By César Ayala
GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico — The entire labour movement of Puerto Rico will support of telephone workers in a general strike against the privatisation of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC). Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island colony of the United States. The general strike is set to begin at dawn on July 7.
On June 18, 6000 workers in the two unions representing PRTC workers went on strike against the island government's proposal to sell the state-owned telephone company to telecommunications giant GTE Corporation, which owns the telephone company in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
The reaction of conservative governor Pedro Rosselló was to call out the riot police and beat up the picketers preventing scabs from entering telecommunications facilities all over the island. When TV images of police beating strikers were broadcast, there was a massive reaction by other unions and the general public.
Thousands flocked to the picket lines to strengthen the strike. University students went en masse to the facilities in Río Piedras and Guaynabo. Motorists passing the facilities in the San Juan metropolitan area donated over $100,000 for the strike fund in the first 10 days of the strike.
The powerful Electrical Workers Union went on strike for three days, water authority workers struck for 24 hours, and the Teamsters Union paralysed the ports. Local opinion polls show that the public opposes the privatisation of the phone company by more than two to one.
The president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, Fermín Arraíza, and the president of the Puerto Rican Commission on Civil Rights, Luis Aulet, condemned the "excessive use of force" by police. The association has posted lawyers on the picket lines as observers to guarantee that the police do not violate people's constitutional rights. Doctors are volunteering their services to treat wounded strikers.
At noon each day, and on weekends, the crowds supporting the pickets number in the thousands and the police must tone down their aggressive behaviour. The picket lines become a people's festival with free performances by local artists.
More than 5000 delegates from trade unions and community organisations voted on June 28 to approve the national strike. The assembly of the Comité Amplio de Organizaciones Sindicales, Cívicas, Religiosas y Culturales (CAOS) took place in the town of Carolina, east of the capital, San Juan. Delegates came from more than 60 unions in Puerto Rico, including the main public sector unions which are in the forefront of the struggle against privatisation.
CAOS is led by the official union movement leadership, but also includes shop stewards and rank and file workers, students and all the progressive social forces. Fifty percent of the delegates were women, and the official spokesperson for CAOS is Annie Cruz, head of the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Employees, one of the two telephone workers' unions on strike.
On June 29, the CAOS executive committee set the date of the strike for July 7, 1998. No date was set for an end to the strike. The unions will evaluate the progress of the strike day by day.
'Puerto Rico no se vende'
The surprising level of support for the phone workers is an indication of the anger the accumulated effects of neo-liberal policies such as privatisation have generated. Workers expect lay-offs and consumers expect higher prices for basic services if privatisation is allowed to succeed.
Privatisation is taking place in education with a recent law taking money from public higher education to give to private universities. As well, many hospitals and health clinics are being privatised. Many other government agencies are subcontracting services.
Picket lines have been set up at all PRTC offices. Workers and supporters are in the streets with the Puerto Rican flag, which has become the symbol of the strike. The main slogan in this Spanish-speaking US colony is "Puerto Rico no se vende" ("Puerto Rico is not for sale" and "Puerto Rico does not sell out"). The slogan expresses the population's combination of anti-market and anti-imperialist sentiments.
100 years of colonialism
This historic working-class struggle has exploded as the 100th anniversary of the US invasion and colonisation of Puerto Rico approaches.
On July 25, 1898 — during the Spanish-American War (the US also seized Cuba and the Philippines from Spain) — US war ships entered Guánica Bay and US troops took over the island. Puerto Rico has been a US colony since.
On October 1, more than 100,000 demonstrators converged on San Juan to protest government plans to privatise the PRTC. That mobilisation, in an island with a population of 3.5 million, was the largest demonstration ever in Puerto Rico.
Governor Pedro Rosselló's wants to generate funds through privatisation for state patronage to increase support for the governing party's request for the annexation of Puerto Rico as the 51st state of the United States.
Consumers who still remember the time when the local phone company was privately owned by International Telephone and Telegraph know that under government ownership the PRTC has provided better and more efficient service. If the privatisation plan is carried out, at least 2700 workers will lose their jobs immediately, and many more will be lost in the medium term.
The last national strike in Puerto Rico took place in 1934, and involved 100,000 workers from the sugar plantations. Since the 1950s, the sugar industry has been dismantled and the island has industrialised. Cruz says that this time around at least 300,000 workers will go out.