Puerto Rican Workers Strike Back

September 25, 2007

Under the slogan of "Puerto Rico Is Not For Sale," over 500,000 Puerto Rican workers––one half of the island's labor force and one-eighth of the total population––took part in a general strike on July 7 and 8 that shook the administration of Governor Pedro Roselló and his New Progressive Party (PNP). Over 60 labor unions participated in the strike, which was called to protest the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) by the Broad Committee of Trade Union Organizations (CAOS), a coalition of unions and other civic, political and religious organizations. The massive solidarity and widespread adherence to the strike was the culmination of ten months of increasingly militant labor and student mobilizations against the Governor's pro-statehood and neoliberal agenda.

Since coming to power in 1993, Roselló and his party have been actively pursuing the sale of 1he PRTC, despite the fact that the company generates $1.1 billion annually for the island's economy and some $100 million in profits. Roselló's privatization scheme has the support of powerful economic interests which stand to make millions from the sale of the PRTC. GTE and a Spanish corporation, TISA, have bid $1.875 and $2.025 billion respectively for a 50% stake in the company. Banco Popular, a local bank which has historically marketed itself as the "bank of the people," has offered to purchase a 5% stake. And Citibank, which agreed to finance $1.5 billion of GTE's bid, stands to make a tidy profit if the sale goes through.

The increasingly militant mobilizations from a labor movement that many analysts had described as moribund have surprised almost everyone. This is the third general strike in Puerto Rico this decade. The general strikes in 1990 and 1997 were also in response to government attempts to privatize the PRTC, but it was the latter mobilization of 150,000 workers––also organized by CAOS––which presaged the recent upsurge of mobilization and militancy among Puerto Rican workers.

July's general strike grew out of the telephone workers' strike called on June 18 by the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Employees (HIETEL) and the Independent Union of Telephone Employees (UIET) to protest approval of the sale of the PRTC by the Puerto Rican legislature. Workers shut down operations and defiantly prevented the entrance of scab managers into PRTC facilities throughout the island. But both PRTC management and Roselló refused to negotiate.

Police response to the telephone workers' strike was brutal. Both regular and riot police clubbed and pepper-sprayed the strikers and their supporters on multiple occassions. In one incident, riot police attacked workers blocking the entrance to the main PRTC facilities in Hato Rey, spraying pepper gas into the eyes and mouths of protesters and clubbing everyone within reach––even those who were lying injured on the pavement. To the displeasure of the Governor and the police chief, Pedro Toledo, the Puerto Rican press relayed the images of bleeding strikers being carried unconscious to nearby hospitals. The graphic images provoked widespread outrage and generated sympathy and more support for the striking workers. Picket lines grew daily as thousands of ordinary people stopped by to bring food, money and moral support. As the outcry against police violence grew, Toledo mounted an unsuccessful campaign to scapegoat students and socialists for the confrontations.

The police brutality prompted workers from the governmentowned Electric Energy Authority (AEE) to join the picket line wearing hard-hats in case there was more police violence. The powercompany workers, represented by the Union of Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers (UTIER)––one of Puerto Rico's most militant unions––were joined by the Teamsters, Water Authority workers and other unions, whose support turned the telephone workers' strike into a mass strike.

On July 7, the first day of the general strike, thousands of strikers and supporters blocked a one-and-a-half mile stretch of the highway leading to San Juan's international airport. They were met by a contingent of 500 riot police, tear-gas units and mounted police. Toledo, wary of the political costs of further violence, negotiated a deal and withdrew his forces, leaving the highway to the strikers. On the second day of the strike, the island was completely paralyzed. Shopping centers, banks and offices were all closed as thousands of workers occupied the streets.

The strike was portrayed in the mainstream U.S. media as a failure, echoing the statements issued by the Roselló Administration to assuage concern over stability on the island. They claimed the strike was not able to prevent the PRTC sale, and reported that support for the strike was limited and only hurt the workers. In fact, public-opinion polls indicate that more than 50% of Puerto Ricans supported the strike, while two-thirds opposed the sale of the phone company. More importantly, the mass mobilizations radicalized large numbers of workers, students and ordinary citizens. The solidarity that characterized the picket lines and marches proved to the workers––and to the authorities––that the labor movement has the power to bring the island to a standstill.

Many observers were surprised by the recent wave of labor unrest in Puerto Rico, long considered a bulwark of political stability. After all, the labor movement seemed to be in a long-term decline, with a meager 6% of the labor force represented by unions at the beginning of the 1990s. The independence movement has been in crisis since the early 1980s, and no political force able to challenge U.S. colonialism on a national scale has emerged since then. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) is in disarray, unable to secure more than 4% of the vote, and little remains of the revolutionary left, which is primarily grouped around the Socialist Front (FS).

The success of the general strike had much to do with the organizing efforts of CAOS, which coordinated support for the strike on a national level. Headed by HIETEL president Annie Cruz, CAOS established a wide-reaching organizational presence through its regional committees. Its presence became evident as thousands of workers-many of whom did not belong to a union-and students across the island joined the general strike. The San Juan committee has been the most influential and militant of these regional committees. Within it, the Socialist Front and other labor activists have played a significant role in promoting militant actions despite the resistance of some labor leaders who favored more conciliatory strategies.

The anger of Puerto Rican workers made evident during the strike has been fueled by the effects of Roselló's neoliberal policies and the continuing decline of living standards provoked by the island's long-term social and economic crisis. According to official statistics, the number of people living in poverty grew by some 600,000 between 1980 and 1990––a figure almost identical to the population growth for that period. Today, two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and over 60% receive food stamps.

