U.S. Nurses’ Unions Continue to be at the Forefront of the Struggle to Defend Public Services in Puerto Rico
Power sector union building international support to keep electrical utility public
By John Treat for TUED
New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez recently testified before a session of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization about the dire health crisis facing Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in September 2017, and the ongoing aftermath of “disaster capitalism,” which continues to hit the island daily.
Sheridan-Gonzalez’ testimony was based on her active participation and leadership in multiple delegations sent by NYSNA to Puerto Rico in the months since Hurricane Maria swept across the island, killing more than 4,600 people, as recently contended in a paper by researchers at Harvard University and published in the New England Journal of Medicine—findings that were a major challenge to the official death toll of just 64.
In her testimony, Sheridan-Gonzalez reviewed the appalling legacy of neglect and abuse of Puerto Rico and its people at the hands of the U.S. Government and corporations: a legacy that spans extensive environmental waste and toxins; medical experimentation and surgical sterilization of women without informed consent; the enforcement of industrial agricultural practices that compel Puerto Ricans to import food despite the island’s immense productivity; the continuing destruction, neglect and attempted privatization of public services, including schools, hospitals and the island’s electrical system; and the depopulation and deskilling of the island as professionals and younger people increasingly leave.
According to Sheridan-Gonzalez, the conditions created by that legacy of neglect and abuse, when compounded by the loss of the island’s electrical system, amounted to a form of genocide:
This untenable situation transformed into a form of genocide, given the US government’s apathetic and incompetent response to the devastation after Hurricane Maria in 2017. The austerity-imposed disintegration of the electrical grid and the criminal neglect of its repair, post-Maria, directly contributed to the deaths of thousands of people.
National Nurses United (NNU) has also been active in solidarity efforts with Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. NNU member Amy Tidd, who travelled to the island in January as part of NNU’s “RN Response Network” (RNRN) disaster relief program, drew a link between the serious mental health issues the delegation encountered, and the ongoing inconvenience, uncertainty and fear people feel in the face of the extended delays in restoring the island’s electricity, and the controversial announcement of plans to privatize the system. According to Tidd:
The mental health issues we were running into were dire. People are depressed, and they don’t know what to do because four months out from the hurricane, they are still saying that for some areas of the island, it will maybe be the spring, maybe as late as June, for power to be restored…. There’s money to be made whenever there’s a disaster. A lot of people are very aware of this.
In April, Angel Jaramillo—President of Puerto Rico’s main power union, UTIER—addressed a meeting of the TUED Global Advisory Group, reporting that the union would lead the fight to keep the island’s public utility, PREPA, in public hands, while ensuring that it is fully accountable and responsive to communities. A previous issue of the TUED Bulletin highlighted UTIER’s calls for defense and reform of PREPA, and for solidarity from the international trade union movement.
At the end of May, Jaramillo also participated in TUED’s international conference, Towards a Just Transition: International Labor Perspectives on Energy, Climate and Economy, hosted at 1199SEIU’s Cherkasky/Davis Conference Center. The conference brought together fifty trade union representatives and close allies from more than a dozen countries, from both North and South. Jaramillo brought Puerto Rico’s struggle for energy democracy and sovereignty to a panel dedicated to “Energy for the People: Looking Beyond ‘Development as Usual,’” which also saw contributions on struggles for energy democracy in Brazil, South Korea and Vietnam. The full conference program is available here.
TUED Coordinator, Sean Sweeney, has also written for the Murphy Institute’s journal, New Labor Forum, on the technical, economic and political aspects of the fight over PREPA: Puerto Rico’s Energy Future: Keeping Power With the People.
Meanwhile, other voices continue to raise serious questions about the ongoing efforts to privatize the island’s electrical system. Cathy Kunkel and Tom Sanzillo from the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis (IEEFA) previously criticized Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s proposal for the privatization of PREPA. Now, Kunkel and Sanzillo have challenged key elements of a bill introduced by the Puerto Rican legislature to expedite the process. Crucially, they write in their latest piece, the amended bill “does not say how privatization would solve the two fundamental problems of Puerto Rico’s electrical system: its over-reliance on imported fossil fuels and its crippling debt”:
In their intent to hasten private investment in Puerto Rico, the governor and the legislature now are creating policy that fails to spell out what role the public sector will play in the financing of the these transactions; where future ownership of electricity assets will lie; how development and management of those assets will proceed; whether labor-force decisions will be in the best interest of Puerto Ricans.
TUED continues to look for opportunities to support UTIER’s engagement with unions on the U.S. mainland and internationally, and in the fight against privatization and for democratic control of energy. For more information, please contact John Treat at firstname.lastname@example.org.