Puerto Rican Electrical Workers Union Fights Privatization of Island’s Grid
The people and workers of Puerto Rico are suffering the consequences of the privatization of our electricity system, which has been handed over to a new company, LUMA Energy, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian firm ATCO.
Our union, UTIER—the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union—has been fighting for months against the disastrous contract that the Puerto Rican government signed with LUMA to operate our electricity grid for the next 15 years.
Privatization has dismembered the electrical system’s workforce in a transparent attempt to break up our union. LUMA was not required to hire employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—the public company whose assets were privatized. Nor did LUMA comply with the existing collective agreements between PREPA and its unions. Instead, LUMA offered reduced benefits and job protections.
LUMA began its contract on June 1 with only half the number of employees PREPA previously had, many of them are untrained and unfamiliar with our electrical system. The result has been ongoing outages and customer service debacles. If a major hurricane had hit Puerto Rico this summer, the outcome would have been much worse.
WORKED DAY AND NIGHT
Puerto Rico's electrical workers worked day and night to turn the lights back on after Hurricane Maria devastated our island’s electrical grid in 2017, while then-Governor Rosselló's administration was in disarray and help from the mainland took weeks to arrive. Now, more than 3,000 of us have been marginalized, removed from our jobs in the electrical system and arbitrarily transferred to other positions within the Commonwealth government. Instead of preparing for hurricane season, skilled linemen and other electrical workers are now drivers, nurse aides, office assistants, or maintenance workers.
Privatization has already cost the government of Puerto Rico $750 million just to fund the reserve accounts required under the contract. That's $750 million that could have been spent on our schools, public health system, or pensions, all of which have faced significant cuts thanks to austerity imposed by Puerto Rico's undemocratic Financial Oversight and Management Board (PROMESA).
Nothing in the contract protects the people of Puerto Rico from increases in electricity rates. LUMA is not required to generate savings, nor will it face financial penalties if it goes over budget. In fact, in the months it took preparing to take over the system, the company already went 20 percent over budget, more money paid by the people of Puerto Rico.
The contract also does not penalize LUMA if Puerto Rico's renewable energy goals are not met. Puerto Ricans spend more than a billion dollars each year paying for imported oil and natural gas, resulting in some of the highest and most volatile electricity rates in the United States. Together with environmental and community groups, UTIER advocates for a transformation to a decentralized grid based on renewable energy to achieve resilience and affordable electricity rates.
This contract highlights the lack of commitment of the Financial Oversight and Management Board to the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. In its push to impose austerity on Puerto Rican unions, the Board has defended a contract that will result in higher costs for our people and that does nothing to promote renewable energy on the island.
UTIER and all electrical workers, truckers, service employees, and teachers in the Puerto Rico labor movement are coming together to demand not only an end to this destructive privatization contract, but a true transformation of our electrical system, which is based on a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy.
UTIER members went on strike this spring with a strategy of refusing to apply to work for LUMA. Our goal is to return the electrical system to the public, and to get rid of LUMA and its intentions to raise electricity rates, undermine the gains of electrical workers, and destroy what took us 79 years to build. It is unacceptable that other workers, including some IBEW members from the United States, have decided to work as strikebreakers for LUMA in Puerto Rico. But we trust in the solidarity and support for our struggle to be able to take back our company with all of our rights, including the union that has represented us for the past 79 years.
Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo is president of UTIER, the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union.