Government Workers in Puerto Rico: A Case Study

September 25, 2007

The largest employer in Puerto Rico today is the Government. Public service workers presently total 285,000 or roughly 26% of the workforkforce. Gover- nment employment grew dramatically in the late 1940s and early 1950s, going from 2.5% of the labor force in 1940 to 19% in the mid-1960s. By 1974 it had reached a staggering 28.6%, which ranks well ahead of almost every state of the United States Most public service workers employed by public authorities and state corporations have had the right to organize labor unions, bargain collectively and strike since the passage of the Puerto Rico Labor Relations Act of 1945. Yet the majority of workers directly employed by the government have not been able to unionize. And so an entry level job in the cen- tral government today-in the health or public works department for example-pays $442.00 per month, while a similar classification in the unionized Electrical Power Authority pays $1,225.00. Throughout North and South America, most public employees have been systematically and deliberately excluded from the laws that enable workers in the pri- vate sector to organize labor unions, negotiate collec- tive agreements and even strike when a settlement between the parties cannot be reached. For instance, in the United States, public employees were excluded from coverage under the Wagner Act which granted basic organizing rights to workers in the i930s. Those public sector workers and their unions have had to fight for the right to organize and bargain collective- ly on a state-by-state basis. Today, there are 25 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, with collective bargaining laws covering all public employees, and eleven others with laws that cover only some public workers such as teachers, police and firefighters. These tend to be states where the unionization rate is high and the labor movement is strong. Where unions are weak-in the South and Southwest-public work- ers do not have these rights In Puerto Rico, the politics of manipulation and subordination of both central and municipal govern- ment workers by the political parties is perhaps the critical factor in understanding why public workers have not achieved the democratic right to organize unions and bargain collectively. In spite of the exis- tence of a civil service system and the so-called merit principle in public employment, the reality is that the central and municipal governments have become, in effect, huge patronage mills of the parties. Boththhe pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the pro-statehood New Progressive Jos La Luz and Ottoniel Figueroa are staff members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This article was writCten with the collaboration of Egna Quinonez. Party (PNP) are organized within most of the central government agencies and even many municipal gov- ernments. Their organic structures consist of a net- work of party cadres-usually confidential staff to the senior administrators in the public agencies- who are commanded in many instances by the top administrator of the particular agency. These "field lieutenants" in turn have a network of delegates in each work location to keep an inventory of the party faithful and report all "hostile" activities by the mili- tants of the opposition party to their superiors. Favors are dispensed to those public workers who toe the line by contributing financially to the party's electoral war chest or who help to identify voters in their neighborhoods. The personnel rules and regu- lations are bent every which way in order to accom- modate the needs of this critical constituency for the party. Merit-based step increases and permanent sta- tus are granted by senior agency administrators to those who "deserve it," meaning those who have ful- filled their obligations to the party. In the meantime, wage, salary and bonus increases are granted by executive orders of the incumbent governor, representing a significant percentage of his campaign pledges. On certain occasions--usually close to the elections-job and pay classification stud- ies are developed and implemented unilaterally by the agency management in order to do "wage jus- tice" to the workers. Most often the principle of equal pay for equal work, length of service and job experience are totally disregarded. But as long as some workers are rewarded by party "commissars," and others are punished for being in the wrong party, the outcome is often the same: division and inertia. This situation began to change in the early 1970s when teachers, public service workers in the public utilities, classified university employees and firefight- ers conducted strikes for higher wages and benefits. Again, there was no unified and coherent strategy to obtain bargaining rights for all government employ- ees. In spite of that, the proportion of public employ- ees engaged in strikes in 1973 hit 11.2 percent, up from only 2.4 percent in 1968. These strikes, of course, were part of the generalized political and labor militancy which swept Latin America in the early 1970s. They were also related to the rise of Puerto Rican activism in the United States. In 1973 there were so many strikes that the PPD governor, Rafael Hernandez Col6n, called out the National Guard. He was also forced to appoint a high- level commission examining the feasibility of collec- tive bargaining rights for public sector workers. The commission, headed by a former dean of the University of Puerto Rico's Law School, David Helfeld, released an exhaustive report in 1975, finding an absence of adequate mechanisms to promote effec- tive participation of public employees in decisions regarding their pay and working conditions. The com- mission found that collective bargaining had been highly beneficial to the morale and productivity of public service workers employed by the public corpo- rations, and recommended that the principle of col- lective bargaining be adopted in the public service. The commission's report provided the basis for the subsequent public policy debate regarding collective bargaining for public employees. Several dozen bills have since been filed by legislators from the two major parties as well as the smaller Independence Party to grant employees in the central and munici- pal governments the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. None, however, have been passed into law. As they confront this situation, the cue for govern- ment workers is being taken from the recent cam- paigns of the non-governmental public-sector work- ers. In the late 1980s, a broad coalition of unions led by the telephone workers stopped the privatization of the publicly owned Puerto Rico Telephone Company. Similar attempts to implement wholesale or partial privatization of the Electrical Power Authority, the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority and, more recently, the regional public hospitals and other public-health programs have encountered fierce resistance by public-service unions in these public corporations. Unions in the public utilities and the public corporations have shown the way to wage a relatively successful fight against privatization and corporate-driven restructuring. This is crucial because the threat of privatization also looms over the heads of central and municipal government workers. This has triggered a renewed militancy as well as a major push to obtain bargain- ing rights that would serve to protect their jobs. A major organizing, political and legislative drive is now underway by several AFL-CIO affiliates to enhance the prospects for the passage of a collective bargaining law. There is a growing awareness among central gov- ernment workers in several agencies such as Family and Protective Services, the Department of Health and the Department of Labor that collective bargain- ing is the only answer to the favoritism and discrimi- nation driven by the political patronage within the workplace. This awareness is spreading to the three political parties which, for the first time in history, have included in their respective party platforms the right for government employees to organize and bargain collectively. In the end, of course, only a strong, revitalized labor movement can win these rights for government workers.

Tags: Latinos, Puerto Rico, government workers, labor, unions

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