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Prasa And Union At Loggerheads Over Contract

Progress made after agency’s board takes drastic actions


May 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Many saw the Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Authority’s (Prasa) decision to divest the Independent Authentic Union of certain economic benefits as a harsh manner of pressuring the union to the negotiating table, but agency officials said the tactic seems to have worked.

The two sides emerged from a meeting at the Department of Labor & Human Resources last week to announce they had ended a deadlock over the negotiations agenda and would begin talking about such issues as worker transfers and relocation, means of lodging employee complaints, and naming of personnel.

"For two weeks, there hadn’t been any kind of discussion; the board takes these measures and two days later, the union agrees to an agenda," said Prasa spokeswoman Lynnette Teissonniere.

The talks were to begin this week as Jorge Rodriguez takes over from interim Executive President Juan Agosto Alicea. Teissonniere said Prasa hopes Rodriguez, vice president of computer company Smart Modular, will have a long tenure at Prasa and can put an end to the game of musical chairs at the agency’s management level.

"There have been seven directors and two private company operators in 12 years–too much change," she said. "All you achieve are constant changes in plans."

The renewal of talks came after a wave of mutual recriminations, with management accusing the union of using slowdown tactics to pressure the agency and the union saying Prasa was paying the price for cutting personnel at its water treatment and sewerage plants.

Wherever the blame should be assigned, the bottom line is that service has been suffering as a result of the union difficulties. "Not talking about the collective bargaining agreement is affecting service," said Teissonniere. "In the 35 working days since the government took over the authority, some union leaders have blocked work."

Teissonniere said the primary aim of this stage of talks is to convince the union to allow Prasa supervisors to move workers around so they can attack problems in the agency’s infrastructure as they arise. "Flexibility is one of the most important things we have to talk about," she said. One way Prasa hopes to achieve this is by reducing the 100 or so onsite union delegates who often veto worker movements.

To jump-start the talks, the board decided to hit the union leadership in its pocketbook, nullifying clauses that allowed union leaders to draw Prasa paychecks and work full-time for the union. The authority also cut its $1 million-a-year contribution to union operations. Restoration of the benefits will be discussed at a later stage of the negotiations, said Teissonniere.

Union President Hector Rene Lugo said the measures amounted to an invitation to strike. "They were provoking a strike and covering up all the problems they have because of their total abandonment [of Prasa facilities]," he said.

Lugo said union lawyers were examining the measures to see if they violated federal law. He rejected management’s position that union workers were lying down on the job to pressure management and complained about lack of equipment and materials, which he said has led to the bad maintenance.

The union leader also said the elimination of jobs has prevented Prasa from keeping up its facilities. "They have eliminated more than 1,000 jobs in the past eight years," said Lugo.

Teissonniere said the real problem has been getting union employees to work, especially after the union’s collective bargaining agreement expired last July. Prasa management blames a worker slowdown for the deterioration of the Carolina wastewater treatment, which prompted Prasa to declare a state of emergency there last week.

In Arecibo, a workers brigade refused to fix a water-main break, and then the union delegate blocked management from bringing in another brigade. Prasa ended up calling in an independent contractor, said Teissonniere. At the Yauco plant, a worker was recently found sleeping in a hammock, she said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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