As poverty has grown, Roselló has increasingly relied on repressive measures to deal with the effects of the crisis. In June 1993, he ordered the National Guard to occupy public housing projects as part of his "ironfisted" anticrime policy, arguing that such measures were necessary in order to remove drug dealers from public housing. The militarization of housing projects not only failed to accomplish its stated purpose, but in fact increased violence in poor urban areas by setting off territorial gang wars. The dramatic increase in police brutality since Roselló took office, moreover, has left a mounting death toll over––15 murders since 1994. In some cases, these police killings have led to direct confrontations between police and public-housing residents. Roselló also proposed legislation that would have eliminated the right to bail, again arguing that this would reduce crime. The question went to a referendum in November 1994 and was defeated thanks to a campaign organized by labor unions, the Socialist Front and civic organizations.

In addition to these blatant attacks on civil rights, the Roselló Administration has neglected the island's infrastructure to the point of collapse. Schools and hospitals have been allowed to deteriorate in order to force down the numbers of people seeking their services. The Roselló Administration then used the drop in demand as an excuse to privatize them. San Juan residents have been subjected to the inconvenience and the health risks posed by recurring power outages and water rationing when there is no drought affecting the island. Water rationing has been imposed because the pipes that carry water to the city are in general disrepair and have diminished capacity due to high levels of leakage and sedimentation. Instead of repairing the water lines, Roselló and the PNP decided to invest over a $100 million in a project to build a large-scale aqueduct to transport water from one side of the island to the other––a wasteful project favored by the island's major real estate developers.

Roselló has also launched an attack on public education, proposing the so-called community schools initiative, which entails a largescale reorganization of the funding structures of public education. In April of this year, thousands of students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) marched to protest Roselló's plan to take $40 million away from the UPR budget to fund a voucher program for private education. At the end of the spring semester, the 11-unit UPR system was paralyzed by a strike supported jointly by students, professors and workers which also received broad support from the labor movement. The university administration responded by locking everyone out of the 11 campuses, only to yield when workers and students forced their way in and reopened the schools.

Despite growing anger over Roselló's policies, the PNP won the 1996 elections with an unprecedented 51% of the vote. This solid victory gave the PNP the impression that it had a mandate to pursue the incorporation of Puerto Rico as the fiftyfirst state of the United States and a free hand to implement the harshest provisions of its neoliberal program. In fact, the PNP's victory had more to do with the weakness of the opposition, mainly the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which is in a state of deep crisis. The PPD's economic and political program has historically been based on the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, which it has defended under the banner of the Common-wealth––a model that is rapidly unraveling as the social crisis deepens and as the tax incentives upon which it relied for half a century are phased out by the U.S. Congress.

Roselló's relentless implementation of neoliberal policies has been fueled by his determination to advance the cause of statehood at any cost. Given the rightward shift in mainstream U.S. politics, the PNP felt compelled to prove that Puerto Rico would be fit to become a state under the more stringent––and bigoted––standards of the Republican right. This was the motive behind Roselló's attempt to reintroduce English as the official language of instruction in all schools last year––nearly 60 years after the United States had rescinded this racist practice––in an attempt to "Americanize" Puerto Ricans. The teachers' unions protested the measure and most of the population–– including many statehood supporters ––rejected it.

The Governor's overconfidence led his administration to privatize over 100 public hospitals and clinics, with devastating effects on the population. Many of the private companies that took over the hospitals soon abandoned them, citing low profits. The hospitals closed down, leaving hundreds of patients without access to health care and owing many employees back wages. The massive layoffs that followed the privatization of hospitals struck a nerve among Puerto Rican workers, convincing many that the privatization of the telephone company would have a similar outcome. In this respect, the struggle of the telephone workers came to symbolize the struggle of all workers.

After the July general strike, the mass character of the telephone workers' picket lines receded. Despite of the objections of many rank-and-file telephone workers, union leaders negotiated a return to work that accepted harsh penalties against the strikers. The status of the telephone company remains unclear. Stopping the sale of the telephone company would be a great victory for the workers. The privatization of the PRTC, on the other hand, would certainly be a defeat and could demoralize many of those who participated in the strike. But even if this were to occur, it is unlikely that Puerto Rican workers will simply return to passivity and resignation. With the experience of the picket lines, the confrontations with the police and the sense of victory felt by many after the general strike, it is hard to imagine that Puerto Rican workers will remain passive in the face of future attacks. In many ways, the July strike was just the beginning.

Missing from the movement, however, was rank-and-file organization that would have democratically linked workers' discussions and activities across workplaces and unions in order to successfully pressure union leaders into taking necessary action. Clearly, a two day general strike was not enough. There were plenty of workers willing to go longer, but they did not have the means to turn this willingness to fight into concrete action. Similarly, the movement lacked political direction, and it was obvious that for most Puerto Rican workers, the island's three main political parties did not offer an alternative.

Some observers have interpreted the extensive display of Puerto Rican flags during the strike as a sign that the movement was about national independence. Although there were elements of national pride, it would be a mistake to assume that this was the main force behind the strike. The strikers used the flag as a symbol of their opposition to a neoliberal program that threatens their jobs and the livelihood of their families. They waved the flags as a sign that they would not allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder in Roselló's quest for statehood.

It would also be a mistake, however, to overlook the movement's potential to lead to a more direct challenge to U.S. imperialism on the island. At two critical junctures earlier this century––one led by the Socialist Party in 1919 and the other by the Communist Party in 1938––the opportunity to unite the social struggles of the working class with anti-imperialist movements was missed. Now that a new mass movement is showing signs of emerging, it is imperative to recognize that the only force capable of challenging imperialism in Puerto Rico is the working class, and that national independence is only in the interest of workers if it is implemented on their own terms.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Hector R. Reyes teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a member of the International Socialist Organization.

Tags: Puerto Rico, labor, strike, unions, Governor Pedro Roselló

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