Union officials end Puerto Rican strike

August 6, 1998

By Lisa Macdonald

The 41-day strike by 6400 telephone workers to stop the privatisation of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) ended on July 29.

The sale, to US-based General Telephone and Electronics, and Banco Popular, will go ahead for US$1.85 billion, of which GTE and Banco Popular will only have to put up $350 million, mortgaging the rest. The cash windfall will fund Governor Pedro Rosselló's last election campaign promises.

With the sale — part of Rosselló's sweeping privatisation agenda, designed to win support from the Republic-controlled US Congress for the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st US state — the Puerto Rican public lose around $80 million a year. This money has in the past been used to finance municipal services, education and the island's public broadcasting station.

The Independent Union of Telephone Workers (UIET) and the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers opposed the sale, backed in a general strike on July 7-8 by more than half a million members of 60 unions and opinion polls showing 65% public opposition to the sale.

However, the agreement struck between the two union leaderships and the government on July 24, negotiated by the Secretary of Labor, Cesar Almodovar, appears to be very unpopular with some union members.

Both unions held membership meetings on July 28. At the UIET meeting, the agreement was presented to members and declared "approved" without voting. When some members attempted to ask questions, they were silenced and the meeting declared over.

Heated discussions and some scuffling broke out, and one group of workers announced the formation of Telephone Workers Against Privatisation to continue the campaign. The new organisation accused union leaders of betraying the workers and those who supported them.

The workers at Cellular Plaza, one of the most active union centres in the company, held a picket at 7am on July 29 before returning to work to express their anger with the agreement and desire to continue the anti-privatisation struggle.

Under the agreement, union leaders will promote efficiency at the PRTC and workers will be issued with a formal "warning" which will remain on their personnel files for six months. While the government has promised to not take legal action against the unions, it will pursue criminal cases against strikers found to have sabotaged phone lines during the strike.

The company has agreed only to drop the charges it filed at the Labor Relations Board "without prejudice", meaning it can re-lay them if it sees fit. The company will not pay any wages for the period of the strike, and police (who attacked and injured many strikers on the picket lines over the last 6 weeks), will remain inside and outside PRTC premises.

On July 28, GTE announced plans to enter a $52.9 billion merger with Bell Atlantic Corporation and the following day Almodovar announced his resignation to take up an appointment as a judge.

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