Puerto Rico’s Strike
Against Privatization

— Rafael Bernabe

A MASSIVE ONE-DAY Paro (work stoppage) against privatization shook Puerto Rico October 1. The Paro Nacional completely closed down several government agencies—including most public schools and the University of Puerto Rico—while provoking mass absenteeism in many others.

Some individually-owned private businesses closed in solidarity with the Paro, and almost all activity in some of San Juan’s major avenues was completely paralyzed due to the endless caravans of cars and trucks transporting people to the march from Miramar to the Capitol building in San Juan.

The march completely filled all the main access routes to Old San Juan. By 12 noon close to 100, 000 people had gathered in front of the Capitol building. This is the largest mobilization in the history of Puerto Rico, surpassing the Paro Nacional of March 28, 1990 in size and enthusiasm.

The Paro was supported by the three labor federations in Puerto Rico: the Concilio General de Trabajadores (CGT), the Central Puertorriquena de Trabajadores (CPT) and the AFL-CIO unions in Puerto Rico.

Several tense moments occurred-including a clash between airport and port authority workers reinforced by members of the Teamsters union, and the Police. Strike participants blocked the entrance of the service area of the airport with automobiles, thus affecting the operations of UPS, Federal Express, Emery, Hertz, Profit by Air and other companies which have their main offices there.

Another mass picket of telephone and electrical power workers paralyzed the operations of the metropolitan bus system, while a contingent of the Federacion Central de Trabajadores (affiliated to the UFCW) and Servidores Publicos Unidos (affiliated to AFSCME) among others blocked the entrance to the Miramar offices of the Public Works Authority.

Major contingents from telephone, electrical, Teamsters, and the University of Puerto Rico marched or drove down Ponce de Leon Avenue toward San Juan. The night before the Paro the phone lines of the Fortaleza (the governor’s residence) and of the Capitol building were cut.

Privatization in Puerto Rico

The Paro Nacional was the product of the intense work of a wide set of social forces that began to form last April.

Ever since the 1940s Puerto Rico has had a significant public sector. By the late 1970s this sector included water, electrical power, shipping, telegraph and telephone, convention centers and several major hotels, radio and TV stations and a sizable network of public health facilities, ranging from diagnostic clinics to the largest medical center in the island.

This sizable public sector has been the target of successive governments. Privatization has taken different routes: subcontracting activities to private companies (in electric power), privatizing the administration but not the actual physical installations (water authority), leasing public operations to private concerns (health system in the 1980s), as well as the outright selling of state-owned enterprises (shipping).

While the struggle against privatization has been almost constant, it has had two particularly intense moments: in 1990 and in 1997. In both cases the major upsurge in organization and militancy has been provoked by the attempt to privatize the Puerto Rico Telephone Company.

This is not hard to understand: The case of the PRTC justifies a solid and widespread feeling that state-owned enterprises can be more efficient than the private sector.

The PRTC was created in 1974 when the government bought the installations of ITT, whose services in Puerto Rico had been atrocious as well as geographically limited and expensive. The PRTC is, furthermore, a quite profitable concern which subsidizes other government operations (such as the public radio and TV stations).

Telephone workers are thus readily able to link their struggle for job and income security with the worries of most people as consumers, or as workers in other subsidized areas. Hardly anybody who remembers the services of ITT supports privatization.

Furthermore, since the price tag of the PRTC is estimated at around $3.2 billion, it could only be bought by a major telecommunications multinational. The struggle against privatizing the PRTC thus brings together working class, consumer and national aspirations, a mixture that has twice proven to be highly flammable.

In fact, the main slogan of the campaign leading to the Paro was “Puerto Rico no se vende!” which in Spanish means both that Puerto Rico is not for sale and that Puerto Rico will not be bought-off or bribed. This has both a national and ethical/anti-market content (as it implies that there are things that should not be bought or sold).

Interestingly, resistance to privatization of the PRTC has crossed party lines: While the Paro Nacional of 1990 was carried out against the then ruling Partido Popular Democratico (which favors the existing colonial status), the 1997 Paro was directed against the Partido Nuevo Progresista (which favors annexing Puerto Rico to the United States as the 51st state).

This summer the opposition to privatization was further enhanced by the closing of the Fajardo regional hospital, which had been under private administration. The closing threw more than 200 workers out of work and has seriously affected health services in the eastern part of the island.

Old or New Structures?

Despite widespread support, organizing the movement against privatization has been a complex and often conflictive process. The Paro Nacional of 1990 was called by the Comité de Organizaciones Sindicales (COS) which in the 1980s had brought together the CGT, CPT, and AFL-CIO federations as well as several important independent unions.

This summer, as telephone workers began to mobilize to resist the new attempt to privatize the PRTC, a sector of the labor leadership largely assumed that the campaign would again be led by the COS. This opened a sharp debate.

Several major unions and federations (the CGT, UTIER – which are not in COS anymore) as well as the Socialist Front (which includes the Puerto Rico section of the Fourth International) argued that a new structure should be created, in which the major unions would play a leading role but which could also truly incorporate student, environmental, women’s, political, religious, cooperativist and other organizations which oppose privatization.

