How to light a fire

October 19, 2009

Yolanda Rivera, a member of the Organización Socialista Internacional, reports on Puerto Rico’s October 15 general strike and the struggle to save public-sector jobs.

AT LEAST 200,000 people marched during a general strike October 15 to protest Law 7, legislation that overrides all collective bargaining agreements between the government and Puerto Rican unions, and that has allowed the government to attempt to fire nearly 30,000 people in a matter of a few months.

After the massive march and walkout, the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, congratulated all involved parties for their civility and composure during the march—which is ironic, since he threatened strikers and protesters with prosecution under anti-terrorism laws. But according to Fortuño—leader of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP, the equivalent of the Republican Party)—government offices were operating normally.

In reality, most schools and many government offices were closed. Plus, the government cancelled a meeting with investors, scheduled for October 15, to organize public-private alliances and sell the island’s public services and lands.

A group of university students blocked the busiest expressway in Puerto Rico, Highway 52, burned tires, and refused to move for hours until a former union leader talked to the students and convinced them to open the highway.

A mass march during Puerto Rico's one-day general strike drew tens of thousands
A mass march during Puerto Rico's one-day general strike drew tens of thousands

During the march, people showed their anger with the government’s policies. Several workers said the massive layoffs were part an effort to “sell the island”—that is, to destroy public services in order to justify privatization and provide subsidies to companies owned by the governor’s friends. Among angry workers, this group of privileged Puerto Ricans are known as “guaynabitos” and “blanquitos,” names given to members of the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie and upper-middle class.

The week before the general strike, 10 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) closed their doors to prevent student protesters from using the facilities to mobilize. Students, during democratic assemblies that gathered record numbers, had already closed the university in solidarity with fired government workers, including both teaching and non-teaching personnel, such as janitors and other service employees.

Such actions—including a variety of other protests and an incident in which an unemployed worker threw an egg at the governor—have given a significant number of Puerto Ricans the confidence to challenge the government’s anti-union and privatization policies.

However, there is a significant contrast between the rage of union members—including teachers, service workers, social workers, secretaries, electric company workers, students and college professors—and the position of some leaders on the left and in the unions, who are willing to negotiate with the government over the pillage of workers’ salaries, benefits and collective bargaining rights.

For example, the chief of police sat down with some union leaders to negotiate conditions imposed by the government on the October 15 activities. Moreover, the group of students, professors and university employees that marched that day could not walk through the original route, which included “la Milla de Oro,” a stretch of street filled with banks and corporate office buildings. The government negotiated a change in plans with the Brotherhood of Non-Educational Employees (HEEND, according to its initials in Spanish) that represents non-teaching employees at UPR.

The last-minute retreat over the route of the march symbolized the debate in the Puerto Rican labor movement and the left. The working class, students and their allies are willing to fight, but some union leaders and other political and religious leaders associated with the former ruling party (Partido Popular Democrático, or PPD, the equivalent of the Democrats) are holding back the struggle. They are simply afraid of not getting any concessions from the government--and some are even trying to stop the protests.

THE OCTOBER 15 strike isn’t the first big battle over privatization in Puerto Rico.

Such polices were first imposed on the island’s working class in the 1980s by the then-Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón of the PPD. Colón proposed selling the Puerto Rico Telephone Company and a large government-owned shipping business, Las Navieras. But a large mobilization by telephone workers in 1990 prevented the privatization of their company.

Privatization policies increased during the right-wing PNP governorship of Pedro Roselló from 1992-2000. Roselló sold off the telephone company despite a march of more than half a million people against its privatization. The public company had been economically successful, but the money from the proceeds of its sale has never brought the promised benefits.

The next privatizing governor was Sila Calderón of the PPD. A wealthy person who was the first woman governor of the island, Calderón privatized billing services in the public water company, PRASA. The subcontractor, Ondeo, a French company, took at least $540 million away from the Puerto Rican government without completing the job stated in the contract.

Following this example, another PPD governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, privatized a number of services, including infrastructure repairs, the payroll for state employees and contracts for processing payments to Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, a politically connected and dominant financial institution on the island. Moreover, Acevedo Vilá’s imposition of “No Child Left Behind” policies in public schools opened the doors to the operation of numerous charter school operators, many of whom are political allies of, and contributors to, the PPD.

Now, under Law 7, the privatization campaign has taken a new leap. The current administration has, openly and without qualms, approved legislation that allows it to cancel the government’s contractual obligations to the unions. Moreover, the current government, through its Secretary of Commerce, has openly declared that Puerto Rico belongs to the rich.

BUILDING OPPOSITION to these attacks has been difficult, in large part because of divisions in the Puerto Rican labor movement and the anti-union role of labor’s supposed allies in the PPD.

Bureaucratic unions like the Service Employees International Union, which organizes Puerto Rican public employees under the banner of Servidores Públicos Unidos, together with other unions affiliated with the Change to Win and AFL-CIO labor federations, have asked Gov. Fortuño for a meeting to talk about the layoffs.

