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Philippine Workers Strike Nestlé to Change Their Nation

by Jen Schradie


Prism correspondent Jen Schradie travelled with and filmed these peoples' struggle for justice and against corporate and US control of their country.

Last fall, I traveled to the Philippines for three months to research and produce a documentary on the popular struggle for land reform. I also went looking for something to inspire me politically.

Before I boarded the plane, I had read on the Internet about a boycott of Nestle, which has an ice cream and juice factory in Quezon City, the Philippines. Workers at this plant apparently had instigated this boycott of all Nestle products to support their strike. But I didn't know much more than that. I had heard of the boycott before but always assumed that it was probably some long-standing consumer boycott organized in the US that had little relevancy to the lives of the Third World workers it was supposed to help.

But after spending only a few weeks with the Magnolia-Nestle workers in metro-Manila, I learned that their boycott was not simply about your decision whether or not to buy that late night Nestle's crunch bar. It's even more than worker solidarity. "The Nestle boycott is part of a larger struggle," said Luis Eslao, a striking Nestle worker, "that's fighting for revolutionary change in the Philippines."

Even though this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American war—and the observance of the so-called Filipino national independence—the Philippines is still a largely feudal society. The "People's Power" ousting of Marcos hasn't stopped landgrabbing, privatization and contracting out of workers. Of course, this assault on peasants and workers happens with the iron hand of the often US-trained and advised Filipino military.

Sleeping over a ditch, under a volcano

The striking Nestle workers, union members of the Illaw at Bukluran ng Manggagawa (IBM) local, are part of a larger struggle to overthrow these forces. In just my first week in the Philippines, I got more than my expected dose of political enlightenment. I was amazed at the depth of the Nestle workers' spirit, militancy and political vision.

BAYAN, a Filipino multi-sectoral alliance of people's organizations fighting for national freedom and democracy, hosted my stay. As part of my general orientation in Manila, I met with organizations and leaders of various labor, urban poor, women, and youth organizations. Organizers from the KMU hosted me for my introduction to the workers sector. The Nestle IBM is part of the KMU, the largest and most militant trade union in the Philippines.

Tess, a KMU organizer, brought me to the Nestle strike camp and headquarters. The night before, I had spent probably the most uncomfortable night in my life in Magdalena, a Manila slum precariously perched over a river that doubles as a sewer. I was still recovering when I arrived at the camp about 5:00 am. I was cranky, sick and exhausted. I didn't have the energy to be introduced to so many people whose names I couldn't understand or respond to the already familiar barrage of three questions about my purpose, age and marital status.

Besides the workers, I also met a swarm of mosquitoes in the stagnant ditch running between the workers' camp and the wall of the Nestle plant. I took a few pictures and talked to some workers. I was expecting just to spend a few hours there and then head to another site of labor action. Instead, I was surprised to learn from Tess, my guide, that I would be spending the rest of the week with the strikers.

Looking at the rats scampering through the ditch, I could only selfishly imagine that it would actually be a more miserable night. I couldn't have been more wrong.

As I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself, Tess told me that workers were about to blockade another gate. About once per month, strikers and their supporters use their bodies to prevent the scabs, guards and trucks from entering or leaving the plant. According to Luis, during the last blockade, a truck ran over a woman activist and nearly killed her.

As I cornered one of the walls surrounding the large factory compound, I realized that the slogans I had seen on signs and banners at the strike headquarters were also painted on all of the walls surrounding the ice cream and juice factory.
"Nestle Flavor of the Month: Blood of the Workers"
"Nestle, No. 1 Union Buster"

My spirits slowly lifted. The workers didn't just tell their own story on these white walls but they also expressed their struggle as part of the national democratic movement for justice.

But at that point I didn't have time to read it all. As we approached the gate, I saw members of a special SWAT team pouring out of a van to join the Philippine National Police, local police and the Nestle security guards on hand.

Their presence didn't seem to intimidate the 60 strikers and their supporters sitting down in front of the gate. I then heard Armando Menseses, the President of the IBM chapter of the KMU, speaking through a bullhorn, "Nestle claims to be globally competitive, so they want contractual workers, who are only paid half as much as permanent workers."

Meneses, a tall and wiry man with unstoppable energy, then addressed the security forces. "Don't hurt your brothers and sisters here. Not out of kindness, but out of solidarity. You are part of the same struggle. Nestle is a multinational corporation that's using you to fight against your own people.

"Even your jobs," Meneses said pointing to the security guards dressed in full riot gear, "are going to be contracted out." I noticed that some of the guards were moved, though I don't know how this affected the ensuing melee.

I then heard the truck engines roar. In an instant, the wall of guards parted like the Red Sea and the trucks came charging through. The next ten minutes were a blur. Batons were flying, shields were pushing, and arms were flailing.

