A Final Battle For Calderón?

by John Marino

August 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. If there is anything that could turn the perception of the Calderón administration from that of a caretaker, transitory leadership to one that will leave a mark on Puerto Rico's government, it is its ability to confront the labor movement during this looming crisis.

Angered by a series of government actions, and bolstered by election year politics, a group of unions is mulling a national strike in an aim to force the administration to address its grievances.

While the Calderón administration has not given in to labor leaders' demands, it has also not shown the strong leadership on the issue that is required if the bloated commonwealth government is ever to become more efficient for the greater good of the Puerto Rican public at large.

The labor crisis is one issue where Gov. Calderón's status as a lame duck government is a distinctive advantage, rather than, as usually is the case, a liability. That's because no politician seeking a leadership post in November would dare confront the sector in a meaningful way during an election year. Worse, many are throwing fuel on the fire in an attempt to gain electoral advantage over their opponents.

Politicians from the New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence parties are attacking the administration as anti-worker, while Popular Democratic Party politicians sponsor irresponsible legislation the governor is forced to veto.

Much of the current blustering comes from the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority union. It is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the commonwealth administration, which recently took back managing the utility after a decade of private management. The ASA union is particularly peeved that its new government bosses canceled a union-run health plan after an audit found alleged spending irregularities, and are replacing it with one offered by a private insurer.

But other unions, with their own grievances, are joining in a unified stance against the administration and threatening a general strike. Government electric workers are complaining the utility is outsourcing too many jobs to private contractors, Ports workers complain about disciplinary measures being taken against members and healthcare unions are enraged over a Calderón veto of a measure that would have established a minimum salary for island nurses.

The unions do have legitimate grievances. Nurses, for example, are grossly underpaid, and the situation will have to be fixed or the island will continue to lose its most talented, who are leaving in droves for better paying opportunities stateside.

But in most cases the union grievances appear to be part of the collective bargaining contract negotiations that are better left out of elective politics. And although the problem of nursing salaries is a real issue, the proposed law to create a higher minimum wage for them is not an appropriate solution.

Critics say it could put many private health care providers out of business and may result in a shrinking of nurse job opportunities here and an ensuing deterioration in health care service. Calderón has called for decorum on the part of administration and union negotiators. But she should have done a whole lot more Wednesday, a day in which ASA union leaders shouted about "blood on the streets" during a general strike, and Ports workers callously called a three-day walk out, creating emergencies sparked by food and gas shortages on the island towns of Vieques and Culebra through the suspension of passenger and cargo ferry service.

The administration arranged free airplane flights for residents and contracted two barges to bring food, gas and other essentials to the two island towns, but it was largely mute on the outrageous actions taken by the Ports workers, and the genuine harm they are causing offshore island residents and others. Not to mention the fact that launching a strike by public employees is supposed to be illegal, giving the administration an option to go to the courts that it has not yet taken.

The union actions this week may have clearly stepped across the line of public opinion to such a degree that it could be a boon to the public perception of the administration if it took a forceful response to the labor threats.

The ASA union and its political benefactors from both the Popular Democratic and New Progressive party members have slowly strangled the water utility over the decades. Not only does this mean the utility loses millions each year, its inept management of the system provides paltry at best water service to residents. Residents know this, as well as the lousy service provided by other government union workers at other public corporations and agencies.

The labor issue is a place where Calderón, whose rise in public life partially rested on her reputation as being an efficient business manager, could still make a mark in the scarce time she has left as governor of Puerto Rico.

Especially because she does not have to get reelected in November, an advantage that nearly no other political leader in Puerto Rico currently has. Her opponents will attack her but why should she care?

And placating the unions, as she has done with steady pay raises and other benefits given during her term, clearly has not worked. They continue to bash her on other issues, such as her veto of the nursing bill. The unions also continue to criticize her predecessor, Pedro Rosselló, despite the initiative he undertook to allow government agencies to unionize -- the biggest boost to the island union movement in decades.

With the water utility back in government hands, confronting the labor movement has become essential for the commonwealth government.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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