Costa Rican dock workers, striking to protest the privatization of the country’s publicly owned port terminals, received a boost on October 27 when other unions including those representing public employees, electrical workers, nurses, teachers, and refinery workers announced that they would support the dock workers demand that the government renegotiate the privatization contract.
Earlier on the same day, students and workers from other unions joined the dock workers in an anti-privatization demonstration. Police were called in to break up the demonstration.
The dock workers, whose union Sintrajap called the strike, walked off the job on October 23. The work stoppage halted the unloading of three ships docked at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica’s Atlantic Coast port, which handles about 80 percent of the country’s port traffic.
The government reacted quickly to the work stoppage by sending in the police, who arrested 68 of the strikers.
The workers went on strike after the government of President Luis Guillermo Solis gave its approval to the privatization deal with APM Terminals, owned by the Dutch shipping conglomerate Maresk.
Under the terms of the contract, APM will invest nearly $1 billion to build the Moin Container Terminal in Puerto Limon and begin operating it in 2016.
When construction of the new terminal is complete, it will be able to handle the large “Panamax” containers, and the company will control 60 percent of the port’s terminal operations.
Costa Rica’s port terminals are currently operated by a public authority, Japdeva.
Union leaders said that the new privately operated terminals will create “an illegal monopoly” that will threaten the livelihood of the union’s members, degrade the environment, and impede the free passage of goods throughout the country.
“We believe that private monopolies are banned in this country and the right to protest them is protected by the Constitution,” said Ronaldo Blear, general secretary of Sintrajap. “We also believe that the Costa Rican people are tired of privatizations and concessions (to foreign corporations).”
Blear said that the strike would continue until the government agrees to renegotiate the contract with APM.
The union has been the most vocal opponent of the government’s plan to privatize port operations, and as a result, the government has been trying to undermine the union.
In 2010 when the government was seeking port privatization proposals, the government tried to replace Sintrajap’s democratically elected union leaders with leaders who would support the privatization plan.
The government’s efforts were thwarted by the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court when it ruled that the government takeover of the union was illegal.
Despite the union’s opposition, the government in 2011 awarded the port terminal privatization contract to APM.
For three years, the union and other opponents of the privatization deal were able to delay implementation of the contract, but earlier in October, the Constitutional Branch gave its approval to the deal.
There was some hope that Costa Rica’s newly elect president Luis Guillermo Solis might oppose the privatization deal and would agree to renegotiate the contract with APM.
Solis, the leader of the Citizen’s Action Party, won the election for President earlier this year.
He ran on an anti-corruption platform and said that he would put the brakes on so-called free trade deals like the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Solis had been a leading member of the National Liberation Party, the party of Costa Rica’s oligarchy, which had dominated the Costa Rican political scene for decades.
He broke with the NLP because of what he characterized as corrupt business deals between foreign corporations and the NLP-led government.
One such deal involved Alcatel-Lucent, the French telecommunication corporation. Alcatel was eventually forced to pay a fine of $92 million because it bribed government officials in return for contracts worth $300 million.
But when Sintrajap leaders met with representatives from the Solis government two weeks ago, the union leaders were told that the deal with APM had President Solis’ approval.
After the meeting, Sintrajap called the strike.
After the 68 strikers were arrested on October 23, the union and the government reopened talks to resolve the strike, but so far the government has refused to renegotiate the APM agreement and the union has refused to lift the strike.