UTIER leader describes emotional turmoil among colleagues over LUMA-PREPA deal

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Less than 48 hours before the private-public partnership (P3) between LUMA Energy and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to operate the utility’s transmission and distribution system for 15 years was to go into effect, an Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER by its Spanish acronym) leader said on Sunday that workers and retirees are facing emotional distress due to the pending privatization.

During a demonstration where citizens, workers and community leaders camped out in front of the Capitol in Puerta de Tierra for three days to demand the cancellation of the contract, Ronald Vázquez Rivera, a retiree from the public utility and vice president of the UTIER Retiree Chapter, said the recent job transfers involving more than 4,000 PREPA workers have lead “many colleagues to be torn emotionally.”

He mentioned Juan José Reyes Cortes, a PREPA worker who, according to his son Johan Mercado Rosario, died last Friday from a heart attack due to the “severe stress and anxiety.”

Vázquez Rivera said Reyes Cortés worked with PREPA for 29 years in the Plant and Grounds area and applied recently to the retirement system.

“I heard the job transfer caused him great anguish,” the UTIER leader noted. “Workers have been transferred to government areas where neither the area nor the job position exists; it has been such an insensitive process.”

Moreover, he said, retirees are also facing stress as “the contract does not recognize either the retirement system as a system or the debt that the Authority has with the system, which exceeds $600 million.”

“This is threatening for both future pensioners, as well as those of us who are already retired,” he said, pointing out the retirement of around 12,000 pensioners and 6,000 active members remains uncertain amid the privatization.

“I have received phone calls from retired colleagues who are greatly anguished, who are very worried because they have ill family members in their last years of life and are taking care of grandchildren,” Vázquez Rivera said. “Their only income comes from retirement and Social Security, and they feel like they are about to lose everything; they have even cried from all the stress they face.”

The UTIER official told the STAR that the LUMA Energy contract is an “unprecedented” agreement within the island’s public sector, or any other deal awarded in Puerto Rico, as it has displaced many PREPA workers just because they do not accept to work with the one-year-old consortium formed by Quanta Services, ATCO and EIM.

“To work with LUMA, you would have to resign from the utility and leave everything behind, all your years of experience, all your years of seniority, give up your right to a dignified retirement, and that is in the case of employees,” Vázquez Rivera said. “As for the country, we will not only lose our electric power system, we will lose control of three-quarters of our bodies of water and we will lose the largest and most efficient fiber-optic network in the Caribbean.”

“This is a problem that transcends the walls of the Electric Power Authority,” he added. “This is a problem for the country.”

When asked what the next step would be for the PREPA workers who are against the LUMA Energy contract going into effect on Tuesday, the UTIER official said “the fight continues” as transferred employees seek to appeal the action with the Public Service Appeals Commission, and the workers’ union will continue broadcasting its opposition to the public-private agreement on different media outlets.

“And the other fight that we will not abandon is that one we take to the streets, as we have to put a face to our claims,” he said.

When the STAR asked if there were chances of creating renewable energy community associations to make electric power accessible for residents on a local scale, Vázquez Rivera said what would be ideal is for PREPA to be at the forefront of renewable energy “by moving away from fossil fuel and installing solar panels at residences at an affordable price.”

“What has happened here is that PREPA has been given away to companies that are going to carry on burning fossil fuels, whether oil or natural gas,” he said. “What is anticipated is that in the United States there is going to be an excess supply of gas, and they look to Puerto Rico, their colony, [as an excuse] to keep selling and extracting gas.”

“Neither ATCO nor Quanta Services has been known for renewable energy policies; they are well known for burning fossil fuel only,” added the PREPA retiree. “That is what is coming for us. Some are already talking about a sun tax, that is if you want to install solar panels and a battery bank in your house.”

He said the LUMA Energy contract “will not bring investments from the privatizer, although so much was talked about the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority being bankrupt and unable to invest.”

“It will not be open to competition, it is a private monopoly,” he said about the P3 deal that will cost around $1.5 billion. “The great difference between a private monopoly and a public monopoly is the socialization of the service. The private monopoly comes to win, and if it is not profitable to give light to your house, then it leaves you without light, an essential service.”

“That is why we believe that essential services cannot be in private hands,” the UTIER official said. “You see some legislators and the governor [Pedro Pierluisi] say that the contract goes, goes, goes because it is better [for Puerto Rico], but you see they can’t argue about it because there are no valid arguments.”

Meanwhile, Anamarys Jiménez Rivera, a spokesperson for the community organization Se Acabaron Las Promesas (Promises Are Over), said “the LUMA Energy contract is criminal and infringes on the health and safety of the people.”

“Electric power is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” she said. “This is a nefarious deal however you look at it.”

She also said the LUMA-PREPA contract will “hinder citizens’ access to water and the few available crops on the island.”

“We cannot have a seat and make a deal, those times are over,” Jiménez Rivera said. “We must take to the streets and demand that the government do better.”

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