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
Mang Pering Versola, 68, (left) mans the
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Today, labor militancy continues to
draw threats even as union leaders are tagged as “New People’s Army (NPA)
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
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
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
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