Puerto Rico’s La Huelga del Pueblo

Rafael Bernabe

AFTER FORTY DAYS on strike, several paros (one-day stoppages) in various government agencies and a two-day general strike, Puerto Rico’s telephone workers have returned to work without attaining their objective: forcing the government to break its agreement to sell the state-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) to a group of investors led by GTE.

Strikers Stand Up to Repression

The strike of the two PRTC unions—UIET and HIETEL—began last June 18. From the first moment it was evident that the government was intent on breaking it through a brutal show of force. In the early hours of the strike, workers clashed with riot police in at least three locations, including the main offices of the PRTC.

Skirmishes and major confrontations between strikers and their supporters continued daily and climaxed on the morning of June 22, when police and protestors clashed in two separate PRTC installations.

The government then obtained an injunction which prohibited picketing within fifty feet of the gates of PRTC buildings. This court order soon became a dead letter, given the size of the pickets mustered as soon as the police made any attempt to enforce it.

La Huelga del Pueblo

The strike enjoyed massive support. The struggle against privatization had already led to a paro nacional last October, and to dozens of mobilizations since.

The campaign against privatization has been coordinated by the Comité Amplio de Organizaciones Sindicales, Sociales, Políticas y Religiosas (CAOS), a broad coalition of labor, student, environmental, community, cultural, political and religious groups. Annie Cruz, president of HIETEL, was the coordinator of CAOS as the strike began.

From the very first moment CAOS insisted on calling the strike la Huelga del Pueblo (the Strike of the People), to underline the fact that all working people had a stake and a role to play in it. Indeed, every day and every evening thousands drove past or joined the picket lines, contributed money and food to the strikers, while heeding the call of displaying the Puerto Rican flag in their cars as a sign of support for the strike.

By the time the strike entered its second week the slogan Huelga del Pueblo had become an accurate description of the feeling on the street. Students were particularly visible among those supporting the strike. The government soon discovered that it was not faced with a traditional labor dispute, but with a protest which enjoyed wide support far beyond the ranks of organized labor.

Governor Rosselló’s attempts to ignore the situation, minimizing the size of the movement, while also justifying the brutal actions of the police, only added fuel to the fire. Suddenly a government that many had considered unassailable seemed extremely vulnerable. Even well-known supporters of the ruling party began to criticize its handling of the strike.

The ability of the phone workers to generate a struggle with such a wide resonance is closely related to the fact that the struggle against privatization in Puerto Rico is impossible to separate from the issue of the control of the island’s economy by U.S. multinationals, an issue which in turn is closely related to the debates regarding Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States.

The struggle against privatization of the PRTC has thus become a sort of condenser of a much wider movement of national affirmation. This interesting combination of national, social and working-class struggles, as well as other aspects of this process—such as the attitude of the main opposition party toward the strike and of the key role of the left in this struggle—would merit another article.

The State Targets the Left

Regarding the last point, on the third day of the strike, the Superintendent of the Police began to single out several union leaders and students as “outside agitators.” This was the opening shot of an intense campaign directed at the subversive “agitators” who were allegedly provoking violent situations in order to “discredit” the government.

Government officials insisted that the strike had been “hijacked” by left-wingers. The targets of this campaign, who were repeatedly threatened with arrest, were Jorge Farinacci (former political prisioner, labor lawyer and leader of the Frente Socialista), Ricardo Santos (leader of the Electrical Worker’s Union), Alfonso Benítez (former president of UIET and leader of its more militant wing), Julio Muriente (university professor), Renán Soto (President of the Teachers’ Federation), university students belonging to the Frente Estudiantil and the Frente Socialista, and the author of this article.

The campaign included newspaper and TV ads, and a constant flow of statements from the ruling party’s legislators. The House of Representatives discussed the matter and even approved a resolution denouncing the agitators.

Other Unions Join the Struggle

During the second week several unions carried out actions in solidarity with the phone workers. The electrical workers’ union declared a three-day paro (23-25 June), while the water resources and the government insurance workers went out for one day (24 June, 25 June).

