A union worker’s perspective from Puerto Rico – before and after Hurricane María

By Walberto Rolón

I began lineman training in 1989 a chance that for many of Puerto Rico’s youth is nigh impossible unless you are favored by some political faction. [Puerto Rico’s main union for electrical workers is UTIER, the Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego (Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union).]

Puerto Ricans demonstrate in San Juan against the privatization of their electrical power network, June 1.   Credit: Alejandro Granadillo

Before Hurricane María, there was Hugo

In September 1989, in the middle of our training, me and my fellow students faced the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. We lost many co-workers in the line of duty, but with the help of all the UTIER workers we managed to rebuild the island’s electric power grid in record time. Our local newspaper, El Nuevo Día,  categorized us as the heroes of the moment. 

Then, after being hit by Hurricane George in 1998, when we lost eight co-workers in the line of duty, we managed to fully reestablish the power grid within three months, again thanks to the commitment and sacrifice of our UTIER and other PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) workers. Our people of Puerto Rico identified with the workers of UTIER! 

But the damage done to our power grid, through the lack of maintenance and lack of personnel due to yearly increasing budget-cuts, mixed with a privatizing demonization campaign against our workers, began to slowly hurt us. This happened regardless of UTIER workers’ participation in many charity campaigns and our solidarity with many social struggles for justice. 

‘Making the truth shine’

UTIER’s slogan, “Making the truth shine,” started to be uncomfortable for a few government players within and outside the PREPA.

For us workers, the defense of our electric power grid to ensure access to electrical power as a human right and not as a commodity nor merchandise to be bartered with was a matter of honor and pride. 

 We won many battles in defense of our lives in our power plants. For instance, our fight against asbestos and mercury contamination paved the way for an epidemiological study, after having taken the lives of so many of our own. 

This fight was so raw, that finally the occupational insurance corporation run by the Puerto Rican government had to recognize our claims and compensate hundreds of our families for damages. 

We managed to legally bind our job security and stability through a collective bargaining agreement after fighting for the re-hiring of 502 unjustly laid-off co-workers, meaning our union people could no longer be laid off without proper justification. 

For years, we whistleblew and struck against any attempt at administrative sabotage, economic strangulation or privatization attempts perpetrated by the government puppets administering PREPA. 

UTIER was a pain in our corrupt bipartisan governments’ side. They responded with further budget cuts that hampered operations and service reliability.

 Budget cuts lead to 2006 Palo Seco fire

In December 2006, in the middle of collective bargaining agreement negotiations, our Palo Seco power plant caught fire twice, due to lack of maintenance because of budget cuts. 

PREPA officials immediately left the negotiation table and publicly accused our working families of sabotage. They might’ve pulled that off had it not been for investigations the FBI and our local fire department conducted. These clearly established that both fires were due to lack of maintenance. The public backlash forced PREPA’s CEO to resign.

 Through all our struggles, the corrupt governments of both the PNP [New Progressive Party] and PPD [Popular Democratic Party] gained a greater hold in making PREPA into a political campaign funding source. 

Despite worker whistleblowing, the lack of maintenance of our electrical system worsened and the public campaign demonizing our working families was intensified. The barrage of propaganda was such that slowly our Puerto Rican people began to echo that we the workers were the villains responsible for degrading the reliability of our power grid and that privatization would finally cure all evils.

Since our resources were limited to the number of members in our small union, we could not fund a campaign that would keep up with the millions of dollars in propaganda that the government poured against us.

2012: Anti-union attacks by colonial government intensify

Of course, all of this happened after Gov. Luis Fortuño Burset and his PNP government when we struck against them in 2012. But both PNP and PPD governments act as one and the same when it comes to scamming public funding,  leaving us at constant odds with both, whistleblowing their every move. 

They both consorted with foreign interests in order to destroy our workers’ union.

Until then, we’d won most of our legal labor disputes, but after years of slowly turning public perception against us, the corrupt colonial governments implemented their next phase. This was to change the labor protection laws. In other words, since we were beating them at their game, they changed the rules.

The corrupt government upped the ante in 2014, sponsoring a “news” program on all the local channels demonizing and attacking PREPA and particularly us, its workers. This was part of an all-out attempt to privatize PREPA, but the government only managed to advance in creating a politically subservient energy commission. 

