(Photo caption: UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo addresses rally in Puerto Rico)
The ORGANIZER Weekly Newsletter
Special Supplement to Issue No. 46
December 23, 2021
Please distribute widely & support the campaign in solidarity with UTIER!
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IN THIS DOSSIER
• PRESENTATION — by Coral Wheeler (reprinted from The Organizer Weekly Newsletter)
• NYC LCLAA Chapter Stands in Solidarity with UTIER and in Opposition to the Privatization of PREPA – statement by LCLAA Chapter President Eduardo Rosario
• Statement by UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo
• Scabbing on the Island – Mícheál Madden (reprinted from the July 2021 issue of Labor Notes)
• IBEW Responds: Setting the Record Straight – by IBEW Local 222 Business Manager Bill Hitt
• UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo Responds to IBEW Local 222 Business Manager Bill Hitt
• MODEL RESOLUTION In Support of the UTIER Electrical Workers and the People of Puerto Rico Against the Privatization of the PREPA Electrical Grid of Puerto Rico
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By CORAL WHEELER
(reprinted from Issue No. 30 of The Organizer Weekly Newsletter)
As the Puerto Rican Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER) celebrates its 79th year, its union members are waging a fierce battle to save Puerto Rico’s power grid from the devastating effects of privatization.
On June 22, 2020, the public utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) entered into a contract with LUMA Energy Corp., a joint U.S.-Canadian private conglomerate, for the operation and maintenance of the electric-power transmission and distribution system. PREPA had been a public service for over 80 years. Massive debt, deteriorating infrastructure, and finally the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 gave the U.S. government and Big Business what they had been seeking for some time — the full privatization of the Puerto Rican power grid and PREPA.
Now, an expected $20 billion in emergency federal funds distributed through FEMA will allow LUMA Corp. to use the Hurricane Maria disaster to enrich its stockholders while doing little to fix the problems that exist with the Puerto Rican power grid.
The contract signed between LUMA and the Puerto Rican government will lead to more of the same issues that have plagued the electrical utility for years. Moreover, it destroys the collective-bargaining agreement between PREPA and its 3,000-plus workers, organized in UTIER, undermines their pensions, and allows the employer to set up a “preferred workers’ representative.”
Written behind closed doors, without the input of elected officials accountable to Puerto Ricans, the contract effectively turns a public utility into a private monopoly. It allows LUMA to unilaterally determine the type of power to inject into the grid and includes no mandates or even any incentives to comply with local and federal renewable energy objectives.
Most egregiously, LUMA has no obligation to remain in Puerto Rico in the case of a future natural disaster. LUMA could abandon its commitments, leaving Puerto Rico without any power company at all.
In a letter to U.S. President Biden, over 100 Puerto Rican organizations demanded that emergency-relief money be used to modernize Puerto Rico’s aging power grid, spreading the use of solar panels and allowing the power users to become its producers, all while moving away from fossil fuels. They challenged the contract with LUMA as detrimental to the future of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid because it moves in the direction of an increased carbon footprint at a crucial time in the fight against climate change.
Instead of allowing Puerto Ricans to be energy-independent, which would allow them to become more politically independent, this agreement continues the dependence of Puerto Rico on the United States and transfers the disaster relief money directly into the hands of private U.S. companies, rather than into the hands of the Puerto Rican people.
UTIER workers have taken to the streets along with other public- and private-sector unions to demand cancellation of the contract with LUMA. They have warned that the agreement with LUMA will increase the cost of electricity and destroy the jobs and livelihood of thousands of workers and their families. They have spearheaded mass mobilizations, national days of protest, and even a nationwide general strike.
At first highly successful, the general strike prevented LUMA from recruiting enough workers to operate effectively. However, in a shocking — though not totally unexpected — development, top officials of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 222 in the United States violated international working-class solidarity.
On June 21, IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson announced that the union signed an agreement with LUMA in which IBEW gives up its own right to effective collective bargaining in exchange for the right to engage in major electric transmission and distribution construction projects with LUMA. Included in this sweetheart agreement is a no-strike pledge.
