Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. IV,    No. 46      December 19 - 25, 2004      Quezon City, Philippines











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BULATLAT Investigative report

For Land and Wages

Half a century of peasant struggle in Hacienda Luisita

The Versolas continue to support the strike, visiting the picket line to watch documentaries on the massacre, help in the kitchen chores or just exchange views with anyone. Mang Pering says that their forefathers’ struggle to finally own the land that is rightfully theirs rages on.

By Dabet Castañeda
(First of two parts)

HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac City – Perfecto Versola was holding a multi-colored bayong (plastic market bag) when Bulatlat first met him in Barangay Balete, Hacienda Luisita early March this year.

Stepping out of his home that could only fit a 2m x 3m flooring made of old tabla (wood) and a small antique closet, 68-year-old Perfecto - Mang Pering to relatives and neighbors - was on his way to a nearby river to catch some fish and shells.

Mang Pering Versola, 68, (left) mans the picketline

Photo by Jun Resurreccion/Tudla

The daily trek to the river is the only way by which his wife, Aling Maria, their polio-stricken daughter and a three-year grandchild survive since he retired as a casual sugar farm worker in the hacienda in 1998. But like planting vegetables on vacant lots, catching fish from the river is also prohibited. So Mang Pering had to be careful lest the hacienda guards caught him instead. 

On Nov. 7, one day after about 2,000 sugar farm workers from the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) staged a plantation-wide strike, Mang Pering saw himself manning the picket line in front of Gate 1 of the Central Azucarrera de Tarlac (CAT) sugar mill compound. The compound is at the center of the 6,443-hectare hacienda.

Wearing a green-and-white striped polo shirt, old maong pants, rubber slippers and a cap, Mang Pering was carrying this time not a bayong but a placard that screamed: “Tama na, sobra na. Gutom na kami!” (Enough, it’s unbearable, we’re hungry already!)

After four initial Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations that begun in July, management terminated 150 permanent and 176 seasonal workers – all union members including their president, vice-president and seven directors. Their termination took effect Oct. 1.

Union counsel Nenita Mahinay called the mass lay-off an unfair labor practice and a form of union busting. “Why retrench the permanent employees who are union leaders if the intention is not as malicious as busting the union?” she told Bulatlat.

In response, the ULWU sent its first notice of strike on Sept. 30 in protest against the retrenchment of its 326 members. It sent a second notice on Oct. 22, this time citing management’s refusal to bargain that resulted in a CBA deadlock.


After a series of union consultations, ULWU members decided to stage a strike on Nov. 6 to demand, in particular, the reinstatement of 73 sugar plantation workers who have not received their separation pay and the confirmation of their CBA demands that include wage increases and hospital benefits.

The sugar farm workers also demanded the revocation of the Stock Distribution Option (SDO), a scheme adopted in 1989 by the Hacienda Luisita owners Cojuangcos as a mode of agrarian reform. They want the hacienda subjected to land reform.

Striking workers (top photo) lock arms together as they brace of an attack by police and Swat teams. An IFI seminarian approaches the helmeted police to ease tension (lower photo). Photos by Budo de Guzman/Tudla

Eleven days into the strike and fighting off three dispersal attempts by the police, the striking workers whose number had by this time swelled to about 15,000 - including their families, neighbors and supporters - stood their ground at the picket line that fateful day of Nov. 16. For several minutes, they were pushed back, soaked and dazed by water cannons and tear gas.

Undaunted, the workers tried to regroup and maintain their picketline but a hail of bullets sent them scampering for safety. At about this time, the police – many of them coming all the way from other Central Luzon towns - were reinforced by hundreds of soldiers from the nearby Camp Aquino, headquarters of the Northern Luzon command. The shooting went silent after two minutes. Seven persons lay dead and at least 181 were wounded.

In an inquiry held by the House Committee on Human Rights on Dec. 14, Efren Reyes, a sugar farm worker, testified that he, together with 110 other hacienda workers, were arrested and detained at Camp Macabulos in Tarlac on the day of the massacre. Of those arrested, he said, only 20 were ULWU members. The rest were sacadas (seasonal cane cutters) from Negros in the Visayas and Central Luzon. The sacadas were apparently seized by soldiers at gunpoint from their temporary bunkhouses near the picket line.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) meanwhile has been dragged into the controversy. Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas came under fire from senators, labor leaders and human rights groups for asking the AFP to intervene in the labor dispute at the Hacienda Luisita. Denounced as unconstitutional, Sto. Tomas’ directive resulted in the hacienda massacre.

Mendiola Massacre

Survivors of the Tarlac carnage now reminisce the Jan. 22, 1987 Mendiola Massacre where 19 farmers – including those who died later in hospitals – were killed by a volley of gunfire coming from law enforcers guarding Malacañang. Peasants from Central Luzon who were among some 10,000 farmers who converged at Mendiola that day were demanding, among others, the land distribution of Hacienda Luisita.