After the blockade, the Nestle strikers summed up the strengths and weaknesses of this action. I was far from feeling the dread of that morning and felt incredibly inspired, so I thought it was a success. Only seven trucks filled with juice got through, so the company decided not even to bring out their shipment of ice cream. Meneses asked me to give a solidarity statement at the meeting, so I said, "Even though I don't speak Tagalog, you don't have to speak the same language to understand the meaning of the militant action that I witnessed."

A strike known far and wide

But the workers' assessment was that the previous month's blockade was much more effective because they had over 400 supporters and had cost the company 7.5 million pesos (almost $200,000). This blockade of 60 people, where some trucks had been able to escape, put less of a dent in the day's profits.

After a much needed nap that afternoon on the workers' standard "bed" of a narrow wooden bench, I woke up groggily hearing other people speaking English. Turns out a Danish photographer was chatting with some of the leaders.

Luis, a Nestle worker who was attacked by the SWAT team during the last blockade and suffered broken ribs, told me that many internationalists have come to visit the camp. They've had visitors from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, India, Japan, Switzerland and the US. He described how Australian Nestle workers shut their plant down for one day in solidarity. He added, "Nestle is trying to make this an example countrywide and internationally."

Luis then gave me the full history of the strike. Nestle bought majority shares of stock in February 1996 for the Magnolia ice cream and other product lines of San Miguel. The company immediately cut benefits in half and began a process of making permanent positions contractual, or temporary. The workers protested with posters, T-shirts, button wearing and armbands. Management then demanded they remove the armbands. Workers resisted with a sit-down strike. Two days later, management fired eight union officers and two active members. The rest of the participants received a ten-day suspension. On January 11, 1997 they decided to strike. 129 workers resisted company harassment and continued the strike.

Later that evening, Luis offered me his makeshift bed at the strikers' camp. I didn't mind the wood board because I was covered with the luxury of a mosquito net. Early the next morning, six Nestle strikers and I climbed in a jeepney, the local form of transport, to meet one of three contingents from across the country participating in the Lakbyan, a week long national march and rally to Manila. The BAYAN-organized march called for an increase in the minimum wage a break-up of the oil cartel and a halt to "Philippines 2000", a development plan that bulldozes poor and peasant communities.

Spreading the word

Luis taught me some of the chants that the strikers constantly yelled with the other marchers:

Imperyalismo. . . Ibagsak (down with imperialism)

Feudalsismo. . . Ibagsak (down with feudalism)

Buraukrata Kapitalismo (down with bureaucratic capitalism)

Ramos Mismo. . . Babagasak (Ramos, the president at the time, will fall)

Each night we stopped at a different town, met up with other contingents and participated in a large rally. At these rallies, a few of the strikers sang solidarity songs—in the KMU's cultural singing group Tambisan—about their struggle to crowds of thousands. We'd then find a cardboard box and sleep on the ground with the thousands of other workers, peasants, and students.

Throughout the three days that I marched with the strikers they continued to hand out leaflets about the strike and collect money from passersby and drivers. They also made all of their decisions collectively and ensured my safety at all times.

We finally ended up at Mendiola, the entrance of the presidential palace and the site of scores of massacres during and after the Marcos era. All of the contingents from around the country converged here for a massive rally with a fitting finale of a giant paper Uncle Sam burning in effigy.

A few days later, I left metro-Manila for the countryside to research the documentary by living with an organizing unit in the New People's Army [guerrilla organization which controlled at least 25% of Philippines territory during the 1980s]. When I returned to Manila a month later, I again participated in a march with the Nestle strikers. But this time it ended up at the Nestle headquarters in Manila, where they tried to storm the entrance. They didn't make it inside, but they did paint slogans over the Nestle signs adorning the building.

While I was away, Nestle goons had violently destroyed their camp and physically removed them from their strike headquarters outside the plant. Yet, they set up camp nearby to continue their struggle. I felt overwhelmed with this continued spirit of the workers. Luis explained that the violence they experienced is just part of the militarization of the entire country. I, in fact, was pulled out the guerrilla zone because of a red alert instigated by the Filipino military.

About a week later, the Nestle strikers lifted my spirits again. I was feeling stressed on Christmas eve but not because of the typical holiday anxieties. I wasn't able to get into the guerrilla zone when I had planned to shoot an interview for the documentary. I heard that the Nestle strikers and some supporters were holding a Christmas party. Matt DeVries, my videographer [and Prism staffer], and I headed over there. We had a potluck dinner, sang solidarity songs, and joked about how those of us who were still there late into the evening were all single.

A few days before I left the Philippines, Matt and I recorded the labor musical group Tambisan for the documentary at the Catholic seminary that houses the strike headquarters. The workers were gearing up for their next action.

After I left the Philippines, President Ramos, trained at West Point and a general under Marcos passed the torch on to a new president, trained in Hollywood as an actor. Nonetheless, the military remains in power and the Nestle strikers still continue their battle, along with other mass organizations, for a new society.


Jen Schradie is an independent documentary producer and writer. Philippine Workers Strike Nestlé to Change Their Nation


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