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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 73/No. 24      June 22, 2009

(lead article)
Puerto Rico: workers
resist layoffs, austerity
Tens of thousands march through capital
Tito Guzmán/El Nuevo Día
Workers march June 5 to capitol building in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to protest layoffs of government workers and other antilabor measures.

Tens of thousands marched in San Juan, Puerto Rico, June 5 to protest layoffs of government employees, a law permitting the privatization of government services, and other austerity measures threatened by Governor Luis Fortuño.

The march was organized by “All of Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico,” a new coalition that includes unions affiliated to Change to Win, the AFL-CIO, independent unions, community groups, and church organizations.

Workers, students, church groups, and artists marched to the capitol building, often to the beat of bomba and plena, a traditional music of Puerto Rico. One union contingent included a giant inflatable rat that marchers named Ratuño, in honor of the governor.

Contingents from the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Popular Democratic Party, the main capitalist opposition party, also joined the march. Fortuño was elected governor of Puerto Rico—a U.S. colony—in November 2008 on the New Progressive Party ticket. He campaigned as the candidate who would “bring a change to the island.”

Fortuño signed the “Fiscal State of Emergency Law,” known as Law 7, March 9. He threatened that if enough workers did not accept a government offer to voluntarily quit in exchange for one to three month’s severance pay and a year of medical insurance, he would lay off 30,000 or more government employees. According to official figures, less than 2,500 workers accepted the offer.

The government employs 218,000 people, about 21 percent of the island’s workforce.

Some 7,800 government workers were laid off at the end May, more than 6,000 of them “temporary” teachers. “Those teachers will be hired back in August when the school year begins,” Rafael Feliciano, president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, said in a phone interview. The fact that the government has not yet been able to implement massive layoffs “shows that our struggle is having an impact,” he said.

The layoffs are just one part of the antilabor measures that have been passed or are before Puerto Rico’s legislature. Law 7 also freezes government employees’ wages and tears up their union contracts. The “Public Private Alliance” law would allow the Puerto Rican government to contract out “any function, service, or installation.” Fortuño signed it June 8.

“What they really want to do is privatize many public services including the electric grid and water,” Luis Pedraza Leduc, spokesperson for the Coordinadora Sindical, a coalition of independent unions, told the Militant. “But the private sector admits they couldn’t run these without a government subsidy.”

The legislature is also considering an amendment to the “Closing Time Law” that would eliminate provisions currently banning mandatory Sunday work and requiring double pay for those who voluntarily work that day.

Fortuño says all the measures from the layoffs to the “Public Private Alliance” are needed to keep up bond ratings and avoid following California to the brink of bankruptcy. He told El Vocero newspaper that as a result of his moves, “we have achieved a dramatic change.” He pointed to Standard & Poor’s BBB rating for Puerto Rico bonds as an example of investor confidence.

“The constitution of Puerto Rico says the bondholders must get paid first, before everybody else,” said Rafael Santiago, a spokesperson for the General Union of Workers Local 1199, which is affiliated to the Service Employees International Union.

“The budget gap could be filled just by collecting unpaid taxes from businesses and by taxing U.S. corporations that operate in Puerto Rico, but don’t pay any taxes,” Santiago said.

The June 5 protest was “a partial strike,” he added, “since it took place during working hours and at many government agencies” where few showed up to work.

Fortuño told El Vocero that the layoffs are “irreversible.” From now on, he said, the government will “double its efforts” to reduce costs.

“The government is refusing to negotiate with anyone,” Pedraza Leduc said. “The moderate unions would be willing to make concessions to prevent layoffs, but Fortuño won’t even talk to them. He’s forcing them to take more radical action.”

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