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Organizing Gets a Salsa Beat

Four years after winning collective bargaining rights, thousands of public employees who have teamed with AFSCME are putting muscle into Puerto Rico's labor movement.

By John Melegrito

San Juan
On a hot and lazy June afternoon, there's hardly any traffic outside the Departamento de Educación central office on Cesar González Avenue. But in the building's spacious lobby, lilting chatter fills the air as wave after wave of department workers line up before a row of tables to sign what may well be the most important piece of paper they'll ever see: a first contract.

Among the early signers is Maria Rodriguez, who recalls the day — 23 years ago — when she first reported for work as an office clerk. She was glad to get a job then. Yet despite glowing performance evaluations over the years, she's still making only about $17,000 a year. Even with her husband's wages, the family's earnings are barely enough to pay the bills.

But Rodriguez is "glad we have a union — because I will [someday] be able to save for my son's education." She adds, as she wipes tears of joy from her eyes, "My dream is to see him finish college."

Two days after the signing, an elated Jorge de Jesús — president of Local 3840 of Servidores Públicos Unidos (SPU)/AFSCME — announced to a cheering throng of workers that the contract had been ratified by an overwhelming 95 percent "yes" vote.

That same week, clerical and professional employees in the Departamento de Transportación y Obras Públicas (Transportation & Public Works) formally signed their first contract. Weeks earlier, union members in another department — Recursos Naturales y Ambi-entales (Environment & Natural Resources) — also approved theirs. Having won exclusive bargaining rights in four years for 25,000 public workers — including 8,000 in the Departamento de la Familia — SPU expects to form 15 locals by the end of this year, all with first contracts.

"I'm for the union because I am tired of political patronage," says Linda Soto, a secretary for 25 years. Although she has a bachelor's degree, she has been bypassed for promotions. "Politicians dole out favors only to party loyalists," she declares. "But with the union, our jobs will be protected from now on — regardless of who's in power."

Sonia Rivera, an office clerk for 14 years, hopes that the contract will mean an end to part-time jobs, so she can spend more time with her family. "Most government workers must have another job in order to survive," she says.

Serious problems

Puerto Rico's status as a commonwealth — and the tax breaks that go with it — have brought relative prosperity to a place once called the "Poorhouse of the Caribbean." But it has serious ongoing problems. Six of every 10 people are on food stamps. Unemployment runs at about 10 percent — almost double the U.S. rate. The island's per capita income of $9,973 a year is less than half that of Mississippi. Many outlying areas have neither sewage systems nor running water.

Because of competition for jobs and investments — prompted by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — low-skill labor-intensive manufacturing industries have moved out to countries like Mexico. Tourism — a traditional source of income — is still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks. Exacerbating the island's problems are crime and drug addiction, which are among the highest in the world.

According to labor scholars, Puerto Rico's basic problems are economic stagnation — due in large measure to underdevelopment and dependence on U.S. subsidies. The island is densely populated with 3.9 million people. More than one-third of its population has emigrated in the last 40 years, mainly seeking work. Today there are 2.5 million Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland.

The large-scale unionizing efforts, by AFSCME and other unions, is helping to raise the standard of living for thousands of families on the island, reports SPU Exec. Director José La Luz.

Safety hazards

Government services have deteriorated as well, causing widespread dissatisfaction. Gladys Roman has been a Commissión de Servicio Público inspector for 15 years. Her job is to make sure the thousands of vehicles that ply Puerto Rico's highways every day — from trucks to taxicabs — are safe to drive. She also has authority to stop vehicles on the road if she determines that they pose safety hazards.

Currently the president of SPU's Local 3897, Roman worries that public safety is being jeopardized because there are not enough inspectors and proper equipment to carry out this critical task. "Saving lives is part of what I do," she says, "but it's increasingly impossible to do it."

Roman faces all kinds of job hazards herself. "We use our nose to detect leaks, giving us migraine headaches," she complains. "We're on call 24 hours a day. We're told not to get sick because there are only a few of us on duty." Because she spends lots of time in the field, Roman is exposed not only to toxic elements but also to hostile lawbreakers. "Several drivers have threatened my life because I refuse to give them a break," she says. "We don't get respect for the dangerous work we do."

But now that the local is negotiating its first contract, Roman is confident that her situation — and that of the 91 other inspectors — will improve considerably. "If we are expected to police our roads and highways," she asserts, "we should first be properly equipped." She hopes more inspectors will be hired for this high-risk job.

Case overload

Doris Salgado is also looking forward to similar changes now that her union at the Departamento de la Familia is negotiating its first contract. A social worker based in Carolina, Salgado regularly must handle more than the 25 cases she is supposed to resolve each month. At least two or three times a month, she is called to remove a child from a violent home — sometimes without police assistance. "We're often not welcomed in the community," she says. "And we don't get the necessary support from our own agency."

