Signs of life: Signs, banners, posters and other larger-than-life statements of resistance adorn the inside and outside of the picket. Photographs by Jilson Tiu
Culture Spotlight

At the Zagu picket line, the morning after a storm

The labor strike at the Zagu factory in Pasig caught the attention of media after violence broke following a clash between union laborers and pro-management workers. On a quieter day, the strikers talk to ANCX about what they’re really out in the streets for. 
Jam Pascual | Jul 23 2019

I arrive at the picket and scan for residual marks of damage from storms that hit land prior. The past few days have seen increased and intense rainfall, and the rain that came down the night before apparently flooded the sidewalks of this corner of Kapitolyo, dripped down the cement walls, and nearly reached the banigrolled out on the wooden paleta, on which the striking unionized workers rest. The walls betray no indication of wear, no darkened spot.

Against the machine: On this street in Kapitolyo, strikebreakers (allegedly sent by Zagu management) violently confronted and dispersed protesters.

 

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This morning is different. It is 9:30am. The weather is steady, and those at the picket today show no trace of shakenness, even when just the week before, violent strikebreakers heaved barricades on the demonstrators like giant riot shields, forcing the peaceful workers to disperse. On that day, police didn't intervene until much later, although it is interesting to note the guards patrolling the area keep fixed eyes on the picket, and are usually huddled in groups of two or three. I'm told they take pictures of those who visit. I'm told by the union they've probably got a picture of me too.

On one corner where stands a cement column and ascends a metal pipe leans a nylon string guitar, in good shape. Next to it is a plastic Lock & Lock MEGA BOX of non-food provisions like tissue. Sitting on the container is a megaphone, off and quiet for the day. Those at the picket do not know when the next rally will be. That they resorted to such demonstrations, even though it was well within their right, was not in their original game plan.

Tough material: Though supported by donations and various activist organizations, the unionized workers of Zagu strike in dire conditions.

"Kahit ngayon, open na rin kami sanegotiation ngmanagement, perohardline talaga sila,"says Christina who has been working for the past 17 years as a regular employee for Zagu— the pearl shake company with, as per its website, close to a hundred outlets in the country. Despite her better fortune, Christina has resolved to stand in solidarity with her contractual fellow workers. The strike has been in effect for over a month now, but those striking have been organizing since August last year. Between then and now transpired a series of proposals that never got off the ground, including efforts to reach higher management—only to be met with attorneys who project powerlessness, and strikebreakers who demonstrate otherwise.

"Yung mga humahawak, hindi namin alam kung naipaparating talaga sa may-ari yung concern, or samanagement na may problema," says Jennylyn, a straight-to-regular worker who, despite having worked for the company for 15 years, does not get the benefits most white collar workers get to avail. She says whenever she attempted to bring up the subject of her working conditions, she'd be shut down. "Pag nagtanong ka pa na, 'Ba't sa ibang kompanya, pag nag-resign ka, may separation fee?' Ang isasagot sa iyo ay parang pabalang na, 'Eh bakit ka nandito? Ba't ka tumagal dito? Eh kung 'di mo gusto, lumipat ka na sa iba.'"

View from the street.

But that's precisely what makes ‘endo’ employment so difficult—those who want to leave, can't do so easily. Yes, there's Duterte's Executive Order 51, which the president carried out as part of his promise to end endo, even though labor groups have criticized the order for being a mere reiteration of the existing Labor Code. Still, neither the order nor the code have stopped Zagu from keeping many of their workers, some who have been with the company for years, contractualized, even though many jobs regularize after as quickly as six months.

There is a conservative mindset which assumes that striking workers are merely throwing a self-entitlement tantrum, but what people need to know is the union resorted to a strike because they were backed into a corner. They kept hitting a wall with negotiations, following legal procedures. Management wouldn't even face them, they say. It is only sensible to take their cause to the streets.

The president of the union, Shirley Fulgencio, whom I got to meet on a separate occassion, puts it poignantly. “Noong nagkaroon ng sigawan dito, sinasabi mismo ngjunior manager ‘In time’ daw. ‘In time,’" she recalls. "Bakit naging‘in time’ kung kailan nagkaroon na ng gulo? Dapat mula pa lang noong una, ginawa na.”