That was also almost a year after Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, widow of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ archrival and slain senator, Benigno Aquino Jr., was catapulted to the presidency after a people’s uprising that toppled the dictator in February 1986. The new President had promised to include the hacienda under land reform.

President Aquino is from the powerful Cojuangco clan who owns Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI), the sugar plantation with 5,250 farm workers and the Central Azucarrera de Tarlac (CAT) sugar mill with 700 laborers.

Today, the 4,915.75-ha sugar plantation harvests some 290,000 tons of sugarcane every year while the CAT mills more than one million tons of cane. CAT Labor Union (CATLU) union president Ricardo Ramos said that of the total tons of cane milled at CAT, 750,000 tons come from other plantations in Luzon.

CAT’s milled by-products, Ramos added, are carbon dioxide which is primarily sold to Coca-Cola and Pop Cola owned by Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco of the same clan, and alcohol for Ginebra San Miguel, another Danding company.

CAT supplies sugar to most Central and Northern Luzon provinces, Ramos said. The CATLU joined the strike on Nov. 6 as a result of its own CBA deadlock.

In its book, The Rulemakers, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) says the Cojuangcos of Tarlac are a landowning clan with a history of political power.  Nine members of the clan have been elected to Congress since 1907.  Jose Sr. (Don Pepe), who acquired the CAT and the hacienda in 1958, was elected to the first post-war Congress and later was appointed by a succession of presidents to various executive posts, PCIJ says.

Jose Sr.’s daughter, Corazon (Cory), married Benigno Aquino, a former Tarlac governor and senator and archrival of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Corazon’s brother, Jose Jr. (Peping), one the HLI’s Board of Directors, was a former representative of Tarlac. Peping’s wife, Margarita, was a recent Tarlac governor.

Today, Mrs. Aquino’s son, Benigno Jr. (Noynoy), is representative of the second district of the same province.

Rich and famous

The hacienda’s 5,250 sugar farm workers have no more than a 240-sq.m. home lot in the 11 satellite villages surrounding the plantation - Pando, Motrico, Asturias, Texas, Bantog, Cutcut, Balete, Mapalacsiao, Parang, and Mabilog. Including the workers’ relatives, the total population in the 10 barangays is 35,000. The eleventh village is Brgy. Central which houses the CAT sugar mill, the St. Martin de Porres Hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, the two union offices and a training center.

The Cojuangcos, on the other hand, have Barrio Alto (50 ha.), an exclusive compound that hosts the Hacienda Luisita, Inc.’s current Board of Directors – Pedro Cojuangco, Ernesto Teopaco, Josephine Reyes, Ricardo Lopa Jr. and Pedro Martin Cojuangco.  Cory and Peping have their own homes inside the compound, too, aside from the old house of the late Cojuangco patriarch, Don Pepe.

Eldy Pingol, vice-president of ULWU, is witness to the Cojuangcos’ rich lifestyle. Pingol is a former member of the “yellow army” - about 300 Israeli and British-trained paramilitary forces who served as the clan’s private army.  He claims to be Peping’s bodyguard from 1983-1986 whenever the latter visited the hacienda.

Former Luisita farmhand, Mang Pering, said that in earlier days water and electricity were supplied without charge to the households in the hacienda. In 1991, he said, the villagers began paying for these. Without money to pay for private water connections, most households now get their water supply from public pumps.

In contrast, Pingol told Bulatlat, Barrio Alto has a clubhouse, swimming pool, pilota and basketball court, a radio communications room and a satellite, among modern facilities. Pingol said Peping even had a mini golf course near his home.

Peping also has a place for around 5,000 fighting cocks each worth at least P5,000. Las Haciendas, now an exclusive subdivision, used to be a racetrack for Peping’s hundreds of stallions.  But the horses have been transferred to Batangas after Las Haciendas was converted into a subdivision.

Parts of the hacienda have also been transformed into industrial, commercial and residential areas, including: the Luisita Golf and Country Club (70 has.), Luisita Industrial Park 1 (120 has.), Luisita Industrial Park 2 (500 has.), and Central Techno Park (500 has.). Around 66 hectares have also been reserved for the construction of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway which is expected to be completed in 2005.

Exclusive residential areas include the Family Park Homes Subdivision, the Don Pepe Cojuangco Subdivision (Phases 1-4) and the Las Haciendas Industrial Subdivision.  The St. Luis Subdivision is also under development.

Pay scale

Rodel Mesa, 45, a casual worker in HLI, said that in the early 1970s, they were receiving P9.50 a day. Today, regular sugar farm workers and seasonal (or casual) farm workers receive P199.50 and P194.50, respectively, a day.

Collectively however they gripe that what they actually receive is a minimum of P9.50 a day or for many others only P9.50 a week. This, they say, is due to the fact they are only allowed one to two working days a week, giving them less than P400 a week to live through. Government statistics show that a family of five needs not less than P500 a day for a decent living.

Yes, Mesa said, they have a hospital as well as educational, rice and sugar loans from the HLI management but he emphasizes that these are all just loans.  “Libre umutang pero may bayad” (You can borrow money but you have to pay), he said. Deducting these loans, taxes and union dues, a typical farm worker is usually left with only P9.50 for a week. Workers showed their pay slips to Bulatlat to prove their point.

