Puerto Rican General Strike Hits Telephone Privatization
by David Bacon
SAN JUAN (7/27/98) -- For two days at the beginning of July, Puerto Rican workers shut down industry, transport, and almost all other non-emergency services, in a general strike reminiscent of the great San Francisco General Strike of 1934. More than half a million workers participated, an eighth of the island's entire population.
Puerto Ricans heeded the call of the broad front of unions and community organizations formed to back up the strike of the island's two telephone unions. Since June 20, the Independent Union of Telephone Workers and the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers have shut down most operations of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company, trying to halt the privatization of the company.
In April, 1997, Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello announced that he intended to sell the island's phone service to a consortium of General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) and the island's Banco Popular. The announcement was extremely unpopular. Most residents remember the decades when the phones belonged to the old International Telephone and Telegraph, when the island's phone system was universally ridiculed. It was used by IT&T as a dump for out-of-date equipment, and hundreds of thousands of families had to do without phone service entirely.
In 1974, the Puerto Rican government bought the company, and turned it into one of the most modern and efficient in the Americas. The Puerto Rico Telephone Company pays the government about $80 million a year in lieu of taxes to finance municipal services, education and the island's public broadcasting station. The PRTC is so productive its unofficial symbol is "Fortunata," a dewy-eyed cow.
Nevertheless, Rossello announced the privatization in a deal in which GTE and Banco Popular would only have to put up $350 million of their own money, and mortgage the newly-privatized company for another $1.5 billion. The government would then use the money for infrastructure improvements promised in Rossello's last election campaign.
Rossello was determined to forge ahead with the privatization because it was a key part of his multi-faceted efforts to privatize other social services, including hospitals, state-run hotels, and even the educational system. Rossello has been a big proponent of school vouchers. His program has been designed to win support from the Republican Congressional majority for the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st state, by attempting to portray the island as a business-friendly environment, hostile to the maintenance of social services.
The two unions at the company opposed the privatization plan from the start. They believe that the new owners will lay off large numbers of their 6400 members in order to cut costs and pay the debt. The unions also view the privatization as an attack on the ability of Puerto Rican workers to exercise some control over the island's economic fate.
On October 1 last year, the Independent Brotherhood, representing mostly white-collar classifications, struck for a day. An angry crowd of over 100,000 people turned out in front of the governor's mansion to support them, the largest gathering of Puerto Ricans in history.
As Rossello moved the sale forward, the two unions then struck on June 19.Their action was marked by numerous violent clashes as riot police attempted to break the picket lines. Dozens of arrests took place and on June 22, strikers were brutallybeaten bloody and unconscious by police in front of press photographers and television cameras.
Faced with extensive police violence, the labor-community coalition, the Greater Committee of Trade Union, Civic, Religious, Cultural, Political, Student and Environmental Organizations (CAOS) then decided to call the general strike to support the workers and their demands.
The coalition called on Rossello to agree to a referendum on the privatization. The governor, reading the polls which indicate that 65% of the island's voters oppose the sale, has refused. To demonstrate his disdain, Rossello went on vacation for the two days of the general strike, and refused to talk to the unions involved.
Following the two-day general walkout, the strike continued. On July 22, the government went ahead with the sale, despite a new offer by a Spanish conglomerate, TISA, (which the unions prefer to GTE, since it guarantees continued employment) which offered to pay $2,025 for 50% or $2,125 for 60% of the company.
Rossello's move came three days before the hundredth anniversary of the original colonization of Puerto Rico by the United States. The irony was lost on no one. He then announced a new plebiscite for island residents to vote on the future status of Puerto Rico. In that election, they will choose between statehood, the continuation of Puerto Rico's present commonwealth status, or independence.
In the meantime, after hot debate, the leadership of the two unions decided not to return to work until the company offered at least an amnesty for all workers involved, and the return of all workers at the same time. The government has been unwilling to concede to any of the workers' demands.
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