June 16, 2003 – There may be at least as much action taking place Tuesday morning on the grounds of the Legislature Building on St. Thomas as inside the Earle B. Ottley Chambers, where the full Senate is to convene at 10 a.m. to take up five administration bills relating to the territory's fiscal crisis.
An ad hoc group calling itself the Committee for Dedicated Public Servants called on "all exempt employees of the government" on Monday afternoon to gather outside the building at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to demonstrate against the governor's proposed temporary cuts in their pay.
And labor leader Luis "Tito" Morales has asked that all unionized government workers appear on the grounds at 10 a.m. to protest any attempt by the Senate to tamper with the territory's collective bargaining laws.
Information about the planned action by exempt employees was faxed to the news media in two releases, neither naming anyone involved in the effort. The first called on those government workers "to demonstrate your disagreement with proposed salary rollbacks and reductions" and to "come out and take a stand against the additional cuts that are being threatened."
On June 3, all 15 members of the Legislature signed a letter giving Gov. Charles W. Turnbull an ultimatum: They would not take up his bill proposing to float another $235 million in bonds as part of his plan to address the territory's fiscal crisis unless and until he rolled back the sizable salary increases he granted to unclassified government employees by executive order last year.
On Thursday, the governor offered to trim the pay of affected employees making more than $40,000 now by 2 percent to 10 percent, on a sliding scale, for the last half of this calendar year. The raises as proposed last year averaged 24.19 percent for upper-level personnel and 20.18 percent for mid-level workers. (See Governor offers small pay cuts for six months".)
The second release from the Dedicated Public Servants group said the planned demonstration is "to correct misinformation about exempt government employees and prevent unfair penalizing of dedicated public servants."
It stated that exempt employees are "on-call 24/7 workers" and that they "are essential; not all are political." The salary increases, it said, "were not based on political affiliation."
It also made an indirect reference to a proposal endorsed by voters in a referendum but voted down by the 24th Legislature: to reduce the Senate's makeup to nine members from the current 15. "Senators have average budget of $1 million," the release read. "Reduce Senate size by six, save $6 million vs. reduce salary of 400 exempt employees, save only $900,000."
Meantime, Morales, president of the Central Labor Council and the local United Steelworkers Union, said he called the union protest after learning of a proposal developed during last week's closed-door meetings of the governor and his financial team with members of the Legislature.
Morales said the proposal is to remove the collective bargaining provision of Act No. 4440, which governs V.I. labor relations.
Without collective bargaining, he said, local unions would be rendered ineffective. "What do you have to represent?" he said. "What do they need a union for? On the faith of this government determining when they will give them an increase? And how they are going to give them an increase? And what kind of increase they will give them? Can you imagine?"
In a statement issued in recent days, he said: "I'm asking the government employees to come out on Tuesday to the Legislature. If you've got to take the time off from your job, take the time off. It is time you stand up on your behalf, because they want to take away your rights."
Senate President David Jones said Monday afternoon in an interview on WVWI Radio that the Senate would look at possible amendments to the territory's labor laws.
The last attempt to tamper with Act No. 4440 came four years ago, and it was unsuccessful. When the U.S. Interior Department pressed Turnbull to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for financial reorganization in 1999, the proposal included a call for making V.I. labor laws conform to federal labor provisions.
The wording proposed by Interior read: "Recognizing that salaries and benefits are a portion of overall local government expenditures, the governor and union representatives are encouraged to pursue through collective bargaining reform initiatives to assist in the fiscal solvency of the government of the Virgin Islands."
Morales, with the help of some colleagues in the national labor movement, successfully lobbied the White House to remove that provision from the MOU.
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