When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, it left thousands dead, destroyed the electrical grid, and deepened a worsening political situation. Turmoil in the streets brought by the mass movement for justice in its aftermath deposed then-governor Ricardo Rossello. Rossello may have resigned, but his political program remains. It is a program dedicated to the dismantling of public services in the name of “debt restructuring,” which is another term for the restructuring of the society to serve the interest of U.S. neoliberal forces. The public power company of Puerto Rico known as PREPA, which employs 3,000 Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union members (UTIER) has been transferred to a private corporation known as LUMA, which was formed in 2020 by Canadian Utilities Limited, an ATCO company, and Quanta Services, Inc. LUMA has refused to honor the collective bargaining agreement of UTIER. This move toward privatization threatens to cripple the UTIER national union, and international support is building to help the union.
At the forefront of this fight against the privatization of the electrical grid are the trades workers of UTIER itself, led by their president Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo. Masses of workers and the poor in the cities have mobilized in large numbers in defense of the union’s demands and the call to kick out the LUMA corporation. The debt restructuring that resulted in the new private management of the grid is part of a larger policy initiative of the U.S. Congress: the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA. Unions have been pitted against each other as the private contractors have brought in union labor from Florida to supplant UTIER workers
And the grim electrical situation isn’t getting better. Thousands continue to be affected by irregular energy power fluctuations. Without power there is no circulation of water, and many people’s access to immediate and clean drinking water is compromised on a daily basis. As residents fume over inaction and uncertainty, LUMA refuses to release the salary figure of its president as requested by the island’s legislature. All funds being used in this venture are either the public funds of the people of Puerto Rico or $12.8 billion in disaster relief money soon to be released by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In other words, the privatization is being financed almost entirely by taxpayers in Puerto Rico and the United States.
Although the office of Southern Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva is going to conduct a hearing on the LUMA contract soon, only a full-scale congressional investigation could have consequences.
Meanwhile, only the working classes of Puerto Rico, the great masses of the people, and the UTIER ranks have both the need and the political determination to see the struggle through. Should the divide between Puerto Rican and U.S. mainland workers be overcome, the unity of the tradespeople of both nations could emerge as a powerful force.
What can DSA members do to help the UTIER and the people of Puerto Rico maintain their power, water and sovereignty? Send a message to the governor of Puerto Rico as part of the LabourStart campaign co-sponsored by Public Services International, which represents 30 million workers in 154 countries. It takes less than one minute to join DSA activists in support of this important campaign: Spread the word! Your support can make a major difference.