Originally created 07/09/98

Labor protest in Puerto Rico trails off into picketing



SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Drunken teen-agers rioted early Wednesday, inspired by a massive labor protest that began with a blockade of this U.S. territory's main airport and lapsed into mundane picketing.

Some stores cautiously opened, defying labor demands to stay closed until 11 p.m., when a two-day general strike to protest the sale of the state telephone company was to end.

However, the island's major shopping malls remained closed Wednesday because of a rash of bomb threats. Buses and taxis stayed off the roads, and small commuter airlines and cargo companies at regional airports remained grounded.

The youths smashed shop windows and flung bottles and cans at police early Wednesday at a shopping mall near the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. headquarters in San Juan.

Police fired tear gas to halt the rampage and arrested 17 people.

Airlines continued flights to the island's main airport, which was blockaded for four hours on Tuesday, creating widespread headaches for tourists. Some had to drag luggage for up to 1´ miles in the tropical heat.

Labor leaders, meanwhile, said they would meet Thursday to discuss ending the protest that prompted the general strike -- the 3-week-old walkout by 6,400 telephone workers.

The $1.9 billion sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. to a consortium led by GTE Corp. is crucial to Gov. Pedro Rossello's plans to privatize government enterprises. Workers fear thousands of layoffs.

The employees originally said they would return to work only if Rossello agreed to a referendum on the sale. He has refused to do so.

Labor leaders are considering a change of tactics including periodic one-day walkouts, said Annie Cruz, leader of the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Employees.

A carnival-like atmosphere reigned on picket lines Wednesday, with protesters singing anti-Rossello jingles and chanting, "Never surrender -- the telephone company belongs to the people!" Vendors did a brisk business in single-star Puerto Rican flags.

Protesters blocked the entrance to Eli Lilly's pharmaceutical plant, one of the island's largest employers, for several hours.

"Our objective today is to paralyze industry," Jaime Figueroa Jaramillo of the Union of Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers said. But the Indiana-based Eli Lilly said its operation was barely affected.

Saboteurs, who on Tuesday strafed a bank with gunfire and planted a bomb that police detonated without any injuries, also appeared to lose steam. Protesters damaged an electrical transformer in Bayamon and one man attacked a telephone pole with an ax Wednesday in Corozal.

Dueling radio and television advertisements traded insults against strikers and Rossello. One full-page newspaper advertisement featured a picture of the 1986 DuPont Plaza Hotel fire, which was set by disgruntled Teamsters. It killed 97 people and injured 140.

"Weigh the consequences -- where will the pressure lead?" the ad asked.

Although tens of thousands of mainly government workers are striking, managers have ensured that most services have not been interrupted.

Sabotage to telephone cables left 260,000 of the island's 1.3 million customers without long-distance service.