Also on June 24, a contingent of workers from several unions (phone, dock workers, water resources, Teamsters) blocked and paralyzed the main areas of the port of San Juan. Meanwhile, sabotage activities significantly affected the phone system, above all in the interior of the island.

All of this was part of what the Concilio General de Trabajadores (CGT)—one of the three labor federations in Puerto Rico—calls “estado huelgario” which means not a strike, but a situation in which all unions are on alert to take action whenever necessary. Actions may include anything from pickets, marches, caravans, selective and alternating paros in different sectors to a general strike.

The Two-day General Strike

The first stage of the strike concluded on a high note: an assembly on the 28th of June in Carolina of close to 1200 delegates of the organizations belonging to CAOS. The assembly issued a call for two-day general strike. A few days later, the date was fixed for July 7 and 8.

The general strike was a huge, exhilarating success. The degree of activism, the size of the mobilizations, the palpable fighting spirit of hundreds of demonstrators on the street, the repeated battles with the police in the period leading to the general strike was such that the Banco Popular and the main shopping malls decided to close during those two days.

Hundreds of offices and shops also closed. Thus, as opposed to other occasions (March 28, 1990; October 1, 1997) in which Puerto Rico’s paros generales have been basically limited to the public sector, the huelga general did succeed in paralysing a significant portion of the island’s private economy (above all trade).

This time there was no concentration in San Juan. Instead there were mass activities and concentrations all over the island. It was a truly national movement which left no town unaffected.

The general strike included daring and spectacular actions, such as the blockade for several hours of all the roads leading to the San Juan International Airport on the morning of the 7th, and a similar blockade of the Condado tourist area on the afternoon of the 8th.

The Morning After

And yet, the morning after the general strike, the leadership of the UIET and HIETEL announced their willingness to negotiate a rapid return to work.

All of a sudden the movement seemed to be adrift. The main leaders offered no perspectives. Where was the movement going? Had the general strike been a last desperate action? What were the leaders of UIET and HIETEL seeking to negotiate? Nobody knew.

Participation in the picket lines dropped visibly. What had happened? Why was a movement, which only a few days before had led a massive general strike, apparently on the verge of surrender? As the days went by, union leaders spoke exclusively about the conditions of a possible return to work. Was the battle over?

As many sectors began to question the path being followed by the leaders of the PRTC unions, Annie Cruz resigned as coordinator of CAOS. All of a sudden the press was feverishly discussing the divisions, not within the government, but within CAOS.

Twenty days later, the negotiations have concluded. The UIET assembly, called to ratify the agreement between the government and the unions regarding the return to work, ended in a major fistfight after the leading group, led by union President José Juan Hernández, imposed the accords without even permitting an open debate.

The fact is that none of these problems are of recent origin. The divisions that became visible after the general strike and which have led to the present situation are the product of tensions and differences within the labor movement, which have been part of this process from the very beginning.

Chaos Within CAOS

The CAOS was not born without a struggle. A year ago, after the Governor announced his plans to privatize the PRTC, a sharp debate erupted within the labor movement.

A portion of the labor leadership, headed by Federico Torres, President of the Central Puertorriquena de Trabajadores (CPT), argued that the movement against privatization should be led by the COS, an umbrella committee of Puerto Rico’s three labor federations.

This was opposed by many who in the past had negative experiences regarding the COS’s ability to function democratically and to lead sustained mobilizations. Those sectors favored the creation of a new, broader organism, led by the phone workers and open to social and political organizations and not only trade unions.

After a fierce debate in a general assembly in Loíza on August 3, 1997, the second perspective prevailed and the CAOS was born. Its first coordinator was Alfonso Benítez, who was then president of UIET. Since then, the destruction of the CAOS, the demotion of Benítez and the revival of the COS has been high on the agenda of those who took the creation of CAOS as an attack on their leadership role.

