Pay your phone bill. Buy some candles. Plan a different route for your Monday commute. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) is going on strike.
Unions representing the employees of the state monopoly – which controls the country’s electricity, telephones, cell phones and Internet access – are calling for the walk out to happen Monday.
They are protesting a group of laws in the Legislative Assembly that are intended to put Costa Rica in compliance with its obligations under the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), a treaty the country ratified by referendum Oct. 7.
Among those laws is one that would open Costa Rica’s cell phone, Internet and landline services to private competition. That’s unacceptable to the ICE unions.
Fabio Chaves, president of the Association of Costa Rican Electricity and Telecom Institute Employees (ASEDICE), said there will be only one way to end the strike: “Bury the complementary agenda,” he said, calling the strike an “ideological struggle.”
The plan for the moment is for ICE employees to congregate Monday morning at the ICE building in Sabana Norte, on the western side of San José. Chaves hopes to gather about 5,000 of ICE’s 14,000 employees, and then march east down Paseo Colón and Avenida Segunda to the Legislative Assembly building.
There, they will “see what happens in the assembly” and decide what to do next, Chaves said. It’s not yet certain whether the strike will be a drag-out ordeal or just a show of force.
Neither is it clear what the strike will mean for everyday services. Chaves has said repeatedly that the strike will not lead to interruptions in basic services for Costa Ricans.
Workers will keep the phone and electricity grids running, though services like bill payment and directory assistance will be suspended.
Likewise, the union workers will stop doing repairs.
“Our effort is not, in the beginning, to affect society,” he told The Tico Times. “Our intention is to hit the political and economic power.”
But later he was more coy, adding: “We have plan A, B, C, D, E, F.”
Part of the ICE unions complaint is the move by Congress last week to apply a new fast-track tool to the telecommunications law to limit debate, though Mayí Antillón, faction head for the pro-CAFTA National Liberation Party (PLN), said the ICE unions have not requested to meet with her. She also questioned whether such a meeting could be productive.
“When you’re negotiating between such different models – one with opening, one without – I think the points of agreement are limited,” she said.
Past ICE strikes – of which Chaves says he has participated in 10 – have at times turned into pitched political battles that brought the country to its knees.
The so-called “Combo” laws, for example, were supposed to open up the state telecom monopoly in 2000. The proposal was met, however, with 19 days of furious protests and street blockades, led by ICE and other public sector unions.
After eight months of drama, the assembly voted down the laws.
In 2003, the ICE unions went on strike again for 21 days to call for a sale of debt bonds to fund the institute.
Then as well all but basic services were shut down, and though it was less dramatic than the Combo protests ICE got mostly what it wanted, with the government approving a $60 million bond issue (TT, June 6, 2003).
Chaves said the Combo protests were “less sophisticated” than what the ICE unions have planned this time around.
“This is a better designed process, more strategic,” he said, though he declined to detail the strategy.
One difference this time around, as opposed to the Combo protests, is that the rest of the public sector employees are staying on the sidelines.
While the presidents of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP) and Social Security Workers Union (UNDECA) called a press conference last week to declare their support for the ICE union strike, they are not calling their own members to strike as well.
“Many people are going to walk out. We’re calling the people who can to walk out,” said Edgar Morals, the assistant director of ANEP. “But we’re not calling definitely for a strike.”