Lack of respect plus inadequate resources have severely hampered the effectiveness of the social workers. "Our work is much harder because government institutions have failed to address the problem of poverty — the cause of so much drug abuse, domestic violence and family dysfunction," explains Salgado's colleague, Brenda Caballero. "I can understand why parents are not generally cooperative. I'd like to spend more time out in the field, but sometimes it takes us seven months to intervene. Still, I stay in this job because I don't like to see children remain in dangerous situations."

Among public employees islandwide, administrative workers in this department are the lowest paid — with a starting salary of only $650 a month. Yet they administer sensitive, federally funded programs such as welfare and food assistance.

Luis Fuentes, president of Local 2732 — representing the department's office workers — is gearing up for a first contract that would provide better wages, benefits and a more productive working environment. An office clerk for 25 years, Fuentes and his co-workers still process forms with what he calls "old, junky" computers. But he adds, "the union is making a difference in the workers' ability to address their problems."

Guillermo Colón, a corrections officer (CO) at the Complejo Correccional Bayamón, is also delighted that he and his colleagues — with their first contract in hand — will now be able to improve their working conditions. He deplores the inhumane treatment to which COs are subjected, particularly when on duty in the observation towers. "For 16 hours straight, we endure oppressive heat and fierce mosquitoes. We rarely get breaks to go to the bathroom or eat our meals. I feel like we're the ones being punished, not the prisoners."

Colón adds that the COs are also exposed to constant physical danger because understaffing leaves too few officers to control violent inmates. "Besides not being equipped with batons and bullet-proof vests, we have to come in for extra shifts. This puts a lot of strain on our families."

"Jails are not the only ticking bombs that are likely to explode any moment," says Alberto Méndez, another CO who is now divorced. "Our families are casualties as well." In his nine years at the facility, he has known of several other COs whose families have broken up because of job stress.

*  *  *

The labor movement in Puerto Rico is experiencing a much-needed resurgence. In the 1960s and '70s, 28 percent of the workforce was unionized. That percentage dwindled over the next two decades, as manufacturing firms left the island, diluting worker power. But since the passage of the collective bargaining law four years ago, labor has roared back with 150,000 new workers, for the most part, joining the ranks of AFL-CIO unions. Unioniza-tion has gone up from 5 percent in 1998 to over 14 percent in 2002. The figures are even more dramatic among the territory's 250,000 government workers where union membership has tripled.

As a result of this massive organizing campaign, union density is expected to rise to over 35 percent, says SPU's José La Luz. "That will give organized labor considerable clout in Puerto Rico."

The 62-member Puerto Rico delegation at AFSCME's Convention represented that growing clout. In his remarks before 7,000 delegates and guests, Jorge de Jesús recalled how, at the previous Convention, the new union was represented by just a handful of members in the departments of Family, Natural Resources and Forensic Science. These three locals now represent a total of 10,000 members.

"Since then, we've been organizing like there's no tomorrow," he declared, as the delegates roared their approval. Indeed, SPU has had other organizing victories in the Commissión de Servicio Público, Cuerpo de Bomberos (Firefighters), Administración de Rehabilitación Vocacional and in the adult sections of the Departamento de Corrección — where SPU represents 6,500 workers. Eleven new locals have been formed, four of which have settled their first contracts.

"And we've only just begun," de Jesús continued. "We are now in the process of forming the Council of Servidores Públicos Unidos de Puerto Rico/AFSCME. We're on the move. We're building a real union."

Different approach

Getting there has not been easy. In previous organizing campaigns, according to La Luz, AFL-CIO unions "frequently did not understand conditions, neglected the needs of workers, disrespected local leaders and ignored demands for local autonomy. We have a substantially different approach today — workers are leading the campaigns. They participate in discussions of strategy and tactics, and many of them are emerging as leaders of massive, grass-roots lobbying campaigns."

Apart from providing much-needed resources, AFSCME has also broadened its solidarity with workers in Puerto Rico by supporting their demand that the U.S. Navy stop the practice bombing of Vieques Island and give the land back to the people. Pres. Gerald W. McEntee got the AFL-CIO to support that position at its last convention — a critical element in building a political movement for justice and equality in Puerto Rico.

"Revitalizing the labor movement has been a huge challenge," La Luz says. "Transporting workers to centrally located voting sites in each of our 76 towns and cities, including many up in the mountains where there are hardly any roads — that's the easy part. The hard part is building a union.

"This notion of coming from the mainland and telling people here what to do is not widely accepted here. So the challenge was how to persuade working men and women that our mission was to facilitate their organizing effort, and that ultimately the leadership would be exerted by workers themselves."

Puerto Rican public workers have indeed taken the lead. Being part of a revitalized labor movement has bolstered their confidence.

And as they have proven in their successful organizing drives, Puerto Rican workers will climb mountains to get there. Because, as their national motto suggests, "¡Puerto Rico lo hace mejor!" (Puerto Rico does it better). 

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