This is a devastating blow to the workers of Puerto Rico. Crossing picket lines and agreeing to non-binding “labor agreements” is also a blow to the IBEW and to the U.S. labor movement.
Anticipating the signing of this IBEW-LUMA agreement, UTIER President Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo sent a letter on May 31, 2021, to Lonnie Stephenson, urging the IBEW to pull back from this disastrous course for the workers and people of Puerto Rico. He wrote, in part:
“We have received information from former PREPA workers who are working in the United States according to which there have been offers by IBEW locals to go to Puerto Rico to work in our electric system. Specifically, the rumors come from members of your Local 222. … We hope that those are mere rumors and a blatant lie to try to damage your solidarity reputation. We will consider any contractor or employee who consents to work for LUMA, unionized or non-unionized, to be a strikebreaker, and we will denounce these actions nationally and internationally and take all actions allowed by law.”
The New York chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) issued a letter of solidarity with the UTIER workers [see below]. We urge other LCLAA chapters, unions, and working-class organizations across the United States to follow suit. We draw your attention, in particular, to the response by UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo to IBEW Local 222 Business Manager Bill Hitt; it is important for union activists to take a stand against scabbing in Puerto Rico.
Lastly, we are including below a Model Resolution written by union activist Mícheál Madden, whose article in Labor Notes is also included in this dossier.
The striking UTIER workers need our support.
– Cancel the privatizing PREPA-LUMA contract now, with all UTIER workers returned to their jobs with back pay and full rights!
– No to scabs and sweetheart agreements; rescind the IBEW-LUMA agreement now and restore the collective-bargaining agreement with UTIER!
New York City Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement Stands in Solidarity with UTIER and in Opposition to the Privatization of PREPA
It is with great pride that we, the New York City chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), stand in solidarity with UTIER, and we stand in solidarity with you in the fight in opposition to the privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
Let us be clear. Privatization is a tool that the bosses and the politicians in service of the bosses use in union-busting. The workers, the members of UTIER, who have worked for PREPA, have done so with dedication to serve the people of Puerto Rico. You have done so at times risking your lives. You have given your best to guarantee that the people of Puerto Rico have access to a vital and essential service.
We in NYC LCLAA argue that PREPA is a crucial resource of the people and nation of Puerto Rico. The privatization of PREPA will remove democratic accountability – and the purpose to privatize PREPA, or any public service, is rooted in an agenda that seeks to silence the voice of the people and exploit the people of Puerto Rico and the nation’s resources for profit. The record is clear. Across the globe, privatization schemes have never amounted to better, more cost-effective practices that have benefited the people.
There is great concern about the lack of transparency and the determination to push through the privatization of the national energy system of Puerto Rico despite strong opposition.
But what can never be forgotten is your strength, your courage, your determination to fight! Raise your voices, your shouts for justice and democracy, so that they are heard by the entire global labor movement and civil society everywhere. Such a response is what global capital and the politicians in service of global capital fear the most. But it is precisely the response you must have today, tomorrow till victory is yours.
Say no to union-busting! Say no to the privatization of PREPA! No to LUMA! Yes for UTIER! Forever we are with UTIER! You are not alone!
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Statement by UTIER President Angel Figueroa Jaramillo
The people and workers of Puerto Rico are suffering the consequences of the privatization of our electricity system, which has been handed over to a new company, LUMA Energy, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian firm ATCO.
Our union, UTIER—the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union—has been fighting for months against the disastrous contract that the Puerto Rican government signed with LUMA to operate our electricity grid for the next 15 years.
Privatization has dismembered the electrical system’s workforce in a transparent attempt to break up our union. LUMA was not required to hire employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—the public company whose assets were privatized. Nor did LUMA comply with the existing collective agreements between PREPA and its unions. Instead, LUMA offered reduced benefits and job protections.
LUMA began its contract on June 1 with only half the number of employees PREPA previously had, many of them are untrained and unfamiliar with our electrical system. The result has been ongoing outages and customer service debacles. If a major hurricane had hit Puerto Rico this summer, the outcome would have been much worse.