Still they made it seem to our people that PREPA workers were an elite set against them. This act put our workers and families in danger, with mayors who were politically loyal to the parties calling out for people to attack us, escalating to the point of having two of our workers getting stabbed by disgruntled citizens.

As workers, we have had to live in tough times, particularly our customer service representatives whom the government continuously attempted to devalue. This happened even as they were suffering the brunt of the public attacks due to government and corporate press propaganda antics.

Union workers: Heroes again after double hurricanes 

On Sept. 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico leaving 75% of our island without electric power. UTIER and the rest of the PREPA workers took to the streets to restore our power grid. Fourteen days later, September 20, 2017, Hurricane María unleashed its nightmare upon our island. 

Without rest from reconstructing the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, with our tarnished public image due to government propaganda, ransacked of tools and restoration equipment due to budget cuts, we workers did superhuman efforts to restore the damage from Hurricane María. And the government took the tragedy as an opportunity to finally get us out of the way and privatize PREPA.

I was serving as UTIER’s Occupational Health and Safety Secretary, sitting in front of PREPA’s politically appointed CEO, Ricardo Ramos, who was telling us that since the pie was big enough for everyone, we should make a private company and subcontract our work to workers with lesser benefits. We refused.

 Privatization accelerates with LUMA

The government accelerated its privatization plans for PREPA. In November 2017, two months after Hurricane María’s landfall, Domino High Voltage, a subsidiary company to Quanta Services, was established in Puerto Rico. Two years later, LUMA Energy, another Quanta Services subsidiary, was incorporated in order to privatize PREPA. Quanta Services had actually incorporated to do business in Puerto Rico in 2002, though it cancelled its active corporation status in the government’s failed 2014 privatization attempt of PREPA.

 While the privatization attack was mounted, Puerto Rican linemen took to the streets so that we could have some form of economic justice granted to us. At the same time, we were raising the power grid in all the mountains and valleys of our island with no power in our own homes, little fuel and water, and lacking tools and equipment. 

While the U.S. linemen brought in to help with the post-María reconstruction were being treated with salaries over $100 an hour, staying in hotels with warm meals, the press only covered their efforts while obscuring our efforts and struggles. 

Over $3 billion dollars were swallowed up by local and federal government contracting scandals during the rebuilding, with Whitefish Energy and others. 

But it was our union people who actually raised the power grid and had to fix the remaining sloppy connections left behind by the overseas “help.”

Puerto Rican unions need U.S. union solidarity

LUMA Energy was finally ​​validated to privately control the island’s energy system on June 1 by PREPA, aided by the U.S.-imposed colonial PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) and Puerto Rico’s corrupt governor, Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia, who previously worked as a lawyer to the Oversight Board.

In the final stage of creating the perfect scenario to destroy PREPA and the UTIER, these forces coerced our highly skilled workers to either give up their seniority, their collective bargaining agreement rights and their union to join LUMA, or be transferred to other agencies to perform unskilled labor. IBEW Local 222 was brought in to union bust UTIER and the other three PREPA unions: UEPI (Unión Empleados Profesionales), UPAEE (Unión de Pilotos de Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica), and those of the UITICE (Unión Insular de Trabajadores Industriales y Construcciones Eléctricas) who rejected their leadership’s selling out to the IBEW.

I have no doubt that, even with all the legal work in place, it will take years to have justice in the courts. And in the meantime LUMA will be able to do whatever it wishes in Puerto Rico.

We have no other choice but to take to the streets and revolutionize our people.

A better world is possible, but it will most definitely be decided in the streets instead of the courts. 

Boricuas present in every part of the world should demonstrate and denounce how their island relatives are being robbed of their human right to have access to life-sustaining electric power, to their land and to peaceful life. This must be denounced!

Walberto Rolón Narvaéz of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, has served as the Secretary of Occupational Health and Safety of UTIER. His account was made available to Workers World by U.S. organizer and electrical worker Fermín Morales. For more, see Workers World articles, Feb. 12, 2020, “Report from Puerto Rico: PROMESA and earthquakes,” and Oct. 20, 2021, “Protests demand: ‘Luma, out!’”

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