BY HILDA CUZCO
The strike by 6,400 telephone workers in Puerto Rico against the sale of the state-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) has become a lightening rod for working-class resistance and nationalist sentiment in this Caribbean nation, the largest U.S. colony. Despite brutal police assaults, the unionists have been joined on the picket lines and in the streets by thousands of working people and students.
Meanwhile, the colonial regime of Gov. Pedro Roselló has vowed to go ahead with the sale of the company to a private consortium, headed by U.S. telecommunications giant GTE, as part of its privatization program. The government has already sold enterprises such as hotels and a shipping company, has sought private investment in the state-owned energy industry, and is planning to sell off hospitals and prisons.
The sale of the PRTC, which workers expect will lead to layoffs, attacks on their working conditions, and rate hikes, has sparked widespread opposition in the working class and middle class in Puerto Rico. Many are outraged that the profitable phone company is being sold for a bargain price -$1.87 billion, of which only $375 million is in cash and the rest from a commercial loan.
GTE, the third-largest telephone company in the United States, is buying a 51 percent stake in the company. Banco Popular of Puerto Rico and other local capitalist investors will buy another 5 percent, with 44 percent remaining in the hands of the government.
The Independent Telephone Workers Union (UIET), with 4,400 members, and the 2,000-strong Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers (HIETEL), June 18 launched the strike after the colonial Senate voted to approve the sale. The Puerto Rico House of Representatives followed suit June 23, and Rosselló said he would sign the deal in the coming days.
The strike began with mass pickets at phone company facilities throughout the island, as workers sought to block the company from bringing in hundreds of supervisory personnel to keep operations running. Meanwhile, thousands of strikers marched to the capitol building, causing huge traffic jams in San Juan.
The government has responded by unleashing police attacks on strikers and their sympathizers. Cops escorting strikebreakers have attacked pickets with billy clubs and pepper spray. Images of bloodied strikers lying on the pavement, captured on television and in newspaper photos, sparked widespread public outrage. Some cops have been injured as well in the skirmishes.
University of Puerto Rico students who joined a sit-in by strikers in front of the PRTC's Celulares Telefónica office in Hato Rey on the first day of the strike were also beaten by the cops. "We were sitting in front of the gates when two vans with [replacement] workers tried to get in, and when we prevented them from doing so, the police just came and started hitting us with their batons," Rubie Alicea, 23, told the San Juan Star. "They also sprayed me with pepper spray - on my mouth, face, arms, and chest."
Police superintendent Pedro Toledo, calling the strikers "mobs of criminals," said he had ordered the "Tactical Operations" riot police deployed to all the areas affected by the strike as well as at strike support demonstrations.
At a June 22 press conference, PRTC president Carmen Culpeper blamed "outside groups" for supposedly instigating violence among the strikers. Outside the press briefing hundreds of protesting unionists chanted, "Struggle Yes, Sale No!" Culpeper also complained that some 75,000 people have been left with no phone service, which she attributed to acts of sabotage throughout the island.
Culpeper has filed a suit before the Labor Relations Board to order strikers back to work, decertify the two telephone workers unions, and make them liable for damages incurred by the company.
At the demand of the PRTC, a court issued an injunction preventing strikers from standing within 50 feet of entrances to phone company offices and ordering them to stay at least 10 feet apart from each other. The injunction also bars strikers from following, threatening, or intimidating personnel brought into work by the company.
The strike has sparked an outpouring of popular support and a series of labor actions in solidarity with the telephone workers. Thousands of strikers and supporters have marched through the streets of Puerto Rico's capital day after day. On June 20, strikers received a warm response as they solicited contributions from passing drivers along Roosevelt Avenue, where the main PRTC offices are located. A number of bus drivers stopped their buses to allow strikers to collect contributions from passengers, while dozens of onlookers on the sidewalks applauded.
Hundreds of high school and college students have rallied in support of the strikers, enthusiastically joining them on the picket lines. One of the most popular slogans of the protests is Puerto Rico no se vende [Puerto Rico is not for sale].
The electrical workers union, UTIER, carried out a three- day walkout in solidarity with the phone workers June 23-25. On June 24 the Teamsters and port workers union shut down Isla Grande, which includes the commuter airport, docks, and Port Authority offices. Television news reported June 24 that taxi drivers were also involved in the protests, showing images of cabs parked in front of Plaza Celulares Telefónica.
Hundreds of water workers marched June 24 to the capitol in San Juan protesting the sale of the PRTC and joined the pickets in several areas, leading to massive traffic congestion.
Unions are holding discussions to map out further actions, including a possible national strike.
Meanwhile, strikers have begun to follow Rosselló
everywhere he goes. While he was at the Ritz Carlton hotel
in Isla Verde, a gathering of hundreds of chanting pickets
forced him to leave in a rush.
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