This debate culminated on August 3 in the town of Loiza in a five-hour long assembly of more than 1,500 delegates from all over the island. After a fierce discussion, the proposal presented by those favoring a new structure won out.

As a result a new Comité Amplio Contra la Privatización has been created, made up of twenty-seven labor, political, student, environmental, religious and women’s (among others) organizations. The Comité Amplio is coordinated by Alfonso Benítez, president of the Union Independiente de Empleados Telefónicos.

Three political groups belong to the Comité Amplio – the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, the Nuevo Movimiento Independentista and the Frente Socialista.

Regional Committees

The Comité Amplio has called for the reactivation of regional committees that had existed on and off in the past. (In fact, one of the major criticisms many militants had made of the COS was its inability to insure the continuity of the Regional Committees after the 1990 Paro.)

At present eleven Regional Committees have been created in San Juan, Bayamon, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, Ponce, Guayama, Humacao, Fajardo, Carolina and Caguas. It is these Regional Committees, along with the most active individual unions that laid the groundwork for the Paro Nacional of October 1.

The existence of these committees makes it possible to organize simultaneous activities all over the island. The 12th of September, for example, was declared the National Day Against Privatization and each committee organized a mass action in its region. The ones in San Juan and Mayaguez (where the mass caravan and picket practically brought the center of town to a standstill at midday) being the most successful.

Union Protests Continue

The Teachers Federation (affiliated to the CGT) has continued its protests against the government’s newly formulated educational policies, which include the use of textbooks in English even if the classes are in Spanish, and the “importation” of English teachers from the United States.

The Teachers Federation campaign began with a mass picket in front of the Department of Education on May 23rd and it has included activities all over the island, leading to another mass picket on September 12, also at the Department of Education, as well as many regional caravans advising parents not to send their children to school on the day of the Paro Nacional.

The Health workers union held a march August 9 to protest the closing of the Fajardo hospital. In preparation for the Paro other mass pickets were held in Santurce area of San Juan (July 16), at the Department of Labor (September 24), at the Water Resources Authority (September 25).

The phone workers themselves had carried out a one-day Paro last July 11, which also included a march to San Juan.

UPR Wakes Up

The campaign against privatization also coincided with a new wave of activism in the University of Puerto Rico. The UPR has a long tradition of labor and student struggles, but had been relatively quiet in the last few years.

Nevertheless, on September 10 a general assembly of close to 2000 students (the largest in at least half a decade) approved a resolution opposing the privatization of the PRTC and supporting the Paro Nacional.

The following week, Governor Pedro Rossello staged a surprise visit to the Rio Piedras campus of the UPR. He was to be “received” by a select group of supporters who had been given advance notice of the visit. The objective was to give the public the impression that the governor had been warmly received by the students and that the students favored the policy of privatization.

The plan backfired. As people learned that the governor was to be on campus at any moment, a crowd began to gather. When the Association of University Professors displayed a placard opposing the sale of the PRTC the crowd cheered.

Soon, student leaders began organizing an improvised protest. By the time the governor arrived, an extremely energetic demonstration was underway which, among other incidents, included a scuffle between students and the governor’s security team.

This event greatly helped to energize the campaign for the Paro Nacional. In the UPR it led to the creation of the Student Front Against Privatization, which works jointly with the University Front Against Privatization. The day before the Paro Nacional the Student Front organized the First Youth Festival Against Privatization and in Solidarity with the Working People, which was a major success, with close to 2000 students participating.

The Left and the Future

Each year the Puerto Rico independence movement celebrates the 23rd of September in commemoration of the Grito de Lares, an insurrection against Spanish rule in 1868. This year the Lares celebration was used to further agitate in preparation for the strike.

Most of the new student leaders are either in or close to the Frente Socialista. The same thing can be said of many leading members of several unions and of the regional committees. The Frente is also an official member of the Comité Amplio, the leading body of the whole campaign.

In its work the Frente has emphasized several angles, particularly the need to develop strong and flexible regional committees, the need to incorporate the rank and file in all union discussions and mobilizations, as well as the need to look beyond the Paro Nacional.

The government for its part did everything possible to hinder the October 1 mobilization, from threatening workers with sanctions to pressuring private bus companies not to provide their services to the organizers of the Paro, to removing pro-Paro propaganda from the UPR bulletin boards. All these pressures failed to stop the mobilization.

The main challenge now is to keep the organizing efforts going. The 1990 Paro Nacional (which, in conjunction with the recession of the early 1990s, did prevent the privatization of the PRTC) was followed by a period of demobilization. The government hopes things will turn out similarly in 1997. It is our task to prove them wrong.


Postscript: Following the Paro, Banco de Fomento sent letters to 138 workers for being absent “without authorization.” They were suspended and docked two days’ pay. On October 6 and October 9 approximately 2,000 demonstrated in solidarity with the unionists in San Juan’s banking district. Also, on October 7 Secretary of State Norma Burgos visited the University of Puerto Rico. The police riot squad was mobilized to confront a demonstration of students and professors.

Rafael Bernabe is a member of the Taller de Formacion Politica, President of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, and member of the National Secretariat of the CGT and Comité Amplio.

ATC 71, November–December 1997