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Unions mobilize over Puerto Rico crisis

By Lee Sustar | May 12, 2006 | Page 11

UNIONS IN Puerto Rico are threatening to take industrial action over a fiscal crisis that has led to a shutdown of the government and mass layoffs since May 1.

Puerto Rico's main labor federation, the UGT, had threatened to call a general strike on May 9, but later called for actions directed at pressuring businesses and the wealthy to come up with funds to end the crisis.

The cause of the crisis is a dispute between Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), who is pressuring the legislature to impose a regressive 7 percent sales tax to make up for the island's $740 million budget deficit. But when the legislature, controlled by the opposition New Progressive Party (NPP), refused to pass the measure, the governor ordered the shutdown of all "non-essential" government offices.

On May 1, the island's schools were closed, throwing 40,000 teachers out of work and leaving 500,000 students with no classes. Overall, 100,000 people have been thrown out of work, and unemployment offices are overwhelmed.

Ironically, Acevedo-Vilá took the proposal of the 7 percent sales tax from the NPP, calculating that the party would therefore have to pass the measure. The NPP responded by offering to pass a sales tax of 4 percent instead. Either way, the tax would be the first such measure, and the burden would fall on workers and the poor.

Thus on April 29, some 5,000 union members, including members of the teachers' and lunchroom workers' unions, marched to the legislature under the slogan, "Not 4 percent or 7 percent, make the rich pay." On May 3, groups of trade unionists and supporters simultaneously mobilized in the commercial areas of San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez and Hatillo, at first posing as shoppers and then chanting, "¡Lucha sí, entrega no!" (Struggle, yes! Surrender, no!)

In a May 5 speech to protesters, Ricardo Santos, president of the Electricity Industry Workers Union, said, "It's time to end this injustice and abuse against our people." The unions also passed out an open letter to tourists at the San Juan airport, embarrassing the government by calling attention to the crisis.

The standoff between Acevedo-Vilá and the legislature underscores how both parties carry out a pro-business agenda in the U.S. colony. While the NPP favors statehood for Puerto Rico and the PDP advocates the status quo, both parties are committed to free-market "reforms" that will only add to the poverty that grips the island.

Behind both parties looms Wall Street, where Moody's Investors Services recently lowered Puerto Rican government bond ratings to "junk" status--meaning that Puerto Rico will have to pay punitively high rates of interest in order to finance government operations.

If labor leaders make good on their promise to fight back, the crisis could lead to the biggest labor mobilization since the general strike of 1998, when NPP Gov. Pedro Roselló moved to privatize the island's telephone system. As Socialist Worker went to press, unions planned to carry out selective strikes aimed at "neurological points" of the economy--banks and large corporations.

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