Militant Wing Loses UIET Elections

Their chance came during the union elections of UIET last spring. The CPT’s old guard backed José Juan Hernández against Benítez. The government also had an interest in removing Benítez.

The Benítez group underestimated the opposition. As a result only a third (around 2000) of the union members voted. Hernández won by less than 200 votes. The UIET and CAOS lost their main and most militant leader, while the UIET acquired a president whose commitment to the struggle against privatization was at best uncertain.

Hernández was furthermore close to those who had opposed the creation of CAOS.

As soon as the preliminary agreement with GTE was made public, a sharp struggle erupted within the UIET and the CAOS, between those who favored a militant response leading to a possible strike, and those who pushed for a disorienting wait-and-see attitude.

Others such as José Rodríguez, president of the UNTS (SEIU affiliate in Puerto Rico) repeatedly stated publicly that “there were no conditions”for a general strike or for major mobilizations. While nobody openly came out against the strike, it was evident that a portion of the labor leadership was doing everything possible to demoralize, disorient and dishearten the rank and file, thus making a successful strike impossible.

It was the pressure of the delegates of the UIET that eventually forced Hernández to go on strike. After June 18, his actions have all been directed at disarming the workers. His team did not even attempt to lead. Certainly, no mobilizing directives ever came from him or his lieutenants.

On the first day of the strike there was not even a plan to organize the picket lines at the main offices of the PRTC. No strike propaganda or literature was ever prepared. Most of this was provided by other unions.

The Hernández group (and the government) hoped that without any direction the strike would collapse in a few days. When it did not (due to the presence of militant phone workers, as well as members and leaders of other unions, who took things into their own hands) Hernández disappeared for several days.

Annie Cruz became the only visible leader of the strike. It would be easy to compose a long catalogue of the many decisions taken by Hernández and—as the strike progressed—by Cruz herself, as well as actions and statements made by other labor leaders close to them, that systematically undermined the strike.

As previously indicated, this situation came to a head after the huelga general. As the mobilizations reached their highest point, Cruz and Hernández insisted that the strikers were willing to return to work if certain conditions were granted. Thus, they succeeded in turning a strike against privatization into a strike about the conditions of a possible return to work.

At this point, part of the militant wing of both CAOS and the UIET argued that if a return to work was necessary, it was better to go back immediately, without any negotiations and with the militant spirit of the general strike still fresh. If the government declared a lockout it could only increase the already widespread support for the workers.

Instead, the leadership of both unions dragged itself into a long negotiation with the government, while the thinning of the picket lines (which they had promoted) left them with little or no bargaining strength.

The result is a rotten agreement, which at least officially ties the hands of both unions and their members for at least six months (during which the privatization of the PRTC may be finalized). At the same time, the CPT is threatening to pull out from CAOS.

The Future

The most remarkable thing about these events is the fact that, in spite of everything—from police brutality to the obstacles created by union leaders—the struggle against the privatization of the PRTC managed to last this long, and to generate the widest social mobilization in Puerto Rico since the 1930s.

As a result, the labor movement is almost surely on the verge of a major realignment, which may open opportunities for the more progressive and militant sectors within it. Moreover, the strike has demonstrated that there is a considerable sector of Puerto Rican society that is willing to join militant struggles, precisely to the extent that they provide a real living alternative to the “politics as usual” of the three traditional electoral parties.

In fact, on the very first day of work after the strike it became evident that the struggle is not over: Five minutes after the first shift started hundreds of workers and their supporters were again on the streets, protesting repressive measures taken by management.

These protests were immediately opposed by union officials. That, however, did not prevent the workers from insisting on their demands. The opposition to Hernández is now out in the open within the UIET. A caucus has been formed to oppose his policies.

Will the rank and file be able to free itself of those who so dismally failed and betrayed them? Will the CAOS be able to survive the attempts to undermine it? Will the socialist left be able to consolidate itself on the basis of its growing visibility and prestige among a whole layer of workers and students?

These are some of the questions that must now be answered, not through idle speculation but in practice.

ATC 76, September-October 1998