Article by Carol Wheeler first published in issue 30 of The Organizer Weekly Newsletter
As the Puerto Rican Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER) celebrates its 79th year, its union members are waging a fierce battle to save Puerto Rico’s power grid from the devastating effects of privatization.
On June 22, 2020, the public utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) entered into a contract with LUMA Energy Corp., a joint U.S.-Canadian private conglomerate, for the operation and maintenance of the electric power transmission and distribution system. PREPA has been a public service for over 80 years. Massive debt, deteriorating infrastructure, and finally the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 gave the U.S. government and Big Business what they had been seeking for some time — the full privatization of the Puerto Rican power grid and PREPA.
Now, an expected $20 billion in emergency federal funds distributed through FEMA will allow LUMA Corp. to use the Hurricane Maria disaster to enrich its stockholders while doing little to fix the problems that exist with the Puerto Rican power grid.
The contract signed between LUMA and the Puerto Rican government destroys the collective bargaining agreement between PREPA and its 3,000-plus workers, organized in UTIER. It undermines their pensions and allows the employer to set up a “preferred workers’ representative.”
Written behind closed doors, without the input of elected officials accountable to Puerto Ricans, the contract effectively turns a public utility into a private monopoly. It allows LUMA to unilaterally determine the type of power to inject into the grid and includes no mandates or even any incentives to comply with local and federal renewable energy objectives.
Most egregiously, LUMA has no obligation to remain in Puerto Rico in the case of a future natural disaster. LUMA could abandon its commitments, leaving Puerto Rico without any power company at all.
UTIER workers have been on strike for months. They have taken to the streets along with other public-and private-sector unions to demand cancellation of the contract with LUMA. They have warned that the agreement with LUMA will increase the cost of electricity and destroy the jobs and livelihood of thousands of workers and their families. They have spearheaded mass mobilizations, national days of protest, and even a 24-hour nationwide general strike.
The massive resistance movement has prevented LUMA from recruiting enough workers to operate effectively. However, new challenges have surfaced with other unions, some with close ties to LUMA, threatening to send in « replacement workers » to cross the UTIER picket lines, bust their
union, and sign a sweetheart agreement with the company. UTIER President Ángel Figueroa-Jaramillo issued a sharp warning against any such effort: « We will consider any contractor or employee who consents to work for LUMA, unionized or non-unionized, to be a strikebreaker, and we will denounce these actions nationally and internationally and take all actions allowed by law.”
The striking UTIER workers need our support. Eduardo Rosario, president of the New York City chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA/AFL-CIO), issued a public appeal for international labor solidarity:
“The purpose of privatizing PREPA, or any public service, is to remove democratic accountability and exploit the people of Puerto Rico and the nation’s resources for profit. The record is clear. Across the globe, privatization schemes have never amounted to practices that have benefited the people. We call upon the international labor movement to raise its voice loud and clear to demand:
No to the privatization of PREPA!
Cancel the PREPA-LUMA contract now, with all UTIER workers returned to their jobs with back pay and full rights!
No to scabs (wherever they may come from) and union-busting!
Yes to UTIER! »