(Published in Workers World newspaper Aug. 4, 2005.)
Truck drivers strike,
forces gas stations to close
By Tom Soto
San Juan, Puerto Rico
The governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, appeared before the media on July 19, showing off newly purchased and highly expensive police helicopters. He personally explained how the helicopters were loaded with new high–tech equipment and cameras, capable of identifying a suspect miles away.
The governor, however, did not mention that in the previous days, his administration had rejected a simple proposal calling for an increase in the rate that truckers charge for moving cargo. Neither did he mention that the drivers, who transport gasoline and other vital products from Puerto Ricós ports and docks, had decided to strike because of the intransigence of the government.
At 4:00 a.m. on July 20, heavy transport trucks began lining up at entrances to the major ports and docks in San Juan, Puerto Nuevo, Yabucoa, Ponce and other cities. Teamsters Local 901 and the United Front of Truck Drivers issued a call to all transport drivers not to deliver any cargo.
By that evening, the media were reporting that truckers from the Teamsters and the United Front had successfully blocked access to the major ports and docks, where gasoline and other merchandise was beginning to pile up. As the media reported that deliveries of gasoline were not being made to gas stations, a rush to the pumps by motorists developed.
Economic activity and transportation in Puerto Rico are highly dependent on gasoline. In 2004, 800,000 containers were transported from Puerto Ricós Port of San Juan alone. Another 800 million pounds of cargo were transported from the island́s airports. And additionally, in a population of 4 million, more than one person in three drives a vehicle. Public mass transportation on a par with cities in the U.S. has not been established.
By July 21, the media were reporting that of 1,450 gas stations in the country, 500 had already run out of fuel. Motorists were shown on television forming long lines at the gas pumps to obtain whatever fuel was left. American Petroleum, Shell, Texaco, Caribbean Petroleum (Gulf), Esso Standard Oil and Peerless Oil & Chemical, who together take in the lion's share of oil and gasoline profits on the island, announced they could not guarantee deliveries of gasoline.
Governor mobilizes police, National Guard
That same day, July 21, Gov. Acevedo – surrounded by the superintendent of police, the secretary of justice, the director of Puerto Ricós Port Authority and an entourage of cabinet members – announced to the media that the government would not be "held hostage" by the truckers. He said that he had broken off all negotiations until the truckers returned to work and that he had ordered a mobilization of the police and activated National Guard units to guarantee the delivery of goods and gasoline. He claimed that truckers were waiting to deliver gasoline, if protected by the police and the National Guard.
That afternoon, the distribution companies – Horizon Lines of Puerto Rico, Trailer Bridge, Sea Star Lines, International Shipping Agency and others – announced they had gone before a federal court judge and obtained an injunction against the strikers, requiring them to remove their trucks from roadways where they were blocking the entrances to the docks.
On receiving notice of the governoŕs and the distributors' actions, Victor Rodríguez, speaking for the strikers, said: “We cannot be obligated to work. ... We will not permit the National Guard to remove our trucks. ... We have a democratic right to free speech and assembly. ... We are not blocking anyonés access to the docks, and we are declaring ourselves in permanent assembly. ... Does the government want a civil war?”
Germán Vázquez of the Teamsters called on the government to continue negotiations.
Leadership stands firm
Faced with multiple pressures – a federal injunction, an extensive mobilization of the police and National Guard, and the bourgeois media whipping up a hysteria against them – the strike leaders would not budge.
That evening police reports circulated that a scab truck had been set on fire and that incidents involving firearms had occurred. Leaders of independent truck drivers' cooperatives advised their drivers not to break ranks and explained the dangers inherent in the situation.
Fellow labor organizations such as the Electrical Industry Workers Union (Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica) and the Puerto Rican Workers Council (Central Puertorriqueña de Trabajadores) denounced the actions of the government as “abusive and repressive” and threatened solidarity actions in support of the truckers.
Associations representing private enterprise publicly began voicing concerns: “If the strike continues the economy of Puerto Rico could shut down, generating great financial losses.”
Francisco Del Valle, first vice president of the Association of General Contractors (Asociación de Contratistas Generales), told the press: “The situation is affecting us greatly. We dońt have sand, rock or cement at our construction sites.”
Drivers stand together
As Thursday passed to Friday, Efraín Reyes, president of the Association of Gasoline Retailers, gave probably the clearest picture of the situation when he explained: “No significant amounts of fuel have been delivered, even with the intervention of the police and National Guard.”
Gas stations throughout the country were shut down. Drivers, union and non-union, would not lend themselves to breaking the strike.
That evening the government suddenly announced an agreement with the truckers to hold the necessary public hearings within weeks so as to raise cargo rates.
Truckers have vowed they will continue their struggle if the government does not comply with the settlement.
For more than a year, the truck drivers who deliver goods across this island nation have been carrying out measured public protests, on the highways and in front of the Capitol Building where the Puerto Rican Legislature is housed, holding press conferences and lobbying to remind the government that the price of gasoline and of other vital products and services was skyrocketing, and that the cost of operating transport trucks was becoming unbearable.
While there are many independent drivers, Puerto Ricós 5,000 truckers are organized into independent cooperatives. Twelve hundred of the drivers are represented by the Teamsters, which has a militant history of struggle and whose discipline and flexibility during the strike did not go unnoticed.
Seventy-two hours after the initiation of the strike by this relatively small but strategically important group of workers, business leaders throughout the island had feared that all economic activity might come to a halt.□
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