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Promesa Watch: Puerto Rico Unions Engage U.S. House Democrats

By on January 17, 2019

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Jan. 17-23, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

In a momentous occasion in Puerto Rico’s modern history, a large group of the island’s labor union representatives met with some 30 visiting Democratic representatives of Congress, who heard their calls to help solve several of the local fiscal and labor issues.

The group, led by José Rodríguez Báez, president of the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said he was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting—which was presided by the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Antonio Cardenas, and included Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando, Fla., and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menéndez—because the stateside lawmakers were receptive to the workers’ claims.

“It was a very positive meeting, where we delivered a declaration from the Labor Union Movement for Puerto Rico that covers the whole situation working families face as a result of the Promesa law [the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act] and the fiscal control board. The members of Congress understood our claims; they seemed willing to take action and even raised the possibility of amending Promesa. We told them they have the possibility of making changes to the board,” Rodríguez Báez said, adding they were able to get their points across despite the time granted to the group, which only lasted a little more than a half hour.

“We expressed to the members of Congress that Promesa and the board have been disastrous for the Puerto Rican working family, which has unfairly borne the full weight of the fiscal measures, and that it is necessary for Congress to produce economic development alternatives, so Puerto Rico can overcome the serious crisis we face,” the union leader added.

Among the union’s requests to the visiting lawmakers was that Congress hold hearings in Puerto Rico to listen to residents, who Rodríguez Báez said are most affected by the resulting “imbalance in democracy” created by the fiscal oversight board, a panel he stressed was not chosen by the electorate and is not accountable to any local government entity.

The workers’ group also denounced a lack of action related to the improvement of the local economy, “while the social protection systems for working families are dismantled.”

The labor representatives also condemned the Sales Tax Financing Corp. (Cofina by its Spanish acronym) agreement with creditors, which is currently under consideration in federal court, and would facilitate payment to bondholders of a debt they said has not been audited and would condemn the people of Puerto Rico to pay the highest taxes of any U.S. jurisdiction over 40 years.

“Another point that was brought to light is the serious concern of our membership in the public sector over the board’s order to reduce retiree pensions by 10 percent, which would lead them to extreme poverty,” the spokesman said.

The worker representatives pointed out their repudiation of the privatization of public services such as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the establishment of charter schools.

They also assured, contrary to his public discourse, that the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has followed the fiscal board’s blueprint for the island with laws and executive orders that impact working conditions such as freezing collective-bargaining agreements and economic benefits until 2021, labor reform, the Single Employer Act, the elimination of labor-agreement benefits, as well as the declaration of a fiscal emergency and infrastructure, which opens the door to illegal construction, potentially threatening the environment.

“Faced with this reality, we reject both the attempts of the fiscal control board and the Rosselló administration to put the full burden of the crisis on the Puerto Rican working class, and we demand that before payments are made to the vulture funds and new austerity measures are implemented, that a comprehensive, independent and citizen audit of the debt is conducted,” the union leader said.

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