitz.” “The military kept calling me ‘Ka Nhitz,’” she said.

She was not brought direct to Camp Vicente Lim, but instead was driven in circles and at one point, the soldiers picked up in a police station one of NAFLU-affiliated union presidents.

He and ‘Ka Nhitz’ were each handcuffed to the military jeep. Ka Nhitz asked the soldiers if they could untie one of her hands. To which a soldier replied: “O, pagbigyan Ka Nhitz. Mga huling kahilingan pinagbibigyan.” (O let’s give in to Ka Nhitz’s request. Final requests should always be granted.)

She was the only female member of NAFLU “invited” for interrogation and detained at Camp Vicente Lim from Sept. 23 to Dec. 31 in 1972.

But even in prison they found ways to organize and flex their united strength. She recalls their group negotiating to make detention less unbearable: they struggled to take over the task of preparing their meals (because the camp had been giving them smelly, bad food); they pooled the food and other items they received from visitors like medicines and allocate it so everyone had what they needed; they conducted discussions and education sessions.

One morning, one of the detainees waved a red hand towel while marching for the flag ceremony, they all cheered at the news that a red fighter had escaped. Whenever Ka Nhitz was allowed to go to a store inside the camp to buy her fellow detainees some supplies, she bought also some chewing gum which they used to patch the holes made by Peeping Toms in their toilet.

She recalled crying in silence one night – not knowing she was being observed by their jailer. The next night, she woke up hearing Ka Bert’s voice. She was up in an instant.

As it turned out, the state soldiers were playing for her the voice tape of past interviews with Ka Bert. They had taken it from the NAFLU office.

The labor leader had been abroad when Martial Law was declared. He hastened to come home when he heard the news and was promptly arrested at the airport.

His being abroad had been one of the military’s taunts while interrogating the NAFLU officers.

Lando Olalia was released from jail one week ahead of Ka Nhitz. She said he struggled to free her and the rest – coming to fetch her himself on December 31 amid exploding firecrackers.

Ka Nhitz just resumed her work at NAFLU, starting with getting the place in order. After the military conducted their “search,” it was pandemonium in the labor federation’s office. She found panties she knew not who owned it in her cabinet drawer. Office funds and voice tapes in Ka Bert’s drawer, meanwhile, went missing. Someone had defecated in their cooking pot.

After her detention, Ka Nhitz chafed at being just office-based, and struggled to join others in organizing workers.

“I was learning from the workers themselves, from talking to them,” she said. She was impressed by the workers’ discipline, waking up early, doing their work really fast, like the piece-raters in garment factories that abound before they were decimated by “globalization” and “free trade.”

There were NAFLU members, mostly women, who maintained their picket despite being submerged in flood.

She learned from Ka Bert when they were preparing for a strike in a nylon zipper factory that unions should also organize its adjoining community including the drivers so they could get their support.

This way workers continued forming unions and alliances as labor leaders like Ka Bert, and later his son, Ka Lando, challenged what they described as suppressed unionism pushed by the Marcos dictatorship. They steered clear of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines formed by the Marcos regime in 1974. In 1980, they were some of the leaders who formed the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in one of the biggest indoor rallies held under the Marcos dictatorship.

For Gonzaga the attacks on the progressive labor movement (the crackdown after KMU was formed, and again in 1982) signaled her deeper involvement. She completely left her office duties after the murder of Ka Lando Olalia late in 1986 post-Edsa.

She did not choose to be captain of women’s advocacy in NAFLU and later in KMU, but that was where there was a need at the time, she said. “Ako naman ay hindi namimili,” (I’m not one to choose.) And she got the help and support of Gabriela, she said.

Now at 75, she had seen the worsening of the people’s plight, the increased difficulty in workers getting a secure job as the country further loses what remained of its industrial sectors to neoliberal globalization.

She noticed that the garments and footwear were some of the obvious biggest casualties, as factories that used to employ thousands of women had closed down one by one after the country committed to various free trade agreements. It meant less number of factories, less number of jobs and unionized.

She has also been to sites of workplace “accidents” and gotten to know enough survivors to keep hoping that workers would continue to strive forming unions, despite the repression. That has been the workers’ experience, and solution, she said. At 75, she herself wanted to continue being with the workers’ struggle. Even until now, she says, she cannot forget the discipline and the drive instilled by Ka Bert Olalia. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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