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Puerto Rico Strikes

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

By Yolanda Rivera
From the October 30, 2009 issue | Posted in International | Email this article

A STRIKING ISLAND: More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans joined a general strike Oct. 15.

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PHOTO: SEIU INTERNATIONAL, FLICKR.COM

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO—In 1934, the year of the largest sugarcane workers’ strike in Puerto Rican history, Antonio S. Pedreira, a wealthy writer and educator, described Puerto Ricans as lazy and irresponsible: “To be lazy, in our country, is self-repression, lack of mental activity and freewill […] We are squatting before our future.”
Seventy-five years later, the attitudes of Puerto Rico’s ruling elite appear unchanged. Faced with widespread opposition to plans by Gov. Luis Fortuño to fire tens of thousands of public-sector workers and privatize government services, members of the governor’s staff have called workingclass Puerto Ricans “ticks” “garrapata” and terrorists and told them to accept privatization and layoffs because “such is life.”

Fortuño, leader of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (the equivalent of the Republican Party), was inaugurated Jan. 2, 2009. In his first 10 months in office he has fired more than 23,000 public-sector workers despite promising during his campaign that he would not make layoffs. His announcement on Sept. 25 that he was firing nearly 17,000 workers spurred labor, student, religious and community groups to organize a general strike on Oct. 15.

Fortuño’s administration reacted by stoking tensions. Top law-enforcement officials including the justice secretary and police superintendent threatened to charge strikers with terrorism if they disrupted traffic at the island’s ports. Independent observers such as the American Civil Liberties Union described the government threats as “dangerous” and “sowing fear.”

The week before the general strike, 10 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico closed their doors to prevent student protesters from using the facilities to mobilize. During democratic assemblies that gathered record numbers, students had already closed the main university campus in solidarity with fired government workers, including teachers, janitors and other service employees.

Despite the official intimidation, the demonstration and walkout went ahead Oct. 15, drawing an estimated 200,000 people and shutting down most businesses, schools and government activities on the island.

During the protest, numerous workers said the massive layoffs were part an effort to “sell the island,” — to destroying public services in order to justify privatization and provide subsidies to companies owned by associates of the governor.

One marcher carried a sign calling the governor “Fortocho,” a mix of Pinocchio and Fortuño. Another had a picture of the governor as a chicken with the question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” referring to an unemployed worker who threw an egg at the governor during a press conference a few weeks earlier. Others chanted: “So, where’s Fortuño? Fortuño is not here. He’s selling what is left of this country.”

Many people showed their dissatisfaction by scrawling anti-privatization messages on buildings. Others wore masks of the governor’s face while they brandished fistfuls of money. After the march, students blocked the country’s largest highway and kept it closed until the police and some conservative leaders pressured them to abandon their efforts.

With a population of 3.5 million, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony since 1898. About 48 percent of the population lives under the poverty level and government layoffs, which represent about 12 percent of the public sector workforce, are projected to push the unemployment rate to 17 percent.

The firings were made possible by Law 7, which passed in March. It allows Fortuño to unilaterally dismiss public-sector workers, overriding labor laws that previously prohibited such actions. Union contracts are no protection either, as Law 7 effectively voids any job protections they may contain. What’s more, Law 7 clears the way for firing more public-sector workers by allowing for “Public-Private Alliances” — a euphemism for handing over government functions to private corporations.

While the governor and pundits claim the mass layoffs are necessary because the government is “too big” and is facing a $3.2 billion budget deficit, Puerto Rico is slated to receive more than $5.7 billion in funds from the U.S. stimulus package passed earlier this year. Fortuño also claims that private companies provide better services and that public-sector workers earn too much. Previous governors used the same justification for prior rounds of privatization that ended in disaster.

Pedro Roselló, governor from 1992 to 2000, privatized health services and sold hospitals. While insurance companies fattened their profits by delaying payments and services, enabling them to earn interest on public funds, the population has seen co-pays increase and intolerable delays in basic and urgent care, as in the case of cancer patients. Moreover, government officials under Roselló reportedly stole money from an organization that provided services for AIDS patients. In 1998, Roselló also sold Telefónica de Puerto Rico, a public telephone company, an action that triggered an enormous two-day general strike.