In fact, the educational allowance of P4,000 per year has also been cancelled this school year, he added.

With their low wage, the sugar farm workers are forced to do odd jobs like vending foods while women do the laundry or work as “special offer” ladies selling soap and toothpaste.

The strike that started Nov. 6 and is on going at press time is quite unprecedented, retired sugar farm worker Ernesto Basillio, said. The strike is the second in the farm workers’ half a century of struggle for land reform, he says.

How it started

Basillio is now 89. He was only 12 in 1927 when he was hired as a seasonal worker for Hacienda Luisita, then owned and operated by its original Spanish owners, the Compania General de Tabacos Filipinas (Tabacalera). 

Their first union was called Hacienda Luisita Labor Union (HLLU) with Comedes Romero, also a worker, as president. However, Basillio said Comedes sided with management and went against the interest of the sugar farm workers.

Dahil nagigising na ang mga manggagawang bukid nuon, nagbuo kami ng sarili naming unyon” (Being more aware of their rights, the farm workers formed their own union), he said.

In 1956, Basillio became a co-founder of the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU). ULWU ran against HLLU in the union elections with a man he only remembers by the moniker “Batangas” running for president. Their candidate, who hailed from Batangas, won.

Despite ULWU's victory, the management refused to recognize it, Basillio recalled. They went on strike for four days, forcing the company to backtrack.

Overall, however, the sugar farm workers’ struggle for land reform and for better working conditions had been paid for by many lives. 

Ben Pamposa, 68, a retired sugar farm worker and former chair of the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala or Alliance of Farm Workers in Hacienda Luisita) recalled that in 1960 former ULWU president Domingo Viadan was killed after serving two years as union leader. Viadan was leading his co-workers in petitioning government for the distribution of the hacienda land to the small farmers.

Before martial law was declared in 1972, a peasant leader in the hacienda, Cecilio Sumat, disappeared. Sumat was leading the workers in their campaign to implement an agreement between the Cojuangcos and the government that the sugar plantation shall be distributed to the tenants 10 years after its acquisition by the Cojuangcos in 1958.

Since 1972 when the country was placed under martial rule, Pamposa said, “yellow” or pro-management union leaders started infiltrating the ULWU. Most of them were fielded by the Cojuangcos themselves in an attempt, he said, to co-opt the union.

Apparently, the attempt to weaken the union’s militancy paid off. Since 1987, Pamposa said, progressive peasant leaders ran for union posts but never succeeded.


Then in 2000, two peasant organizers from the regional peasant group, Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luzon (AMGL or Peasant Alliance in Central Luzon), went missing. Reports said the two were abducted by soldiers after leading a string of campaigns against the Stock Distribution Option (SDO). They have not surfaced to this day.

Today, labor militancy continues to draw threats even as union leaders are tagged as “New People’s Army (NPA) sympathizers.”  

Even before he won as ULWU president in June, Rene Galang, who also chairs Ambala, has been the target of military harassment with both groups branded as a “front” of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA.

Pamposa said Galang is considered the first progressive union president. But in the middle of the CBA negotiations, Galang was laid off as a hacienda employee. His retrenchment and that of 72 other HLI workers who have not received their separation pay is now on appeal at the National Labor and Relations Council (NLRC).

And while justice has not been rendered to the victims of the Nov. 16 massacre, Marciano Beltran, an ex-army soldier and chair of the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Tarlac (AMT or Peasant Alliance in Tarlac), was gunned down in front of his own house on the night of Dec. 8. Beltran’s son attests that before dying his father pointed to soldiers as his assassins. A key witness to the massacre, Marciano was set to testify in Congress about the Nov. 16 incident.

Mang Pering, after serving 40 years as casual worker in the hacienda, said he never saw the fruits of his labor much less felt being a “co-owner” of the hacienda. Shares were supposed to have been distributed among the farm workers under the 1989 SDO system. 

He recalled that in 1992, while cutting tree branches in Barrio Alto, he accidentally slipped and fell to the ground hurting his left shoulder. Suffering a fractured bone, he underwent surgery at the St. Martin de Porres Hospital inside the sugar mill compound. 

He received no compensation for the accident and worse, his hospital bills and medicines were deducted from his weekly salary. When he retired six years ago, his separation pay amounting to P15,000 was not even enough to pay for his accumulated hospital bills.

It took a few more years for Mang Pering’s daughter, Flor, to pay his debts through deductions from her own salary as a casual farm worker.

It is not surprising, Mang Pering now says, that his family joined the strike since Day 1.  Flor was even hit in the left shoulder while her brother was hit in the buttocks during the violent dispersal of Nov. 16.

The Versolas continue to support the strike, visiting the picket line to watch documentaries on the massacre, help in the kitchen chores or just exchange views with anyone. Mang Pering says that their forefathers’ struggle to finally own the land that is rightfully theirs rages on. Bulatlat



© 2004 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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