On Thursday, October 15, hundreds of thousands of workers in Puerto Rico led a National Strike day of 24 hours with a massive mobilization in the capital, San Juan, against an austerity law promoted by the Governor of the island, Luis Fortuno, who ordered the layoff of 17,000 state employees by the beginning of November, in addition to another 5,000 layoffs that had already been announced in preceding months.
This law, popularly known as “Law 7,” suspends the rights of public employees to collective bargaining and orders a 20% budget cut through the massive layoff of state employees that could affect 30,000 workers. Fortuno’s government is planning to eliminate 40 public offices through closure, privatizations or mergers.
As part of the National Strike day, ten marches met in the city center and gathered in the Plaza Las Americas, which is the symbol of economic power and where the biggest commercial center of the island is located. More than 150,000 workers and students participated in that mobilization and tens of thousands carried out actions at other points of the capital and the interior, in response to the strike call by the Coalicion Sindical and the Todo Puerto Rico Por Puerto Rico organization, that was supported by the Coordinadora Sindical and the Frente Amplio de Solidaridad y Lucha, which had already called for a National Strike against “Law 7” on May Day of this year, International Workers Day.
With the cry, “Contracts for the rich, abuses for the people,” a crowd repudiated Fortuno’s neo-liberal policies. The economic and financial center of the capital was brought to a standstill. The banks announced that they would not be opening their doors, the docks were blocked by truck drivers, and there were no classes in the public schools and universities of the island, as well as in a number of private schools. This big action was carried out in spite of threats from the government, that announced days before the strike that it would charge the workers who interfered with free circulation of merchandise and passengers in the ports and airports of the island, with terrorism. The very day of the strike, the government deployed 15,000 police officers in San Juan, while a police helicopter was patrolling the demonstration and filming the demonstrators. For their part, students had to endure the cops’ closing the gates and occupying the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, to stop the planned students’ assemblies to join the strike, from taking place. However, the students went out massively to the streets during the day of October 15.
Governor Fortuno is launching this attack against the workers in the context of growing unemployment as a result of the effects of the economic crisis. During the last 12 months, 89,000 workers lost their jobs in the private sector, while the current austerity plan is battering the public sector, that employs 25% of the workers of the island. The September unemployment rate was 15.8%, and it is anticipated that massive layoffs will push the unemployment rate beyond 17%. While Obama’s administration is spending billions of dollars on bailout plans for the financial sector, Governor Fortuno cynically explains that the island has to reduce its $3.2 billion fiscal deficit to avoid having Wall Street agencies, the same group that caused the crisis, lower the rating of the bonds issued by the government. Behind this argument, he is trying to move forward with the attack on state workers, while guaranteeing lucrative deals through new privatizations for US and Puerto Rican businessmen.
Let us recall that Puerto Rico has the status of “Free Associated State” of the United States, behind which is concealed just a colonial possession of US imperialism, and nothing more, whose population is treated as second-class citizens, who are not even allowed to vote for President. In their territory, the US Marines keep the Vieques base and historically, those who fought for the island’s independence were persecuted, tortured and murdered, and even today the FBI is active in the territory of Puerto Rico without any kind of consultation and with absolute brutality, as was shown in 2005, when they assassinated the Puerto Rican independence movement leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios in his house, which gave rise to widespread repudiation in the interior of the island.
Both on the island and in the US, Obama’s administration and that of Governor Fortuno are trying to make workers pay for the crisis, as shown by growing unemployment in both places. Last week’s national strike, that was the biggest in recent years and attracted the sympathy of broad groups of the people, shows how to begin confronting austerity plans and neo-liberal policies. As several teachers’ union leaders declared, it is necessary to move forward now towards a General Strike of indefinite duration, until “Law 7” is done away with. The US working class must play a key role as an ally of the Puerto Rican workers, in their struggle to put an end to layoffs and Fortuno’s austerity plans, which at the same time will leave US workers in a better condition to confront the attacks they are already experiencing.