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Tough financial times are a fact of life for state governments these days, with many forced to make deep cuts in services and staff as they're faced with declining revenues during a severe recession.
It's no different in Puerto Rico, where Gov. Luis Fortuno reportedly claimed the commonwealth is "bankrupt." To deal with the crisis, he wants to cut 30,000 workers from the state payroll. Fortuno claims that privatizing these jobs will save the state $2 billion – even though experience in other jurisdictions has frequently shown that private contractors charge governments more for less service.
Roughly 17,000 of the workers who could lose their jobs under Fortuno's plan are UAW members, including those who work in school cafeterias and state departments such as treasury, lottery, transportation, public works, social services, environmental quality and agriculture.
They would be thrown out of work into a staggering island economy; Puerto Rico has a 14.7 percent unemployment rate.
"Our union has presented real alternatives to the governor of Puerto Rico to balance the budget without laying workers off," said Bob Madore, director of UAW Region 9A, which includes Puerto Rico. "The private sector in Puerto Rico is as fragile as ever. Therefore, the financial crisis on the island will be exacerbated by a massive layoff in the public sector."
"Gov. Fortuno should work with the labor movement and other institutions on the island that are willing to contribute toward the development of a vibrant economy in Puerto Rico, instead of laying workers off and privatizing government services." Madore added.
An estimated 100,000 protesters took to the streets in front of Puerto Rico's capitol June 5 to voice their opposition to the governor's layoff plans. The demonstration was backed by a coalition of local unions as well as Catholic clergy, who said they support those who are facing job losses.
UAW members say a viable alternative to balancing the budget without job loss is for Puerto Rico to simply collect outstanding tax revenues to the tune of $3.2 billion. That amount is owed the Puerto Rican treasury by island taxpayers and has never been collected.
In addition, $1.5 billion in taxes owed Puerto Rico are not deducted from workers' paychecks, and 48 percent of sales taxes paid by consumers never reach the treasury either.
UAW Local 2373 member Ana Bermudez is a 13-year-veteran office worker in Puerto Rico's Treasury Department. She's been a member of the local, which represents 2,200 workers, since 2003 when their first contract went into effect.
Bermudez, a 40-year-old single parent, said it's not fair for the governor to fire workers to balance the budget.
"You're dealing with different heads of household when you cut workers, with a significant number of single parents, especially women," she said. "How are those workers going to be able to support their families if they lose their jobs?"
Bermudez says massive layoffs must be avoided and the governor must take a more comprehensive approach.
"He has to think way beyond the welfare of the people of Puerto Rico by addressing problems as a team as his best option, by collaborating with labor and others to address the situation without laying off workers," she said.