But mistrust of SEIU is widespread in the Puerto Rican labor movement. This corporate-style union has already tried to destroy an independent teachers’ union (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, or FMPR), the only union that held a strike against former Gov. Acevedo Vilá in order to challenge Law 45, legislation that forbids strikes in exchange for granting collective bargaining rights.

Acevedo Vilá received substantial contributions from SEIU and its leaders, Dennis Rivera and Andrew Stern. Last year, the SEIU launched a dirty union election campaign to replace the FMPR as the teachers’ union, handing out coolers and other gifts to Puerto Rican teachers to try to buy their votes. Teachers rejected these dirty tactics overwhelmingly and voted to retain FMPR as their union, even though the government refuses to recognize it.

For its part, the PPD has showed up at different activities organized by “Todo Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico” (All of Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico), a coalition of unions, religious organizations and community groups. This coalition has organized protests against Law 7 that have attracted a large number of participants.

However, their protests have had a religious and pacifist rhetoric, asking the governor to reconsider the layoffs instead of calling upon the fired employees to start a general strike. Some union leaders have even suggested a reduction in working hours to solve the fiscal crisis in the government, a problem created by the ruling class through years of pillage.

On the other hand, there’s hope that other unions with a more democratic tradition will push for another, more widespread general strike instead of negotiating with the government. For example, during the October 15 walkout, the HEEND called for a workers’ party. And crucially, the FMPR challenged former governor’s privatization and anti-union policies.

Many political organizations, such as Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (the Hostos National Independence Movement, a group composed mostly of the nationalist middle class), and most of the mainstream unions criticized the FMPR during its successful strike of 2008, even though the settlement brought salary increases to all public school teachers in the island.

The FMPR and other independent unions have maintained internal democracy and still organize from the bottom up. The leadership in these unions earns a salary equivalent to that of other workers in the organization. Rank-and-file members of these organizations participated massively in the protests against Law 7 and the October 15 strike.

Not only have these unions demonstrated that there is organized opposition to government policies, but different communities have resisted as well. For instance, the pro-gentrification policies of the central and town governments—such as closing public housing and building malls and expensive apartments in their place—have caused anger in the poor communities most affected by them.

A key battle has taken place at the La Gladiolas public housing community in San Juan. Residents resisted government eviction at a high cost, since a young boy died because the government refuses to provide maintenance to building elevators. There and at other public housing projects, the government has privatized management and closed community centers. The government has even hired a private company, Animal Control Solutions, to pick up all pets from public housing dwellers and kill them by throwing them from bridges.

Moreover, town governments, such as Toa Baja’s Aníbal Vega Borges administration, have collaborated with the federal and Puerto Rican governments to evict the entire community of Villa del Sol.

This community, composed mostly of migrant workers and poor Puerto Ricans, is subject to eviction under the pretext that the area is an environmentally sensitive wetland. In fact, the communities surrounding Villa del Sol are in the same situation. The truth is that Toa Baja officials have targeted the community because it’s close to a highway where the investors plan to built a mall--a project supported by the town mayor.

The Villa del Sol community resisted eviction bravely with the support with some progressive organizations, such as la Nueva Escuela (New School) and some political organizations, such as the Organización Socialista Internacional (International Socialist Organization or OSI) and the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (Socialist Workers Movement, or MST). Villa del Sol residents also have participated in recent protests against government repressive policies and layoffs.

Students have also been key to the current wave of protests. At UPR, students demonstrated that they have the capacity to close the university. UPR President Miguel Muñoz locked out students during the week of the national march (October 12-16). The university even evicted students who live in the dorms. The purpose was to discourage students and members of the community from participating in the march/walkout.

As an answer, students organized a successful sit-in in front of the UPR-Río Piedras campus, had a student assembly, and participated in the October 15 walkout. Although the administration lockout affected the number of students participating, it did not have the effect expected by the administration.

WHILE THE October 15 mobilization marked a big step forward, halting and reversing the trend towards privatization will require a still higher level of struggle.

Consider the case of health care. In a country of 3.5 million people, where 500,000 live without private insurance or public health services, the island’s insurance commissioner has just closed the insurance company for 68,000 government employees, Preferred Health, without providing any kind of support to these workers. Meanwhile, privatization has virtually destroyed all public health services as the government has sold public hospitals to private companies.

Nevertheless, the wealthy retain access to top quality health care. So much so that Norma Burgos, a ruling party legislator, announced a new bill to promote “medical tourism” in the island. Caribbean Business, the developers’ newspaper, reported the day after the general strike: “Norma Burgos wants to standardize and expand on what Eastern Caribbean residents have long known: that Puerto Rico is the place to seek specialized medical treatment for illnesses including cancer and cardiovascular diseases, among others.”

These projects, part of a wide-ranging privatization of all public services and the public land, originate in legislation that allows Public-Private Alliances, or APPs, according to their initials in Spanish.