WORKED DAY AND NIGHT
Puerto Rico’s electrical workers worked day and night to turn the lights back on after Hurricane Maria devastated our island’s electrical grid in 2017, while then-Governor Rosselló’s administration was in disarray and help from the mainland took weeks to arrive. Now, more than 3,000 of us have been marginalized, removed from our jobs in the electrical system and arbitrarily transferred to other positions within the Commonwealth government. Instead of preparing for hurricane season, skilled linemen and other electrical workers are now drivers, nurse aides, office assistants, or maintenance workers.
Privatization has already cost the government of Puerto Rico $750 million just to fund the reserve accounts required under the contract. That’s $750 million that could have been spent on our schools, public health system, or pensions, all of which have faced significant cuts thanks to austerity imposed by Puerto Rico’s undemocratic Financial Oversight and Management Board (PROMESA).
Nothing in the contract protects the people of Puerto Rico from increases in electricity rates. LUMA is not required to generate savings, nor will it face financial penalties if it goes over budget. In fact, in the months it took preparing to take over the system, the company already went 20 percent over budget, more money paid by the people of Puerto Rico.
The contract also does not penalize LUMA if Puerto Rico’s renewable energy goals are not met. Puerto Ricans spend more than a billion dollars each year paying for imported oil and natural gas, resulting in some of the highest and most volatile electricity rates in the United States. Together with environmental and community groups, UTIER advocates for a transformation to a decentralized grid based on renewable energy to achieve resilience and affordable electricity rates.
This contract highlights the lack of commitment of the Financial Oversight and Management Board to the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. In its push to impose austerity on Puerto Rican unions, the Board has defended a contract that will result in higher costs for our people and that does nothing to promote renewable energy on the island.
UTIER and all electrical workers, truckers, service employees, and teachers in the Puerto Rico labor movement are coming together to demand not only an end to this destructive privatization contract, but a true transformation of our electrical system, which is based on a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy.
UTIER members went on strike this spring with a strategy of refusing to apply to work for LUMA. Our goal is to return the electrical system to the public, and to get rid of LUMA and its intentions to raise electricity rates, undermine the gains of electrical workers, and destroy what took us 79 years to build. It is unacceptable that other workers, including some IBEW members from the United States, have decided to work as strikebreakers for LUMA in Puerto Rico. But we trust in the solidarity and support for our struggle to be able to take back our company with all of our rights, including the union that has represented us for the past 79 years.
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Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo is president of UTIER, the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union
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Scabbing on the Island
By Mícheál Madden
(reprinted from the July 2021 issue of Labor Notes)
Unions in the United States often make calls for solidarity, but sometimes it is the unions themselves who undermine that solidarity and participate in scabbing. This is the unfortunate case in Puerto Rico, in which IBEW Local 222 members from Florida have been brought in under the private contract with the Puerto Rican government in order to cripple the Puerto Rican UTIER national union and steal its right to the reconstruction of the electrical grid.
According to the San Juan Daily Star, LUMA reached a project labor agreement (PLA) with Local 222 in June “for all contracted, major construction [transmission and distribution] projects as part of the transformation of Puerto Rico’s energy grid.”
As Robert García Cooper, secretary of the Bayamón chapter of UTIER, put it: “Imagine that the government decides to unilaterally change existing laws in order to nullify your collective bargaining agreement and disband your electrical utility union by assigning you and your fellow electrical utility workers to work in other government agencies as security officers, heavy vehicle drivers, messengers, and other non-electrical-related fields. Imagine that while you are being displaced, demoted, and downgraded, and while the issue is being handled in Court, the incoming electrical utility concessionaire, instead of simply being willing to even recognize the local electrical workers union, decides to call upon another electrical workers union to work as scabs. I never imagined Local 222, or any local of the IBEW, would ever do the shameful work of playing scab-trader and be part of the scheme to dismantle a fellow electrical utility union.”