The following governor, Sila Calderón, the first female governor in the island (2000 to 2004), outsourced billing services in the Public Water Authority to ONDEO, a French company, which failed to meet the terms of its contracts but was paid $540 million. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the governor from 2004 to 2008, privatized testing services in the Department of Education and signed numerous contracts for millions of dollars with charter school organizations while denying salary increases to public school teachers. The independent teachers union, Federación de Maestros, staged a successful strike and won salary increases.

Puerto Rican workers have also seen massive layoffs in the private sector as the economy has been in recession for more than four years now. The governor claims privatizing public services will create 200,000 new jobs by 2013. The government’s development plans include promoting medical tourism; privatizing much of the public energy authority; displacing poor communities to build expensive apartments and shopping malls; and a luxury resort, casino and marina on a former U.S. naval base. Few believe Fortuño’s promises, however, given the mass layoffs he claimed would never happen.

Laid-off workers have few options. Even if they manage to land a job, an abysmal rate of private-sector unionism, less than 3 percent, means few protections. Private companies will not recognize decades of service in the public sector, offer health insurance or match government salaries.

Meanwhile, despite promises of state support, fired workers wait in unemployment lines so long that people arrive the day before their appointment at the Labor Department to claim benefits; their only alternative is accepting a government offer of $2,000 to leave the island.

While a large number of Puerto Rican workers and students are resolved to fight the government’s policies, the movement is divided. The ruling elite are banking on this. Following the general strike, Fortuño’s Chief of Staff, Rodríguez-Ema, said, “I know we will prevail since the movement is divided.”

The most conservative unions and political organizations are allies of the former ruling party (Partido Popular Democrático, the equivalent of the Democrats). The conservative unions, some of which seem most concerned with not losing union dues, are affiliated with large U.S. unions, such as the SEIU. These unions are mostly organized under Law 45, instituted in 1998, which allowed for unionizing public-sector workers while taking away their right to strike. Many of these workers had previously been in more militant labor “associations.”

Conservative and moderate groups are interested in getting concessions from the government even if this means reducing working hours for all public-service workers or eliminating the government’s contribution to the workers’ health insurance. During the 1998 strike against the sale of the public telephone company, leaders in some of these unions and organizations demobilized a mass-based movement that put up to 500,000 people in the streets. They negotiated a truce with the government, and the telephone company was finally sold.

While the Oct. 15 mobilization marked a big step forward, halting and reversing privatization will require a still higher level of struggle. Independent unions, such as the university non-teaching employees union, called for a workers’ party during the march. The Federación de Maestros, the teachers’ union that held a strike under the former administration; the union of electric company workers; and political organizations such as la Organización Socialista Internacional and the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores called for organizing from below. These unions and political groups, together with other community organizations and university professors (Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios), have supported calling a general strike in the future.

Yolanda Rivera is a member of the Organización Socialista Internacional. Lee Sustar contributed to this report.

All Ranks Salute Olga Méndez, Political Trailblazer

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

By DAVID GONZALEZ
New York Times (August 3, 2009)

Befitting a scrappy, independent political pioneer – in 1978 she was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the United States – her funeral attracted the governor, the mayor, several members of Congress and countless local officials. She was lauded for many things: her tenacity; her willingness to cross party lines; her embrace of labor, housing and educational rights for the poor. She was eulogized as a loyal friend, a fierce competitor and a proud Puerto Rican.

Outside the Church of the Holy Agony, on Third Avenue at 101st Street, beyond the honor guard of construction workers that flanked her hearse, groups gathered by the housing projects to remember La Senadora, and the friends and relatives who got a hand up because of her.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like her,” said Monin Paez, who said she always voted for Senator Méndez. “When she spoke, you had to listen. The politicians today don’t talk to us. They only come by when they want your vote.”

Senator Méndez died from cancer last week at age 84. Married into a politically savvy East Harlem family – and possessed of no small measure of education and determination herself – she found her resolve tested in the State Senate, friends said. But she threw herself into her work, giving as good as she got.

“Many of you have gone toe to toe with her in political battles,” her niece, Annette Vasquez, told the mourners. “But later you would walk away with her arm in arm in friendship and respect.”

Just don’t play games with her.

“When you played Risk with Olga, it was never a game,” she said. “It really was about world domination!”

Among the politicians attending were Representatives José E. Serrano, Nydia M. Velázquez and Charles B. Rangel; the former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer; the city comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr.; and State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. Efraín González Jr., Mr. Espada’s predecessor, who recently pleaded guilty to using $200,000 in state funds for vacation homes and other personal expenses, was also there.

