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In Puerto Rico, Unions Lead in Hurricane Relief Efforts

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as Puerto Rico faces government neglect, unions’ relief efforts have been critical.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as Puerto Rico faces government neglect, unions’ relief efforts have been critical.

Teachers and students across the island have cleared debris off the roads and delivered medical supplies. On the outskirts of San Juan, communications and transport workers cooked and distributed hot meals. Union volunteers on Isla Verde drove door to door with water and supplies. And these are just a handful of stories among hundreds.

On September 26, less than a week after the storm barreled through the island, Puerto Rico’s storied teachers union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), sprang into action. FMPR teamed up with the island’s labor federation (CGT) to set up “brigades.” Teams of teachers, retirees, and students were dispatched to remove fallen trees, clear roads, and put up tents in roofless houses.

Such large-scale efforts require cross-union coordination. The teachers have worked hand in hand with other Puerto Rican unions through the CGT, and with mainland unions such as the New York State Nurses.

Members of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 501 — the union of ground service and baggage handling workers at American Airlines in New York and San Juan — and Communications Workers (CWA) Local 3140, which represents American Airlines passenger service workers in Puerto Rico and Florida, teamed up to cook and distribute 400 meals of rice, beans, and chicken in the outskirts of San Juan.

They chose neighborhoods that hadn’t received much attention. “These were the forgotten areas,” said Local 3140 Vice President Georgina Felix. “Everybody’s focusing on San Juan and forgetting everywhere else.”

“Without labor down there right now, half the things that are getting done wouldn’t be getting done,” said Local 501 Executive Vice President Angelo Cucuzza. “Besides being a feel good story, it’s an important story.”

Government Response Falls Short

New York City Teamsters Local 210 Vice President Pedro Cardi, Jr., is originally from Puerto Rico. When he arrived on the island with a group of 20 volunteers to deliver water and supplies, they got no information from the government about where supplies were needed. Their first night in town they pored over a map, deciding which neighborhoods to visit based on what they heard from others on the ground.

It’s an open secret that the Federal Emergency Management Agency takes shipments and uses them for its own distribution, meaning that donations may never reach their intended recipients. “I get ahold of one of my guys out there,” Cardi recalled, “and he says, ‘Pedro, you’re going to have a problem, because FEMA is confiscating everything. Whatever’s coming in, whatever they’re sending, they’re taking.’ That really put me under alarm.”

Felix reported that FEMA had confiscated fuel trucks and shipments of donated supplies at the San Juan airport. “My area rep was there and was waiting to get our cargo,” she said. “FEMA was demanding they put the supplies in their truck.”

To avoid having its shipments confiscated, CWA District 3 has been sending small amounts of cargo on different passenger flights, said staff rep Jorge Rodriguez in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is coordinating with a three-person CWA committee in Puerto Rico to oversee and ensure proper delivery.

Meanwhile the government has been all but absent from local schools. According to the FMPR, 55 percent of schools are still closed. “There is no excuse for more schools not to be reopened,” said FMPR President Mercedes Martinez.

The teachers union proposed to Julia Keleher, the Secretary of Education of Puerto Rico, a comprehensive plan to work with local communities to assess and repair the damage to each school before students returned. “We recommended this on the second of October and to this day they haven’t done anything,” says Martinez.

Hedge Fund Vultures

The storm’s devastation amplifies ongoing attacks against Puerto Rican workers and their unions. Congress enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016, setting up an unelected seven-member control board that can suspend collective bargaining agreements, lower the minimum wage, and even supersede labor law.

“It’s a collection agency for the hedge fund vultures,” says David Galarza, a staffer at Civil Service Employees Local 1000 in New York. His union has been coordinating relief efforts from New York, where many members, like Galarza himself, have family on the island.

TWU’s Cucuzza notes that tax code changes have also had a significant impact on labor. Over the years, Cucuzza says, his union’s membership on the island plummeted from 600 to 150. The reintroduction of the corporate income tax on the island — phased in from 1996 to 2006 — resulted in massive layoffs, which were compounded by the economic crisis of 2008.

Now, the island’s government is indebted to hedge funds, whose interests are being prioritized over Puerto Rico’s residents. “When Congress on the mainland decided it needed to tackle this issue without the possibility of any forgiveness on the debt, it chose austerity measures in the form of infrastructure repair cutbacks and the elimination of social welfare programs,” Cucuzza said.

Also under attack are labor laws dubbed the “sugarcane laws,” in effect since the 1940s, which provide protections above and beyond federal law. For example, workers in Puerto Rico are entitled to time and a half overtime pay for working past eight hours in one day or on their seventh consecutive day of work.

Since the storm, “it’s classic shock doctrine,” says Galarza, who has family on the island. “The vultures were there before, flying all around, and now they’re coming in for the kill.” Hedge funds owning Puerto Rican debt are still trying to collect the debt they are owed.

Delegates to the AFL-CIO’s October convention passed a resolution calling on Congress “to enact a long-term moratorium on payments of all Puerto Rican public debt, followed by debt forgiveness, to prioritize the lives of Puerto Ricans over debt payments to Wall Street and free up millions of dollars for both short- and long-term recovery efforts.”

Martinez of the FMPR worries that authorities will look to use the crisis to privatize schools. “They want to take advantage of this moment,” she said. “We know what’s coming after this.”

“There’s no reason for so many schools to not be offering classes except Secretary Keleher’s obsession with using the crisis created by Hurricane Marine to push forward her plans to close hundreds of additional schools on top of those that she and ex-Secretary Rafael Román already closed,” the union wrote on its Facebook page.

Not Without a Fight

But Puerto Rico’s unions aren’t giving up without a fight. Before the hurricane, the Department of Education tried to shut down 300 schools on the island. In response, the FMPR organized in communities affected by the closures. Parents and teachers protested in the streets, occupied schools, and reached out to key elected officials. Through these efforts they were able to prevent 140 school closures.

In the wake of Maria, the FMPR is again organizing protests throughout Puerto Rico demanding schools be reopened. A big demonstration is scheduled outside the Department of Education on Thursday, November 9.

Elsewhere, private contractors are already scoring lucrative deals — but the recent cancellation of a contract awarded to Whitefish Energy of Montana was a victory against privatization.

Even though Puerto Rico has mutual aid agreements in which mainland utilities can lend services to the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority instead initially chose to grant Whitefish a no-bid, $300 million contract to rebuild its power grid. Under the mutual aid agreements, “utility workers could have easily jumped on a plane and flown to Puerto Rico to start working on the grid,” says Galarza. “Instead this company from Montana with two employees gets this contract. This is the perfect example of disaster capitalism.”

Galarza would like to see unions push to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure to incorporate sustainable energy sources. Already, community groups such as Casa Puebla have been distributing thousands of solar generators and solar water filters. “Puerto Rico can be a model for sustainability,” he said. “This is the time to look toward the future.”

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