What can you do to help UTIER and the people of Puerto Rico maintain their power, water, and sovereignty? Sign the petition from LabourStart supported by 30 million members of the Public Service Workers International. If you are a union member or electrical worker, speak out against the scabbing by IBEW Local 222 and the union’s involvement in the privatization of the island’s energy grid, and ask them to stand by UTIER in recognition of its members’ sole right to work on the reconstruction of the power grid of Puerto Rico.
You can also pressure Congress to conduct a full investigation into the privatization. The office of Southern Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva is going to be conducting a hearing on the LUMA contract next month, but this process needs to develop into a Congressional investigation if it is going to have consequences.
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Mícheál Madden is a member of IATSE Local 16 and a representative on the San Francisco Labor Council.
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IBEW Local 222 Business Manager Bill Hitt Responds: Setting the Record Straight
by Bill Hitt
November 12, 2021
I am shocked that this unsupported accusation was published without so much as a call to me or any member of the IBEW.
I am proud to be the business manager of Local 222, and proud to have welcomed hundreds of Puerto Rican brothers and sisters into the IBEW earlier this year.
It is a highlight of my career that we were able to win a first contract in September, a contract that provides the first raise in a decade for the island’s utility workers, imposes modern safety conditions and training, and joins them into a solvent retirement plan that will provide for them and their families long after they hang up their tools.
The IBEW and Local 222 have never, and will not ever, break a picket line. Show us a strike, and we honor it.
There is no strike at LUMA. There is no picket line.
We know there are strongly held beliefs about the existence of LUMA, and good people disagree about the wisdom of the policy decision. But LUMA exists, and its workers deserve representation. Anyone could have organized them, but no one did.
They created their own union and then came to us. We were honored to join their struggle.
We are not strangers to Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican utility workers have been a common presence at Local 222 for decades. The men and women who work at LUMA today sought us out precisely because so many had worked with us before, and they wanted a change.
They wanted to form a modern, transparent, and professional labor union, a union with strength that they could trust would be used to benefit them and their families. It was our honor to back them up.
Bill Hitt is the Business Manager of IBEW Local 222.
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UTIER President Responds to IBEW Local 222 Business Manager
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Greetings compañeras y compañeros,
It is with discomfort and unease that I wade into a public debate with a union. However, there are times when silence is more harmful to the cause of worker struggles than simply speaking out. Unfortunately, those currently winning are those who continue to implement neoliberal policies. Allow me to explain.
The Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER) has 79 years of experience in great social struggles across Puerto Rico. We have not only achieved economic rights for the workers we represent but also great social conquests to guarantee a quality of life for all people in Puerto Rico. We are a union of great presence and participation within the country’s public debates and hold great credibility as well as influence in the public opinion. We aspire to meet our motto “UTIER, Making the Truth Shine”.
For over 40 years, we have been fighting against the privatization of Puerto Rico’s electric company. Meanwhile the state and private capital impose a wide array of strategies – familiar to us all – to justify their actions and pressure the people to validate the privatization.
In June 2020 the Government announced it was signing with a private operator to cover the transmission and distribution of electricity, among other services, that UTIER had always represented. In doing so, the government is weaponizing the context of bankruptcy of the electric company and the country, the disaster of hurricanes Maria and Irma, earthquakes and now the pandemic. The contract is with the Luma Energy company, created on January 17, 2020. Its parent companies are Quanta Service (US capital) and ATCO (Canadian capital).
Upon evaluation of the contract signed with LUMA, it was evident the conditions were totally contrary to the best interests of the people and the workers. The contract entirely disappeared UTIER and annulled the collective bargaining agreements that had been achieved through long decades of class struggle.
As a union, we immediately organized a strategy to defeat the privatization. We understood the scale of harm it would inflict on the people of Puerto Rico and the destructive effect it would have on the union and its gains.
We noticed that the contract, which was to be implemented by June 1, 2021, established that Luma Energy had to have recruited the necessary personnel to guarantee the operation of the electric system. It is important to point out that Luma Energy is going to perform all its operations from the same facilities and with all the equipment of the public company because it has nothing of its own. In other words, it was the same situation as the much talked about Whitefish case in Puerto Rico that made headlines across the United States.
