SEIU, AFL-CIO battle Puerto Rico’s governor over looming layoffs

The labor movement is facing off with a Republican governor over impending budget cuts.
 
No, it’s not Califorina. It’s Puerto Rico.

The AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are battling against Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico’s GOP governor, over his plan to lay off 17,000 government workers on Nov. 6.
 

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Facing a $3.2 billion budget deficit, Fortuño says he’ll have to shut down the government if he does not lay off workers. The governor, who represented Puerto Rico in the House before his election to the top spot in the U.S. territory’s government in 2008, already laid off 4,000 workers in June.
 
Dennis Rivera, chair of SEIU Healthcare, and other SEIU officials have been in San Juan since Wednesday to lend a helping hand to the workers. Many of those facing layoffs are SEIU members.

“It is critical. 7,500 members of SEIU are going to lose their jobs. If SEIU cannot help their members in their time of need, what good would this organization be?” Rivera said on the phone from San Juan.

Workers rallied Thursday in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, in coordination with a worker strike backed by the unions. Rallies also were held in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia in solidarity with the workers from the U.S. island territory.

A spokeswoman for Fortuño said the cuts are necessary to keep the island afloat economically.
 
“Governor Fortuño has made the tough but responsible decision to economize in the face of a nearly four-year recession and an inherited $3.2 billion deficit that has necessitated stringent cuts to government expenses and, as a last resort, public sector layoffs, as 43 of 50 states have had to do,” said Sarah Echols, spokeswoman for the governor.

Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is already 15 percent, and the island’s credit rating stand in jeopardy of being downgraded to junk status. Fortuño has tried to steady the economy since the financial sector’s meltdown by freezing his and others’ salaries, stopping more government hires and investing in public infrastructure.
 
The island is very dependent on government operations to keep its people employed. Seventy percent of the government budget is dedicated to worker salaries.  

“Without these measures, the government would face cash shortfalls, possible shutdown where salaries and services would be halted and an economically-catastrophic downgrading of its credit rating to junk status, putting the entire island’s economic present and future in jeopardy,” Echols said.
 
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has also lent his support to the striking workers. In a letter dated Thursday, he said Fortuño needs to reverse his plan to lay off workers.
 
“At times like these – and especially at times like these — the people of Puerto Rico need a strong public sector, not a weaker one. We need the government to step in and push the economy forward, not further weaken it,” Trumka wrote in the letter. “Laying off public servants, particularly at the scale that the governor is planning, is not only anti-worker, it will set back national efforts towards an economic recovery.”
 
The battle between the unions and Fortuño parallel another state engulfed in a budget crisis. California was the center of an epic fight between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and SEIU over planned budget cuts earlier this year.
 
But Rivera said Schwarzenegger’s actions pale in comparison to Fortuño’s planned layoffs. Beyond Thursday’s rally, he promised SEIU would continue protests against the job cuts in and outside of Puerto Rico.
 
“This is about our mission. We are in for the long haul,” Rivera said.