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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Puerto Rico Revolts against Privatization

by Carmelo Ruiz, Institute for Social Ecology, Claridad

Last summer, the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico was in a virtual state of social and political turmoil as con-troversy raged over Governor Pedro Rossello's drastic privatization policy. Labor unions, leftist organizations and the independence movement were engaged in an all-out effort to put a stop to what they viewed as Rossello's attempts to sell the country out to foreign corporations, denationalize the Puerto Rican economy, and facilitate assimilation, both political and economic, into the United States.

On July 7 and 8, the country was shaken by an unprecedented 48-hour general strike in protest against the privatization of the Puerto Rican Telephone Company (PRTC). In May, the governor announced the company's sale to a consortium led by the GTE corporation.

The strike was organized by a civil society coalition made up of 60 unions as well as pro-independence, student, leftist, community and religious groups. Among the organizations that participated in the historic work stoppage were the Socialist Front, the University Front Against Privatization, the Ecumenical Dialogue for National Reconciliation, the Puerto Rico Workers' Central, the General Council of Workers and the member unions of the AFL-CIO.

For two days, practically the only people who left their homes were either strikers and their supporters, or policemen.

The strike's success was nothing less than phenomenal. All the major shopping malls were closed, as well as fast-food outlets, supermarkets, Wal-Mart stores, pharmaceutical companies, banks, the University of Puerto Rico, government offices, public transportation, hospitals, and even the docks and airports. For two days, practically the only people who left their homes were either strikers and their supporters, or policemen.

A particularly tense and dramatic scene took place at the international airport, where unionized airport employees and their supporters succeeded in blocking the entrance, thus effectively shutting it down. Over two hundred riot policemen, some mounted and some with long firearms, were deployed to disperse a much larger number of union members, some armed with chains and baseball bats. After a five-hour standoff, the police chief and the union leaders negotiated the opening of two lanes for car traffic.

Apart from some near-riots caused by police-men and strike breakers, the strike turned out to be a nearly peaceful event, not the bloodbath that some had feared.

In spite of the Rossello's administration's unbelievable statements that the strike was of no concern and that in Puerto Rico it is business as usual, the message is clear: the labor movement and its allies can paralyze the country, and the government can do nothing about it.

Why the phone company? Why is the governor so hell-bent on selling it at the risk of provoking a pre-revolutionary situation? Why are progressive and nationalistic sectors willing to go so far to keep it away from the clutches of transnational corporations?

Rossello's New Progressive Party (NPP), neo-liberal ideologues and leaders of the business community go on endlessly about how bureaucratic and uncompetitive the PRTC is, and how it will soon be unable to compete in the dazzling world of globalized telecommunications. The dire warnings are always followed by odes to the inherent superiority of private enterprise over the public sector.

But far from being a decrepit, money-losing, state-subsidized entity, the PRTC has an annual income of over one billion dollars and profits of over $100 million. These profits are actually used to fund the government's budget. A monopoly? Not at all. To give but one example, PRTC subsidiary Celulares Telefonica dominates the island's cellular telephone market, clobbering private sector competitors like Centennial. Talk about an inefficient state enterprise!

Independentistas and progressives are certain that the privatizations are being carried out in the service of the NPP's goal of turning Puerto Rico into state 51 of the American union.

Whatever the motivations behind the sale, the fact is that the battle over the PRTC and the whole privatization issue have become inextricably mingled with PR status politics. Independentistas and progressives are certain that the privatizations are being carried out in the service of the NPP's goal of turning Puerto Rico into state 51 of the American union. They assert that our massive public payroll (over 250,000 workers out of a population of less than 4 million), must be trimmed in order to make statehood an easier sell to Washington's Republican Congress. They point to the fact that the NPP-controlled government is selling the PRTC to GTE, an American corporation, while the local press reports that the Spanish company TISA is offering a much better deal.

Rossello and NPP leaders reply indignantly that the privatization has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with sound economics, and claim that it is the strikers who are politically motivated. NPP legislators and far-right organizations have repeatedly claimed that the July 7-8 strike was part of a sinister left-wing, separatist plot to turn PR into a socialist republic. If this is an anti-American conspiracy, then why did the AFL-CIO join the strike? Even the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents US federal government workers, joined the picket lines.

Rossello has repeatedly refused to negotiate or talk with the privatization's opponents, claiming that the PRTC sale cannot be reversed and that therefore there is nothing to talk about.

By the end of July, after 41 days, the PRTC workers ended the strike. As I write this (early September), the fight against privatization is in complete disarray and in retreat. What happened? The speed with which the national struggle against the PRTC's sale and governor Rossello's privatization policy fell apart points to an inside job. According to many activists, some spineless union leaders got cold feet in the heat of the fight and de-cided to back off. Others were more blunt: "We were sold out."

But the struggle continues. During those days in June and July, thousands of Puerto Ricans got involved in political activism and labor issues for the first time. They got a crash course in neoliber-alism and privatization, as well as grassroots organizing. Some union leaders are afraid of that. Some of them have stated publicly that non-labor organizations should not be given any decision-making powers in the Greater Committee of Labor Organizations (CAOS), the coalition that leads the struggle against privatization. These obsolete labor bureaucrats know full well that the entrance of a wide array of grassroots organizations into the progressive political scene means that they'll have to share their power, and they fear that.

If the PRTC goes through, the company will be swallowed whole by GTE, which was just bought by Bell Atlantic. What does this mean to the PRTC unions, UIET and HIETEL? For one, it means they are likely to be swept away by the Communication Workers of America (CWA). With its recent strikes against Bell Atlantic and US West, CWA has proved to be a very dynamic union, and it will certainly step up to the challenge of organizing communications workers in Puerto Rico. Besides, what have UIET and HIETEL done to organize private sector communciations workers (long distance companies, Internet servers, cellular phone companies, cable TV)? Nothing. So, it's not too far-fetched to imagine Bell Atlantic taking over our phone company and CWA running over UIET and HIETEL. If that happens, I know few will shed any tears for the phone company unions.

The privatization offensive is hitting us in so many fronts at once (energy, health, education) that it's hard not to be demoralized. But I opt to err on the side of optimism. When this year began, I would not have believed that our progressive organizations would shut down the whole country for 48 hours. If this is possible, then there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

Carmelo Ruiz is a staff writer at the Puerto Rican weekly Claridad and a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology, in Vermont. You can contact him at carmelo_ruiz@yahoo.com

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