Given this arrangement, our strategy to defeat the privatization as well as the contract included actively not requesting work at Luma Energy as a clear mechanism of strike and struggle and thus prevent them from operating and complying with the provisions of the contract. Just as when picket lines and strike processes are established, the purpose of this mechanism is to prevent the operation. Our strategy was simply to not occupy the jobs. Furthermore, it was also unfavorable for the workers to lose all our hardfought conquests and rights and even the union representation that workers have had. The alternative was that of workers being required to resign from the public company and start from scratch.
To that end, we established communication with different unions asking for solidarity.
But I now want to provide more details about the process so that there is no doubt about what we have said about the IBEW and Local 222.
On February 4, 2021 in a restaurant in Puerto Rico we held a meeting with two officials including Mr. William “Bill” Hitt and his lawyer from IBEW Local 222 in which I was present, along with our lawyer.
At the meeting we explained in detail the nefariousness of the contract with Luma Energy and the consequences for our union. We gave him a document in English with a legal analysis of how bad the contract is for the people, the workers and the union. And we explained some of the things we were going to do including not applying for jobs with the privatizing company.
We also presented them with an alternative: they could represent the workers who would carry out the reconstruction process using public funds from the U.S. government and once each project was completed it would be turned over to the public company and we would continue the operation and maintenance. Said proposal was also presented to the Puerto Rican government. In other words, the IBEW had full knowledge of the struggle, the strategy, and the desired collective objectives.
There was no response to our request for solidarity. Later we were informed that between the months of April and May, retraining and evaluations were provided at the Quanta facility in Texas as part of Luma’s recruitment process for public company workers. There was an employer-authorized presence at the site (Luma Energy) of Local 222 officers promoting that they would accept the job at Luma and that they already assumed that IBEW Local 222 would be representing them.
In addition, we sent a letter to Mr. Lonnie Stephenson, President of the IBEW, dated May 3, 2021, in which he explained the labor situation, the privatization and asked him to respect our struggle as well as stand with us in trade union solidarity. In the same conditions we sent a letter on May 17, 2021 to the deceased former president Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, without mentioning the many steps that were taken through other organizations that we know tried to intervene. Yet there was no response.
When June 1, 2021 arrived and the privatizing company began operations, worker groups arrived from the U.S., especially from Florida, affiliated with Local 222, to begin to carry out the work that we were doing as part of the strike strategy to prevent the employer from being able to operate. They were guarded by heavily armed private police that Luma Energy hired because of the labor situation and the conflict that existed. I am attaching photos below. Do we really need to ask ourselves why armed security was provided to the brigades if there were no strikes or any labor conflict?
But as if that weren’t enough, the IBEW and its Local 222 joined the employer in agreeing to union representation. On June 14, 2021, Luma Energy (the employer) voluntarily recognized and publicly celebrated that a local union, UITICE, that had affiliated on June 5, 2021 to IBEW Local 222, would be the union of Luma Energy workers. It goes without saying that it is unprecedented in Puerto Rico for an employer to celebrate the ‘great achievement’ of voluntarily and quickly recognizing the union representation of the workers. It is worth noting this representation because everything is under Local 222. (LUMA Energy recognizes UITICE as the union with which it will negotiate the collective bargaining agreement – El Nuevo Día (elnuevodia.com)
Put simply, Luma Energy does not want to recognize UTIER. Furthermore, it attempts to cancel the workers’ collective bargaining agreement, effective June 1, 2021. To summarize the timeline: on June 5, 2021 the UITICE local union became affiliated with IBEW Local 222. A few days later, on June 14, 2021, Luma Energy announced the recognition of the union without objection and without requesting any of the election mechanisms that employers use under US laws (the most anti-union laws). Instead, the employer does it voluntarily. Very interesting! IBEW Local 222 then signs another agreement with Luma that all workers working on the rebuilding of my country’s electrical system will be members of the IBEW.
