The price of pork is up 39 cents per pound and 6,500 are unemployed on this island this week as a result of the month-old International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) strike.A top government official said that the island could suffer "severe economic and social setbacks" if a contract settlement is not reached soon.
Puerto Rico, which depends on imports for 90 per cent of its consumer goods, including 75 per cent of its food, is feeling the effects of the strike more than anywhere else because 80 to 85 per cent of the sea cargo received here arrives by containerized ships, which are the ones the ILA strike has focused on.
The union has directed its strike in the area because the use of steel boxes, packed with a wide variety of goods, has revolutionized shipping operations. It has drastically increased the speed of dock operations while using far fewer longshoremen as huge cranes load and unload the 20 to 40 foot long boxes. Puerto Rico was a pioneer in container technology, which was initiated here in 1956.
Early this week, because of the need to bring meat, produce and many staples in by air, the price of center cut pork chops rose from $1.50 to $1.89 a pound and iceberg lettuce from 89 cents a head to $1.19. Beef price rises average 15 cents a pound, and staples such as butter, potatoes and beans rose in price from 1 to 5 cents a pound.
The Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority (PRMSA) has announced plans to charter two bulk freighters in an attempt to outflank the strike and keep island stores and factories supplied.
Manuel Dubon, administrator of Perto Rico's Economic Development Administration (Fomento), said Wednesday that the island's industrial sector has started to feel "a severe impact from the strike" due to a shortage of industrial raw materials. "At the beginning of the strike," he said, "we had supplies for 30 days. Now, beginning this week, industry will begin to suffer."
As a result of the ILA strike, Dubon said, 2,300 industrial workers have already been laid off and, through the effect on indirect employment a total of 6,500 jobs have been lost.
Based on computer projections, the Fomento offical estimated that 60,000 jobs will be lost by the time the strike enters its sixth or seventh week. "This would represent 50 per cent of the manufacturing labor in Puerto Rico and 12 per cent of our total labor force," he said. "In monetary terms, $2.8 million a day would be lost in salaries."
Puerto Rico, still in the midst of a recession, already has, by official estimates widely considered to be extremely conservative, a 20 per cent unemployment rate.
Dubon said his agency was preparing an emergency plan, which would involve establishing "an air bridge" between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland and, almost certainly, requesting federal assistance "in view of the direct impact of the island's employment and welfare."
Pueblo Supermarkets and Grand Union, the island's two leading food chains, have chartered planes to fly in meat, fruit and vegetables from the mainland and the Dominican Republic. "If we can keep up the airlift and people continue to buy normally," said a Pueblo spokesman, "there should be no serious shortages."