On the job: Union president Shirley Fulgencio has been organizing workers since last year, beginning with negotiations before resorting to a strike.

As part of their organizing efforts, the union saved up money in order to survive what is basically unemployed living. And although organizations like SUPER (Solidarity of Unions in the Philippines for Empowerment and Reform) have helped provide resources (the paletaswere donated), it is not easy being here. Jennylyn is a single parent with a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. When she made the decision to strike, she sent her children to her province in Samar to stay with her mother. And while she doesn't have to worry about her children being provided for, this struggle has wedged an unbearable distance between her and the ones she loves. Endo does not only exploit bodies. It steals time.

But the union is resourceful, and their resourcefulness is a middle finger to those who accuse the poor of being lazy. Behind a banner that says "Isulong ang labor agenda!" is a makeshift kitchen. A wooden table holds a crowded assortment of ingredients—kalabasa, bangus, jars of peanut butter and cans of corned beef, a carton of eggs, a water dispenser. A few litre jugs sit empty on the floor. For lunch, Jennylyn is chopping squash while Willard, who had been working contractual with Zagu for a few years now, sautees garlic and red onions in a wok over a fire. Five other strikers rest, and try to feel for the day's forward pull.

Over the course of the union's strike, these tasks will rotate. Around thirty workers were present during their last presentation, but those that wait at the picket usually number around ten. Workers get chances to go home to provide their families with their time and presence, if anything at all. Some of those who stay see their time at the picket as shifts, watching out not just for their fellow unionized brethren, but also for police who might charge in for whatever reason.

Law and disorder: Even when blue collar dissidents express themselves in a lawful manner, they do not always receive the full protection of the law.

What we think we know of revolution, we imagine in terms of verve or fervor. It is easy (for some, and only relatively) to take a couple of hours out of one's day to march, proclaim that Marcos isn't a hero, or that our current Senate is a mockery to democracy. And all those things are true. But the parliament of the streets does not hold a monopoly over revolution, and one can say it is harder to sit and wait.

"Kasi kung tutuusin, walang workers na gustong magwelga. Kasi, especially sa amin,first time namin magwelga. Parang, doon yung kaba, takot,"Christina explains to me. "Pero, wala eh, tatapang ka para doon sa pinaglalaban mo, na gusto mong ipaglaban yung karapatan mo bilang manggagawa—at the same time, yung mga kasamahan mo, na matagal na hindi binibigyang pansin ng kumpanya."

Morsels of time: One interesting thing to note about the workers' schedule at the picket—they often prepare dinner very early, at around 5 or 6pm. At a certain point, the night gets so dark that cooking becomes difficult if not impossible.

There is the hubristic, petit bourgeois assumption that if we spend a day in the shoes of the poor, we'll know how hard their lives are. But the fact is, we can't. We’re sheltered, we’re deluded, we who are not at risk of having our digits cut off by faulty machines. For all our knowledge, for all the time we've put in to fight for lives at risk, let's not lose sight of the fact that we stand in solidarity with the oppressed precisely because their struggle is unfathomable.

They aren't even asking for much. They aren't asking for higher wages. And right now, the possibility of regularized workers actually getting their proper benefits is still a floating, long-term goal. Right now, all they want is regular employee status for everyone. The bare minimum. 

Only a shadow: Over the course of their negotiations, management has not once confronted the unionized workers on their own, according to the strikers.

I ask Jennylyn how long they plan to keep on striking, and to her, there is no end in sight, no relief in the struggle but the struggle itself. "Hangga’t hindi dinidinig ngmanagement yung panawagan ng mga manggagawa, magtitiis kami para ipakita sa kanila na merong mga manggagawa na kailangang manindigan para sa karapatan nila.”

In a few hours, darkness will fall over Kapitolyo's streets, and only the lamp post across that glows a dim orange will illuminate the picket line. And for as long as the season stays stormy, rain will come down in short but intense bursts, pummel and subside in starts and stops, like a revolution apportioning its momentum.

 

Photographs by Jilson Tiu