From Herald Staff and Wire Reports
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Thousands of striking workers blocked traffic to the airport, surrounded offices and staged rallies as they brought business and commerce to a halt Tuesday in an escalating confrontation with the government over plans to privatize the telephone company.
Travelers seeking to fly out of the island had to haul suitcases and golf clubs through a blockade of vehicles on the highway to Luis Muñoz Marin airport after strikers cut off access before dawn. A few flights were canceled, but a clash between riot police and strikers was averted and the blockade was lifted around midmorning, allowing flights to continue as scheduled.
By all accounts, strike leaders succeeded in paralyzing the island on the first day of the two-day general strike that rallied 60 unions.
Old San Juan deserted
The streets of Old San Juan, the capital's main tourist attraction, were deserted. Across the capital, public transportation was halted, shopping malls and the island's largest bank, Banco Popular, closed for the day out of fears of violence, and there were sporadic shutdowns of water and electricity in cities across Puerto Rico. Strikers blocked access to buildings, discouraging other nonunionized workers from going to work. Some 200,000 government workers supported the strike, many of them bringing spouses and children to the picket lines.
``We have paralyzed the country,'' said Annie Cruz, head of the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers and a leader of the union coalition organizing the strike. ``We have made history, not only in Puerto Rico but at the world level.''
The shutdown, the biggest strike in decades, was called to support 6,400 telephone workers who walked off their jobs June 18 over the impending sale of the state-run Puerto Rican Telephone Co. to the U.S. telecommunications giant, GTE Corp.
Impasse with governor
But for all the success in bringing havoc to the island, the strike has not altered the impasse with Gov. Pedro Rossello. On Tuesday, Rossello again dismissed any possibility of halting the sale or holding a referendum on his decision to sell the telephone company, which made more than $100 million on its $1.2 billion sales in 1997.
``There will be a referendum in 1998, but it will not be about privatization, but rather about Puerto Rican status,'' Rossello told reporters.
The governor was referring to the proposal to hold a plebiscite before the end of the year to allow Puerto Ricans to vote again for statehood, independence or to remain a semiautonomous commonwealth. Congress is considering a bill on the issue of holding a new plebiscite. Rossello, who heads the U.S. National Governor's League, is a major supporter of statehood.
The Puerto Rican strike has become the strongest protest against the privatization wave sweeping Latin America. Electrical and water workers, teachers and other government union workers have joined in because of concerns that future privatizations and budget cuts will mean more layoffs on an island where unemployment ranges over 12 percent.
``We're here because Rossello wants to privatize everything,'' said Victor Marrero as he waved a Puerto Rican flag in the picket line outside the Education Department in downtown San Juan. ``He wants to sell off Puerto Rico.''
A recent 50 percent pay raise the Puerto Rican Legislature voted itself has also touched a raw nerve.
``The fat cats are getting fatter while we're getting paid the same miserable wages,'' Marrero said.
Even as Rossello was insisting the sale was final, the Government Development Bank, which is handling the privatization, issued a statement saying a committee would study a last-minute purchase offer from the Spanish telephone company, Telefónica Internacional. Telefónica's offer would give the government more than $300 million in additional revenue for the sale, but Rossello has stood fast to the choice of GTE.
Strikers target bank
Strike leaders pledged to picket Banco Popular if it opened its branches Wednesday. The bank, which would be a minority partner in the telephone company purchase, lost $140 million in labor union accounts that were withdrawn two weeks ago.
Despite the tensions Tuesday, there were no reports of renewed violence. In the past two weeks, there have been several bloody clashes between riot police and strikers, and one bomb at a bank branch exploded in the hands of a policeman.
Herald business writer Jane Bussey and special correspondent Karl Ross contributed to this report.
Number of participating unions: 60
Number of striking workers: 200,000
Number of nonfunctioning telephone lines: 250,000
Days of the telephone workers' strike: 20
Days of the general strike: 2