In addition, we are struck by the media campaign by the IBEW highlighting their image and projecting that they are the only ones who can do the job, discrediting the workers of the UTIER. For just one example, see the IBEW feature video “IBEW Helps Enhance Puerto Rico’s Power Grid”.
These are the facts. You don’t have to cross a picket line to defeat a union and its struggle.
The workers of UTIER, together with allies and social movements, continue fighting to defeat the privatization. Everything about Luma’s behavior runs counter to the interests of the Puerto Rican people, not least the fact that the corporation’s president received an arrest warrant for contempt of court in Puerto Rico (see International media report arrest warrant against CEO of LUMA : Metro).
In summary, it is correct to say that there is no strike or picket line in Luma but the greater truth is that IBEW Local 222 had full knowledge of the strategy of struggle, which was a different sort of strike: a strike by other means, as we have explained.
For UTIER it is very regrettable that the unions have these situations but we cannot afford for the truth to be silenced.
Angel Figueroa Jaramillo
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MODEL RESOLUTION In Support of the UTIER Electrical Workers and the People of Puerto Rico Against the Privatization of the PREPA Electrical Grid of Puerto Rico
WHEREAS, Hurricane Maria of 2017 devastated the island nation of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and left over half the island without access to electricity and even water systems which run on the use of the electrical infrastructure, and
WHEREAS, the LUMA energy corporation is a U.S.-based private enterprise engaging with a public power company called PREPA, and
WHEREAS, the PREPA public utility system of Puerto Rico has been a public utility providing service to the island of Puerto Rico for 80 years, and
WHEREAS, on June 22, 2020 the PREPA company entered into a contract with the LUMA corporation to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure, and
WHEREAS, $20 billion in emergency release funds from the federal government distributed by FEMA will be used at the benefit of the private company LUMA and,
WHEREAS, the private contract agreement between PREPA and the LUMA company will destroy the collective bargaining agreement of UTIER’s 3,000 electrical workers and will threaten their pensions and
WHEREAS, the contract makes no requirements for LUMA to adhere or seek to meet the federal goals set for climate change prevention markers, and
WHEREAS, the LUMA company has no obligation to remain in Puerto Rico in the case of a natural disaster and is free to pull its management in the case of such a future event, and,
WHEREAS, the LUMA contract is essentially turning the infrastructure of a public utility into a private monopoly, and
WHEREAS, over 100 Puerto Rican organizations signed onto a letter to President Biden calling for the modernization of Puerto Rico’s power grid in its reconstruction by implementing solar panel infrastructure to allow power users to also be generators of power, and
WHEREAS, UTIER trade union members have been on strike along with mass support from the local trade union movement and the broad population of Puerto Rico against the crushing of their union including mass marches and even a general strike, and
WHEREAS, the Local of Florida IBEW 222 undermined the success of this movement against privatization by agreeing with the LUMA company to work in the place of the UTIER’s rightful jurisdiction of electrical work, signed a no-strike pledge, and exchanged their own right to collective bargaining in exchange for the right to work on LUMA electrical transmission and distribution installation, and
WHEREAS, the UTIER union claims a grid privatization would increase electrical prices for electrical consumers and the entire nation, as well as eliminate thousands of jobs, and
WHEREAS, the New York Chapter of LCLAA (Labor Council for Latin American Advancement) issued a letter in support of the UTIER and their demands, and
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that [name of union or organization] joins the UTIER in support of their demands calling for LUMA corporation and the PREPA company to rescind their private contract and to re-engage with the UTIER in their represented workers’ sole right to the reconstruction of the power grid and to return all UTIER workers to their jobs in said reconstruction with full back pay and benefits, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that [name of union or organization] joins the call for an investigation into the use of FEMA federal funds by the LUMA corporation and its narrow focus on grid modernization of Puerto Rico rather than broad reconstruction, and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that [name of union or organization] stands with the people of Puerto Rico in their support for UTIER and for the retention of the power grid in public and Puerto Rican hands.