Gov. Fortuño promised that his administration would create 20 APPs in eight years. This includes subcontracting public electrical power to “clean energy” producers, which would privatize a significant portion of the public electric energy authority, the AEE. It should be recalled, though, that AEE privatization started with the previous liberal PPD administration, which subcontracted co-generating plants that we subsidize with a significant increase in our bills.

Meanwhile, there are biotechnology projects that subsidize research for corporate giants like Pfizer at the expense of the public university’s funds. It also involves creating dangerous animal research and breeding sites, one of which, planned for the southern part of the island, involves thousands of monkeys in a single facility.

Other projects are geared to rich tourists, such developing the Riviera del Caribe, a casino and entertainment complex in the former military base in Ceiba; the San Juan Waterfront, which, according to developers, will feature “new housing, a boutique hotel district, restaurants and cafés, retail shops, [and] a mega yacht marina”; the Golden Triangle, another upscale development in San Juan; and the development of eco-tourism in places that will exclude most Puerto Ricans.

The government is clear about its anti-worker agenda. In a meeting between the government representative for Riviera del Caribe, Jaime González, and the Ceiba community, González told the residents that they had to accept the project proposed by the government. He told them that they could stroll along the public areas of Riviera del Caribe and watch rich people buy expensive clothes, even though the residents could not purchase those items.

Instead of getting mad, he suggested that the residents could play the Lotto or accept reality because “such is life.” His remarks infuriated many working class Puerto Ricans.

For many Puerto Ricans, these events have made it more than clear that the government works to protect the interests of the rich, and that class has everything to do with the development of these projects. Moreover, much of the money assigned for these developments comes from President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan—dollars that have come to the island to save the rich.

CLEARLY, THE assault on Puerto Rican workers didn’t begin with Law 7, and the attacks will become even more aggressive if all 30,000 layoffs go through. According to Development and Commerce Secretary José Ramón Pérez Riera, the governor and his allies in the Puerto Rican Senate and the legislature plan to “work on wide-ranging tax and labor legislation, which should be introduced during the next legislative session beginning in January.”

In other words, the already impoverished Puerto Rican working class will be made to suffer more. The U.S. Census Bureau reported recently that poverty on the island has reached 44.8 percent. In women-headed households, the poverty rate is 58.6 percent. And official figures don’t even include poverty among undocumented migrant workers, mostly from the Dominican Republic, who constitute the poorest group and work for a fraction of regular wages.

And with all the layoffs, the poverty rate will rise significantly. According to Labor Secretary Miguel Romero, unemployment rose to 16 percent in September with 17,000 more unemployed, two months before the massive layoff of government employees. Unemployment lines are so long that people arrive at 7 p.m. the day before they have an appointment at the Labor Department to claim unemployment benefits.

Certainly the government knows that the working class, students and impoverished Puerto Ricans are infuriated—and that there’s enough fuel to start a fire following massive unemployment, a significant increase in prices and billing for public services, foreclosures, widespread poverty, privatization of basic services, and, with Law 7, an open attack on workers rights, salaries and labor conditions.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious popular rejection of government policies among the majority, the ruling party is standing firm. The governor said during an October 16 interview with Univision that after the October 15 walkout, nothing would change—that those who received the pink slip will not get their jobs back.

The legislature and Senate have said publicly that they are “concerned” with the layoffs to try to calm down their constituents. But they have done nothing to change these policies.

Town mayors have openly supported central government policies because they are counting on managing part of the services lost at the central government level with the layoffs. Municipalization of government services represents a lot of income for town governments, including an increase in the mayors’ salaries to as much as $100,000 a year.

In the event of a possible uprising against such policies, Puerto Rican Police Superintendant José Figueroa Sancha has moved to implement repressive policies to keep workers quiet.

Figueroa Sancha is a former FBI agent who has been charged with civil rights violations against news reporters when searching the residence of a political activist, Liliana Laboy. And under his direction, during the last few weeks, the police have beaten and arrested students at UPR, thrown tear gas into students’ dorms, beaten and arrested high school students for throwing eggs at the governor, and arrested union leaders who protested peacefully, among many events.

To be sure, the Puerto Rican police have often killed people and committed unpunished crimes. However, this time, the cases of brutality involve large numbers of people. And the police are certainly getting ready for an uprising involving thousands of people. According to the newspaper Nuevo Día, Figueroa Sancha sent 15,000 police to the march/walk-out on October 15.

The government and its foes have cornered Puerto Rican public service workers, students and other impoverished members of the Puerto Rican society. What Puerto Rican workers need and want is another general strike—one that is larger and more effective. Despite the role that mainstream unions and some self-appointed “leaders” have played in demobilizing the struggle, the Puerto Rican working class, migrant workers, students and even many impoverished members of the middle class are still enraged.

In the 1970s, a popular nationalist singer, Roy Brown, created a song with lyrics calling for an uprising against imperialism: “Fire, fire, the Yankees (the U.S.) want a fire.” The working class is now willing to sing these lyrics with a twist: “Fire, fire, the rich want a fire.” We must fuel the fire.

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