Puerto Rican unions fight back against colonization, privatization
A colony is used by its masters as they see fit, to satisfy the master’s needs. At a time of capitalist decay, what is the role that the United States has for Puerto Rico?
Throughout its history, since the violent U.S. invasion of the Boricua archipelago in 1898, that role has evolved. The U.S. has gone from sugar and tobacco agricultural exploitation — destroying at the same time food self-sufficiency for the people in order to foment dependency and a ready market for U.S. produce — to the pharmaceutical and technological manufacturing and oil product refineries that have resulted in ghost towns and polluted land when industry leaves for higher profits somewhere else in the world.
And let’s not forget the Pentagon’s use of Puerto Rico as a military outpost in the Caribbean to test criminal weapons and practice invasions against neighboring countries. Add also the almost unlimited pool of low-wage workers and professionals of all specialties available to work in the U.S., as well as recruiting soldiers for the imperialist military.
Now, in 2017, the U.S. aims to completely dismantle whatever structure Puerto Rico has established to benefit its population, particularly the public systems of energy and education, and workers’ rights and representation, among many other necessary agencies and programs.
All this is being done to maximize profits, as the U.S. ruling class wants to impose a new model of colonial domination. As Puerto Rican nationalist Albizu Campus stated many years ago: “The U.S. wants the cage but not the birds.”
The forced migration of Boricuas to the U.S. due to the lack of economic opportunities in their home is emptying Puerto Rico of its native population, and substituting mostly white, wealthy U.S. businessmen as residents. Revenue-producing privatized national agencies sold at ludicrously low prices and the Puerto Rican population working as servants are just a glimpse of the near future. That is, unless this takeover is confronted by the people.
In Puerto Rico, the gap is widening between two opposing worlds: the capitalists, represented by the corrupt Puerto Rican colonial government, with U.S. direct interests and the federal Fiscal Control Board on that side, and the oppressed people thrown into increasing poverty and desperation on the other.
Puerto Rican labor unions in motion
There is a saying in Spanish: “No hay mal que dure cien años, ni cuerpo que lo resista.” — “There is no illness that lasts for a 100 years, nor a body that could resist it.” The attacks against the working people in Puerto Rico are devastating. But in spite of the massive big business media campaign of disinformation reporting the government’s deleterious actions as positive for the country, there is an attempt by unions, progressive organizations and progressive people’s media to bring information out about the current situation. Public gatherings in town plazas, assemblies, teach-ins and other events are increasingly being held.
The union movement has called for a march and rally on Aug. 30 against the extreme anti-worker measures imposed by the Fiscal Control Board and the Puerto Rican government. These range from the destruction of the pension system and the so-called labor flexibility law to the reduction of workdays that will effectively cut the income of public workers about 20 percent.
The marchers will gather at different places in the capital of San Juan to proceed through the Golden Mile where most financial and banking institutions are located and where the FCB has its office. UTIER, the energy industry workers’ union, has called for a 24-hour strike starting the night before. Other unions are also calling for a work stoppage, in an effort toward unity in action of the labor movement, something so desperately needed at this moment.
This mobilization underscores the grave threat by the imperialists against the Puerto Rican working class. No sector is immune to this attack, but the energy sector, so crucial not only for the people’s quality of life, but also for the country’s economic development, is particularly being targeted now.
For many years, UTIER exposed the need for maintenance of the island’s electrical infrastructure, but management has never paid any attention. According to the union leadership, management’s plan has been to let the infrastructure slowly deteriorate and fail, causing repeated electrical outages that make people desperate and demand any solution. In a study, it was reported that between 2010 and 2017, there was a 402 percent increase in electricity interruptions.
Management’s solution: privatization
However, the only solution presented by management — the PR government — is privatization, dismissing the many and more affordable proposals presented by UTIER over the years.
Colonized Puerto Rico is in a $73 billion debt crisis, defaulting on its payment for illegitimate municipal bonds, with no possibility of declaring bankruptcy in order to restructure its “obligations.” A year ago the U.S. Congress imposed a collection agency, the Fiscal Control Board, under the PROMESA Law to ensure that the government pays the bondholders no matter what. Every government agency that had issued bonds has its own part of the debt. The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority itself has a $9 billion debt.
To deal with its debt, PREPA subcontracted Lisa Donahue from the U.S. firm AlixPartners in 2014 as the main restructuring officer and consultant for some operational aspects of the agency. After $45 million in her salary down the drain, increases in people’s electric bills and disastrous operational decisions leading to power outages, Donahue resigned in February — after she and her firm were being investigated.
Now the FCB, through its recently hired Revitalization Coordinator Noel Zamot, announced that seven privatizing projects have been presented in a newly created website for developers or investors to review. All seven are in the electricity sector.
If there was any doubt of the FCB’s aims to privatize the infrastructure, the following Aug. 24 quote from El Nuevo Día, should erase it: “For the Board, the implementation of Title V of PROMESA is of high priority, since the section that, among other things, promotes the privatization of electric energy on the Island would be the counterweight to the recession effects of the fiscal plan.”
Soon after this announcement, PREPA management stated that the Palo Seco Plant on the north coast was in disastrous condition and will be closed. They also announced that repairs for this plant, crucial to electricity generation for the island, will be contracted out to private companies.
Immediately, the leadership of UTIER took action, requesting an emergency meeting with the administration. As a result, management backed off and withdrew the threat of a private company contract, showing the effects of the union’s decades of militant mobilizations on behalf of the working people of PR.
However, the threat of privatization will continue. UTIER continues to mobilize in the streets, and has also filed a suit against the FCB. On Aug. 17, Laura Taylor Swain, the federal judge for the current special bankruptcy process for the Puerto Rican government under Title II of Promesa, accepted the suit that questions the constitutionality of how members for the FCB are chosen. The suit is based on the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution. The process is pending the response of the U.S. government, expected in 30 to 60 days.