Asia Brewery Workers Defy GMA’s Strike Freeze: Lucio Tan’s beer, a matter of national interest?

The labor department has assumed jurisdiction over a strike staged by workers of Lucio Tan’s Asia Brewery in Cabuyao, Laguna. Since when has beer, the unionized workers cry, been a matter of national interest?

By DENNIS ESPADA
Bulatlat.com

CABUYAO, Laguna – The machines of alcoholic beverage firm Asia Brewery Inc. here ground to a halt at 6 a.m. last Oct. 4. Around 200 workers then walked out of the factory and staged a picket in front of the company’s main gate.

An hour later, elements of the Sigasig Security Agency under retired Air Force Gen. Manuel Caranza fired water cannons and beat protesting workers with wooden clubs. This scene was repeated on Oct. 5 and 11 as the guards forcibly took their tents, streamers, a megaphone, motorbike and P10,000 ($177.57, based on an exchange rate of P56.315 per US dollar) cash.

Workers knew the risks, as shown by their experience in the recent past. In Aug. 1994, they clashed with the military as they stood their ground denouncing the management’s union busting and unfair labor practices.

Rodrigo Perez, president of the Tunay na Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Asia Brewery (TPMA or Genuine Unity of Workers in Asia Brewery), said the union elected a new set of officers last June 26 to chart a new direction in their collective struggle for higher wages and other benefits. He said that even if they had accomplished the legal requirements for the recognition of the union the management continued to deny the union’s right.

Beer, a matter of national interest?

In their manifesto, the striking workers said that Jose Manuel Miranda, the union president who preceded Perez, was expelled through a recall election. They accused Miranda of conniving with the management and the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) to discredit the duly-elected union officers.

“We are demanding the management to reopen talks for our collective bargaining agreement, to recognize the legitimate union leaders, to bring back our two colleagues who were unjustly dismissed, and to end all forms of harassment against us,” Perez told Bulatlat.

Perez also questioned the DoLE’s issuance of an Assumption of Jurisdiction (AJ) last December 2003. He argued: “The AJ is unjustified because it only covers labor disputes that are indispensable to national interest. Asia Brewery is a beer company. Since when have beers become a matter of national interest?”

Tan’s debts

Asia Brewery, a company that also manufactures distilled water, glass bottles and plastic crates, is owned by Lucio Tan, reportedly the 12th richest man in Asia.

While increased taxes on so-called “sin products” are being proposed in the wake of the country’s fiscal crisis, recent data from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed that Asia Brewery, starting from an initial capital of P200 million, has already accumulated a net profit of P12 billion.

Tan is still facing a tax evasion case worth P27 billion for failure to pay his dues from 1990 to 1992. The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) stated that Tan’s Fortune Tobacco Corporation has incurred unpaid debts in the form of ad valorem, excise, income and value-added taxes. Last July, the Supreme Court decided to reopen the tax evasion case against Tan after a lower court’s dismissal in 1999.

At the onset of the fiscal crisis, progressive lawmakers in Congress called on Malacañang to compel tax evaders like Tan to pay their dues.

Industrial peace?

The strike marked the progressive labor movement’s defiance to the strike moratorium forged by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with employers and a moderate labor group.

“The signing (of the strike moratorium) is no more than the approval papers to execute the working class. It is clear evidence that the assumption of jurisdiction, strike moratorium and the ‘no union, no strike policy’ are repressive measures to bring the workers down to their knees,” says Luz Baculo, secretary-general of the Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan-Kilusang Mayo Uno (PAMANTIK-KMU, or Unity of Workers in Southern Tagalog-May First Movement), a regional militant labor center.

“In a matter of months, the Arroyo administration nearly completed the requirements for a de facto Martial Law against the trade union movement and the workers who are being branded economic terrorists as the DoLE, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the ‘yellow’ unions enforce the so-called industrial peace,” Baculo added.

Lawyer Remigio Saladero Jr., director of Pro-Labor Assistance Center (PLACE), explained that a strike, being a basic human right enshrined in the Labor Code, is used by workers to defend themselves against intolerable exploitation and repression. No single worker would choose to strike on his own capriciousness.

“The true cause for the disruption of industrial peace is the continued oppression unleashed by owners of capital against the working class,” Saladero wrote in his column published in Pinoy Weekly, a progressive newspaper. He also noted that strikes are an inevitable option for the workers.

Makasaysayan ang karapatang mag-aklas o magwelga. Halos lahat ng karapatang tinatamasa ng manggagawa ngayon ay bunga ng mga welgang isinagawa upang makamtan ang nasabing mga karapatan. Ang makulay na kasaysayan ng uring manggagawa sa daigdig ay halos magiging walang laman kung aalisin mo rito ang tungkol sa mga pag-aaklas na kanilang isinagawa” (The right to rebel or strike is already a part of history. Almost all of the rights enjoyed today are fruits of strikes to achieve these rights. The colorful history of the working class all over the world would be almost empty if strikes they staged are not taken into account.), Saladero said. ()

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