General strike hits Puerto Rico

October 15, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the background to Puerto Rico's dramatic general strike movement to defend public-sector jobs.

PUERTO RICAN unions are poised to shut down much of the island's economy October 15 in a general strike to protest massive public-sector layoffs by right-wing Gov. Luis Fortuño.

The unions were spurred into action when Fortuño announced that under the new Law 7, some 17,000 government workers would lose their jobs to help close a $3.2 billion budget deficit--and the job cuts could reach 30,000 in coming months.

With unemployment on the island officially at 16 percent, the job losses would hammer working class people already suffering from the recession.

The widespread anger over the layoffs has propelled even the more conservative unions into action. Roberto Pagán, president of the Puerto Rican Union of Workers (SPT according to its initials in Spanish), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told reporters that if Fortuño doesn't back down following the one-day work stoppage, the unions would move forward with an "indefinite general strike." Pagán, however, said that he expected airports would function as usual during the one-day strike.

Part of a national march in support of the 2008 teachers' strike
Part of a national march in support of the 2008 teachers' strike (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

Meanwhile, the more militant independent unions--which initiated the call for the general strike--were confident that the action would get a strong response. The spokesperson for the Union Coordination for a Broad Front of Solidarity and Struggle (FASyL), Luis Pedraza Leduc, predicted that the general strike would be "a massive demonstration that inundates the streets of San Juan," the capital city.

Fortuño--of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP, the equivalent of the Republican Party)--has responded by upping the ante. He's threatening to charge strikers with "terrorism" if they succeed in disrupting the island's ports or the flow of commerce.

Law 7, passed in March, allows Fortuño to unilaterally dismiss public-sector workers, overriding labor laws that previously prohibited such actions. Union contracts are no protection for workers, either: Law 7 effectively voids any job protections they may contain. What's more, Law 7 clears the way for even more radical reduction in the number of public-sector workers by allowing for "Public-Private Alliances"--a euphemistic phrase for handing over government functions to private corporations.

If Fortuño thought he could get away with this blitzkrieg, it's in part because Puerto Rico's union movement has been divided in recent years. Earlier this year, unions that belong to the AFL-CIO and Change to Win (CTW) federations refused to join a May Day strike call by five independent unions earlier this year. Even so, some 15,000 workers joined a spirited march that day.

A major obstacle to labor unity in Puerto Rico has been the SEIU, which dominates the CTW federation. After a strike in 2008 by the Puerto Rican teachers union, the Federación de Maestros Puertoriqueño (FMPR), the SEIU made a political deal with the previous governor to try and replace the FMPR as the main teachers' union. Puerto Rico's teachers, however, rejected the deal.

Now, however, the scale of Fortuño's attack has spurred almost all of Puerto Rico's unions to respond to the grassroots movement to fight back. The AFL-CIO and CTW unions, for example, supported a protest called the People's Assembly June 5. According to some estimates, the turnout reached 100,000, which would make it one of the largest protests in Puerto Rican history. But it was the independent unions, rank-and-file activists and the left that kept pushing for the general strike.

A BIG boost to the strike movement has come from college students. At the Colegio de Mayagüez, a campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the Student Council in Defense of Public Education (CEDEP) called for a mass meeting to discuss a response to the cuts.

On October 6, some 5,000 students turned out and voted to support any strike by professors and other collage workers, to back the general strike and to launch a 48-hour student strike of their own. After about 50 students decided to extend a protest by sleeping at the college gates overnight, thousands more decided to join them over the next two days.

The government struck back with an attempt to intimidate the student protesters with police violence. After students at the Canóvanas school tried to throw eggs at Fortuño, police brutally assaulted them. Meanwhile, Miguel Muñoz, interim president of UPR, met with police superintendent José Figueroa Sancha. Soon afterward Muñoz announced that all UPR campuses would be closed from October 12-16. Police are guarding the campuses' entrances to prevent students from using them as a mobilizing point for the general strike.

The university administration and the government are imposing censorship, and intend to prevent protests and violently attack demonstrators in order to avoid a bigger uprising in the country," said Giovanni Roberto, spokesperson for the Organización Socialista (OSI) and a student at UPR's Faculty of Education. "It's evident that the university administration recognizes that UPR is close to a general strike."

Even before the strike began, the biggest shopping center in Puerto Rico, Plaza las Américas, announced it would close on October 15. A complex with 300 stores that employs some 10,000 people, Plaza las Américas was to be a rallying point for unions during the general strike--and employers evidently concluded that it was better to close voluntarily rather than be shut down by strike supporters.

The association of construction contractors released a statement that they expected the general strike would cost the Puerto Rican economy some $180 million--a substantial sum for an economy the size of the island's.

In another sign of the mass support for the strike, the archbishop of Puerto Rico, Roberto Gonzáles, said that the workers' protest is a "legitimate" effort to keep the government from carrying out firings that will have "negative consequences for individuals and their families."

In the view of Puerto Rico's socialists and left-wing activists, the strike marks a renewal of mass struggle that has the potential to shake up the island's politics. As Carlos Juan Irizarry wrote for the newspaper Socialismo Internacional:

Puerto Rico is at a historic moment, a moment of great suffering that also presents us with an opportunity to fight and to rise up together against the government and the oppressive system. The only way to stop [Law 7] is if we organize ourselves and show that we have power. We are not going to take any more abuse.

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