"STRIKERS ARE SKIMMING FORTUNATA'S CREAM"
THE SAN JUAN STAR, VIEWPOINT, FRIDAY, JULY 10, 1998
What would you say if I offered you a job in which you got one day off at full pay each and every week, 52 weeks per year? You'd say to yourself, this guy is nuts, and then you'd take that job in a New York minute.
Most working people in Puerto Rico don't belong to unions. According to the P.R. Department of Labor, just 16 percent of the work force belongs to unions (7 percent) or employee associations (9 percent). The owners of businesses forced to close by the general strike this week, for example, don't have a union. Nor do most office workers, maids, waitresses, cleaning employees, doctors, dentists, secretaries, stockbrokers, factory workers, messengers, executives, accountants, tailors, gardeners, construction workers and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who work eight hours every day for eight hours pay. People who aren't "political."
That's the way it is for most of us working stiffs. Unless, of course, you are a member of a select handful of public sector unions in Puerto Rico, especially of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company. Some people would give their right arm for a job with PRTC. Join me for a moment in looking at their contracts, and you'll understand why.
If you are a member of the Independent Brotherhood of Telephone Workers, and you've had that job for 10 years, life for you is very good indeed. Ten-year employees under the HIETEL contract, which runs through October 22 of 1999, get 30 paid vacation days per year and 21 paid holidays, for a hefty 51 paid days off per year. So, assuming a five-day work week, those PRTC employees have to work only 209 days of an eligible 260 working days per year. (The contract covering PRTC employees belonging to the Independent Union of Telephone Workers is very similar.)
But that's just the beginning. PRTC employees also get up to 18 days per year of sick leave, and the company buys back unused sick leave at retirement. Employees also get additional paid leave for long-term illnesses, they get 26 weeks off at full pay for job-related accidents or illnesseson top of their State Insurance Fund disability checks, they get paid time off for funerals and jury duty, they get up to 30 days paid leave for military service, and female employees get eight weeks maternity leave at full pay. PRTC also provides a retirement plan for employees, which the Rosselló administration is proposing to shore up through the PRTC sale to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sweet deal. But it gets better. Union employees get company-paid life insurance, and they get an individual or family medical plans, including basic and major medical coverage, dental and pharmaceutical coverage, and even hospitalization and rehabilitation services for drug and alcohol abuse.
All of those things above are ancillary benefits, tasty goodies dished out in addition to everyone's basic salary. Whether employees do a good job or not, under the current HIETEL contract, they are guaranteed annual salary increases of 5.5 percent, 5.75 percent and 5.8 percent over the life of the contract. That's 17 percent over three years, excluding the effects of compounding. I wonder, fellow working stiffs, if your income will go up a guaranteed 17 percent over three years? Apart from the guaranteed raises, PRTC employees who work the night shift get a 10 percent bonus to their checks. And let's not forget the handsome Christmas bonuses, which under the contract are 8 percent of the employee's annual pay.
All right, you say, apart from all that, what are the actual salaries of those union employees? You're in for a disappointment, becauseshhhhhh!it's a secret! Under an agreement between the unions and PRTC management, the salary scales may not be disclosed, according to Alexander Rivera, a labor aide at La Fortaleza, who has been trying to get that information for months, to no avail. Rivera told the STAR that while he doesn't know what the salary scales are for PRTC workers, he does know that some janitorial employees are paid $2,800 per month, or $33,600 per year, thanks to the system of guaranteed annual raises. Compare that to what police officers, nurses and teachers earn. These contracts ere negotiated, by the way, under the supervision of successive PRTC presidents, who make $120,000 per year to give away the store.
Looking over these contracts, I got some additional perspective on the PRTC strike, which is now in its 23rd day. The next time the strikers tell us how they are saving Puerto Rico's "patrimony," think about the sweetheart deal they have under these contracts. The next time the strikers tell us this a "people's strike," think about how their contracts compare to what the rest of us make, and how hard we have to work to earn it. The next time you get your exorbitant phone bill, reflect on what you're paying for.
The unions know that when they sit down to negotiate with PRTC's new ownerbe it GTE Corp. or whomeverthey will not be facing the politically-sensitive, malleable managers they're used to. They will be facing businessmen who will insist on eight hours of work for eight hours of pay, businessmen who will insist on tying compensation to output and productivity, businessmen who will be unlikely to continue employing an incompetent or no-show employee because he is connected to this or that political party.
That's the future. In the present, the reality is that the unions lost this strike the day it was declared. They have made impossible demands that were 100 percent politically-motivated, demands that Governor Rosselló could not and will not concede. The majority in Puerto Rico understands that democracy does not include illegal strikes, blocking public buildings and streets, sabotage, arson, shootings and bombings as accepted methods of political discourse. Rosselló should offer the unions a face-saving way out. The unions have no place to go, except back to work.