Phone Workers Strike Ignites Huge Protests, Mass Upsurge in Puerto Rico

By GERRY FOLEY

A major social and political confrontation has taken shape in Puerto Rico. Since June 17, telephone workers have been on an all-out strike to oppose the sale of the state-owned telephone company to a U.S. trust. The scheme is a pet project of Gov. Pedro Rossello.

The telephone workers are being supported by a trade-union coalition, the Comite Amplio de Organizaciones Sindicales (CAOS, Broad Committee of Trade Union Organizations), that represents up to 200,000 workers in the small island nation. Already about a third of telephone subscribers are without service.

As we go to press at the end of June, the union leaders are threatening to launch a general strike. Last October, 100,000 people rallied against the take-over, in what may have been the largest mass demonstration in the history of Puerto Rico.

The strike has mobilized support broader than the trade-union movement itself. It has become a national question, since the privatization scheme is part of the program of the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP) to integrate Puerto Rico completely into the United States. At the same time as pressing privatization, the regime is trying to push a plebiscite on statehood for Puerto Rico this year.

The PNP got some wind in its sails in the past from growing popular disillusionment with Puerto Rico’s false autonomy as a so-called Associated Free State, or commonwealth. However, the statehood project seems to have been losing steam as the people realize that full incorporation into the United States will mean increasing pressure on them to accept English as the effective language of Puerto Rico.

In the June 25 issue of the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Dia, Ivan Cardoso, a sociologist, was quoted as saying: “Rossello has managed to unite us as a people, to give form to what he said did not exist in Puerto Rico — a nation; a nation has arisen out of the reaction against what he has been doing.”

The president of the Independent Union of Telephone Workers, Jose Juan Hernandez, was quoted in the June 25 El Nuevo Dia to the effect that “this is a struggle of all Puerto Ricans, representatives of all sections of Puerto Ricans are joining it.”

In fact, in addition to students and teachers, and many private-sector workers’ unions, many religious leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, are supporting the strike.

Police attack strikers

The police have brutally attacked strikers’ picket lines, shocking both the press and the legal community. In the June 24 Nuevo Dia, Fermin Arraiza, chair of the Puerto Rican bar association, was quoted as saying: “It has been years since we have seen such a dreadful scene.” He was referring to pictures of the police dragging a wounded striker along the sidewalk.

The president of the Puerto Rican journalists’ association, Leila Andreu Cuevas, and two colleagues were beaten by the police after they protested that the cops’ badges were not visible. The police have been hiding their badges to avoid being charged with assaulting demonstrators.

“We have gotten confidential information from several sources,” Andreu Cuevas declared, “that the police are identifying journalists in order to take reprisals against them during confrontations in the strike. They should be sure that we are alert and ready to expose any attack on our colleagues.”

The board chair of the telephone company, Carmen Anne Culpepper, announced, according to the June 25 El Nuevo Dia, that she was appealing to the FBI to investigate sabotage of the telephone system by the strikers and their supporters.

The Puerto Rican police superintendent and public security commissioner, Pedro Toledano, was quoted in the same issue of the Puerto Rican daily as blaming the strike militancy on “instigation” by some unnamed campus-based group. He raised the specter of a witch hunt in a backhanded way, by saying that of course he had no intention of reviving the practice of keeping files on political dissidents.

Mass demonstrations defy injunction

Luis G. Quiñones Martinez, a judge appointed in 1995 by the ruling rightist regime of Pedro Rossello, handed down an injunction to greatly limit the right to picket. But the injunction was so draconian that even the ruthless police authorities said it could not be enforced.

Furthermore, legal experts said that the judge had no authority to issue this decree. But attorneys who criticized the injunction were themselves soon put under fire by state authorities. Puerto Rican Justice Secretary Jose Fuentes Agostini declared that their expert opinions “could be interpreted as inciting citizens to disobey the law and an order issued by a competent court.”

Constitutional lawyer Juan Santiago responded by saying: “There are all kinds of intimidation — the physical intimidation by the police that we have all seen in the display of police brutality, the psychological intimidation of demonstrations through threats of arrest, and now the threat against lawyers who defend constitutional rights.”

El Nuevo Dia reported in its June 23 issue: “Last night, the CAOS approved a number of resolutions, including decisions to continue the strike despite the injunction and to support the student and university teachers’ movement that has been denounced by Superintendent Pedro Toledo … as ‘professional agitators’ alien to the telephone workers’ struggle.”

A CAOS spokesperson, Annie Cruz, president of the Hermanidad Independiente de Empleados Telefonicos (Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers), said: “It doesn’t matter if we are arrested tomorrow, we will go to the end to stop the sale of the telephone company.” On June 24, 4000 demonstrators picketed the telephone offices in Hato Rey.

In the face of militant mass defiance of the injunction, the telephone company was forced, when the injunction came up for renewal on July 26, to drop it, to the unconcealed fury of Superintendent Toledano.

Join the July 24 and 25 protests!

The reviving movement for the national rights of the Puerto Rican people, through the broad Comite 1998, has launched a call for demonstrations to denounce the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico.

The national call demands self-determination for Puerto Rico and “the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war.” Organizers have called attention to the cases of 15 people who have been serving long prison terms for their support of Puerto Rican independence.

The campaign for amnesty for the Puerto Rican prisoners has won very broad international support, including from such personalities as South African bishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta King, and Rigobertu Menchu.