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Losses from day-long strike in Puerto Rico estimated in the millions

October 2, 1997

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ A 24-hour strike protesting plans to sell off the state-owned telephone company cost Puerto Rico millions in lost production and is an omen of labor strife to come, a top economic official said Thursday.

An estimated 100,000 Puerto Ricans marched on the Capitol Wednesday to protest the privatization plan and to convey to potential buyers the depth of workers’ hostility.

Tens of thousands of government employees skipped work to attend the march, despite government threats it would dock their pay. But the strike appeared confined to the public sector and private businesses and shops opened as usual.

Supporters of the sale argue the company would become more efficient under private management. It currently holds a monopoly on local telephone service in this U.S. commonwealth and nets $100 million in yearly profits. But it can take up to a year to get a phone line installed.

Opponents _ including union leaders and opposition legislators _ say proceeds from the sale will disappear into a black hole and warn hundreds of workers could lose their jobs.

Unions, which are concentrated in the public sector, appear to be losing ground amid an ambitious government privatization program that includes about 100 health clinics and numerous luxury hotels. Since 1991, the government has sold off the money-losing shipping company and the long-distance telephone company.

``This is surely a visage of things to come, and it doesn’t look good between the unions and company management,″ William Noel Tirado, president-elect of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, said of the protest.

Tirado said he had no figures on the economic impact of the strike, but estimated its cost was ``in the millions.″

``It’s not a good thing for economic activity in the country,″ he said. ``Today it’s because they don’t want to sell something. Tomorrow it’ll be be something else.″

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