Puerto Rico Engulfed in Massive Labor Unrest

Michelle Chen

A student-led protest at the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus.

To many Americans, Puerto Rico may be best known as a distant tropical idyll. But this vestige of American imperialism is rocked by economic shockwaves that hardly register on the mainland.

That might change on October 15, when activists plan to launch a general strike to protest mass layoffs and the devastation wrought by pro-business economic policy.

Last month, the government announced plans to lay off nearly 17,000 workers, starting primarily in November, which may drive unemployment up to 17 percent. The move has catalyzed opposition to Governor Luis Fortuño’s conservative administration, which activists say is deliberately strangling the public sector workforce.

In the lead-up to the call for a general strike by union activists, direct actions and protests have sprung up across the impoverished territory, as reported by Labor Notes, Puerto Rico IndyMedia, and the SEIU blog.

Earlier this month, student activists led a demonstration at the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico that culminated a school-wide strike.

Union activists have staged actions at government offices, including a blockade of the Governor’s mansion that led to a clash with police.

Brendan DeMelle at Huffington Post reports that officials are preparing for the general strike as well:

the Governor’s administration has now threatened to charge picketing civil servants for engaging in terrorism if their actions during a planned October 15 protest infringe upon the flow of trade at the island’s ports, shocking civil liberties advocates who say the right to protest is clearly protected by the Puerto Rican and U.S. Constitutions.

According to the UGT union, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune, the planned layoffs are part of a broader campaign to gut the public sector workforce, which could eventually hit a total of 30,000 workers. Teachers in public schools face some of the deepest cuts. Public transportation and social welfare programs will also be slashed, deepening the economic desperation in poor and marginalized communities.

Commentators point to the backdrop of a pro-business political agenda. Reinaldo Millán of Ventanasur (via Global Voices) says the layoffs are a prelude to wholesale privatization, under policies that enable corporations to control public services and to administer public funds that were previously handled by public agencies that have been eliminated.”

Following a high-profile egging attempt, Deepak Lamba-Nieves at Trans(actions) places the labor strife in the context of government oppression:

[T]hey have pounced over the poor and destitute by displacing residents from informal settlements, curtailing the advancement of progressive grassroots efforts, and deploying police riot squads to deal with minor manifestations of civilian unrest. In sum, the middle and lower classes are the ones being punished.

At the same time, organizing is impeded by a well-worn internal rifts between the mainstream and radical elements of the labor movement, says José A. Laguarta Ramírez, an activist working with the teachers union.

Protest actions over the summer were virtually nonexistent. The success of the May Day march and rally was due in large part to simultaneous work stoppages by five of the island’s independent public sector unions, including the Federation of Teachers (FMPR), which was the cornerstone of that mobilization. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, however, refused to walk out that morning, opting instead to rally at the Department of Labor in the afternoon, with a much poorer turnout, about 5,000.

While California’s fiscal crisis has become legendary on the mainland, Puerto Rico is in a much deeper hole, despite help from the federal stimulus. After three years of economic recession, it suffers the worst budget shortfall, as a proportion of its budget, of any U.S. state or territory. The Financial Times reports that Fortuño recently pleaded with the Obama administration for more assistance while touting partnership” with foreign investors as a mechanism for economic recovery.

The unrest stirs memories of an earlier wave of labor protest back in 2005, in response to a similar fiscal crisis tied to social service cutbacks and foreign investment.

If activists pull off a general strike this week, the action will signify a kind of cohesion and militancy that has largely eluded embattled American unions on the mainland. Yet Puerto Rico’s labor crisis has a more complex social and cultural overlay. Workers are marching at a crossroads between the developed” and developing” worlds, rooted in the crumbling legacy of imperialism.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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