Some may have felt themselves in the crosshairs as Gerson Borrero, a fire-breathing columnist and political commentator, delivered his eulogy praising Senator Méndez.

“She worked hard behind the scenes while others pranced around like peacocks,” he said. “They still prance around like peacocks.”

Outside, there was a plainspoken pride among the construction workers who sweated for the duration of the Mass.

“Olga always did the right thing for El Barrio,” said one worker, Marty Torres. “She was about change. She was no punk.”

The plain setting for her funeral was fitting: not the marbled St. Patrick’s Cathedral – though she was well-connected enough to have had her service there – just the simple linoleum tile and plywood walls of Holy Agony, where she had been a loyal parishioner since the 1950s. Opened in 1953, it was built for the Puerto Ricans settling in El Barrio – old timers said it was the first local church where they celebrated in the main sanctuary, not hidden in some basement.

In the days before the funeral, friends recalled Senator Méndez, too, as visible and approachable. She asked about your children and treated you like family. She relished telling stories with a mischievous smile and a raspy voice. And she was fiercely Puerto Rican – not Latina, not Hispanic.

“She is the last of her kind,” said Gloria Quinones, a lawyer and activist often on the far left of the senator. “She represented reassurance that the community had a fighting voice and someone who loved them.”

Ms. Quinones remembers when she finished law school and Ms. Méndez asked her if she wanted to become a judge.

“To get me out of the way,” she said.

“But she always asked me how my boys were,” she added. “She was like that with everybody. At the same time she was always calling and asking me if I was going to run against her.”

Others noted that while she had sharp political instincts, they were further honed when she married into the Méndez family, whose patriarch, Antonio Méndez, was the first Puerto Rican district leader in Manhattan. Her mother-in-law, Isabel, was equally political.

“She pushed Olga,” said Carmen Villegas, a family friend. “She knew how to move the chairs like chess pieces. She worked in the senator’s office until she died. And she never called her Olga. She always called her La Senadora.”

The two women were just as devoted to Holy Agony, staying active and donating statues to the church over the years.

An urn with her ashes was set before the altar, flanked by the United States and Puerto Rican flags. Two state troopers stood smartly on either side. The Rev. Victor Elia did the final blessing, and people applauded as the urn was carried to the waiting hearse for burial in the Bronx.

Outside, under a glorious sun, a group of elderly women broke into song as the hearse prepared to leave. Wrapped in the Puerto Rican flag, they intoned Rafael Hernandez’s “Lamento Borincano,” the unofficial anthem of Puerto Rico. It is a song about hardship, hope and heartbreak.

It can never be sung without tears.

NY rites set for Latina political pioneer

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

NY rites set for Latina political pioneer
The Associated Press (July 31, 2009)

NEW YORK (AP) – A funeral will be held Monday for former New York state Sen. Olga Mendez. She was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the mainland United States.

Mendez, who was 84, died Wednesday at her East Harlem home. She had been diagnosed with cancer.

The funeral Mass will be held Monday at the Church of the Holy Agony in Manhattan. She will be buried in the Bronx.

Mendez was a state senator from 1978 to 2004. She wielded tremendous political influence in the Hispanic community and beyond.

Republican-turned-independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Mendez helped him see the wisdom of reaching across partisan lines to “do what’s right for your constituents.”

Mendez lost her seat after switching parties, from Democrat to Republican.

News Release
Wed, 07/29/2009 – 10:24pm
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Clark Pena -646-251-1295

Late Senator Olga Mendez
Political Icon Dies in NYC

Former NYS Senator Olga Mendez died in her sleep Wednesday morning at 1:10 AM in her East Harlem apartment.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan. The Senator had requested that she be cremated, and on Monday morning there will be a funeral mass, with her remains present, at her church, the Church of the Holy Agony 1834 3rd Avenue (101st Street). The time will be 9:00 AM.

Her nephew said, “She was ready. She had been under a lot of pain for the last five months. She did it on her terms, and died very peacefully.”

Olga Mendez was born Olga Aran in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico on February 5th, 1925. Her burial will take place at St. Michael’s Cemetery in the Bronx. In lieu of flowers, the Senator had requested donations be made, in her name, to the Boriken Health Center at Taino Towers in East Harlem. As she had requested, there will be no viewing or wake.