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Date: Sun, 23 Mar 97 23:21:27 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)

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** Written 2:23 PM Mar 18, 1997 by nacla in **
Reprinted from the November/December 1996 Issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
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Puerto Rican workers: a profile

By Hector Figueroa, NACLA Report on the Americas, November/December, 1996

Puerto Ricans have been migrating to the mainland United States for over a century, and have been involved in labor organizing since they first stepped ashore. Some, for example, came to Florida and New York in the 1890s to work in cigar-making shops, and by the first years of the century had formed the International Cigar Workers "La Resistencia" caucus. During World War I there was labor activity in the small Puerto Rican community employed in munition factories and shipyards in New York City. Puerto Rican immigrant workers often had union backgrounds and sought trade unionism as a viable way to protect their civil rights. The history of the Puerto Rican labor movement in the United States can thus be traced to the first small wave of Puerto Rican immigration.

Trade union organizing among Puerto Rican workers in their homeland and the United States has been shaped by the partial way that the island has been incorporated into the U.S. economy. A Spanish colony for four centuries, the island of Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession following the Spanish- American War in 1898. Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, and after a series of political reforms, the island became a commonwealth in 1952--a U.S. colony with a self-elected government ultimately controlled by the U.S. Congress.

Following the U.S. invasion in 1898, an already existing labor movement in Puerto Rico won recognition of the colonial government and established direct ties with U.S. labor. By 1901 the first large labor confederation, the Free Federation of Workers (FLT), was established, and it affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The FLT, closely tied to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, dominated the island's labor movement for three decades until 1940 when it was challenged by a new federation, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT).

Throughout the first half of the century there was continual labor unrest on the island. As U.S. sugar companies transformed Puerto Rico into a virtual plantation, thousands of sugar-cane workers employed by multinational companies conducted a series of massive strikes. These strikes were often violent and were frequently conducted against the wishes of the FLT leadership. Many, like the sugar workers' strike of 1934, enjoyed the support of anti-imperialist organizations like Pedro Albizu Campos' Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.

Other workers engaging in significant union activity were the longshoremen, who conducted an island-wide strike in 1938. The striking workers had the support of the Puerto Rican Communist Party, and received the support of U.S. maritime workers as well. The Congress of International Organizations (CIO) sent representatives to Puerto Rico to support the longshoremen, and to recruit them into the CIO.

A major producer of sugar for the U.S. market during the 1930s and 1940s, the island's economy was transformed after World War II as factories began to replace plantations under an economic arrangement that anticipated many aspects of the current US-Mexico maquiladora program. With the industrialization of the Island, which coincided with the decline of the agricultural sector, large numbeos of Puerto Ricans went to the United States to reside permanently or work in the fields as seasonal migrant workers.

During the 1930's Puerto Rican women in New York entered garment and apparel industries and joined the unions, and during World War II there was a large influx of mainland Puerto Ricans into the National Maritime Union and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union. The immediate postwar period saw over half of Puerto Rican workers in the United States within unions. And because of the racism and discrimination they confronted within the labor movement, they typically formed separate caucuses to fight for their rights as Puerto Rican--or Latino--workers.

During the 1950's, Puerto Rican workers in the United States, at least half of them women, were concentrated in labor- intensive manufacturing sectors such as apparel, electrical, toys and novelties, shoes, furniture and mattress assembly. They also worked in the maritime trades, food and hotels, laundry services, distribution, baking, meat packing and as domestic workers. These workers generally earned low wages and were employed within the harshest and lowest-paid labor sectors in the New York City economy. (Forty years later, the situation remains the same with most Puerto Rican workers concentrated in labor-intensive manufacturing or low-wage services.)

In Puerto Rico, economic transformation gained momentum during the early 1950's as US. companies in labor-intensive production--like textiles and apparel--relocated from the northeast United States to the island. Many of these companies were insubstantial "fly-by-night" operations in search of quick profits by way of cheap labor and significant tax breaks. The movement of companies became massive under the Island's new commonwealth status (1952) and its economic development program, Operation Bootstrap. With the new companies also came U.S. unions--some affiliated with the AFL and some with the CIO (the two labor federations meged in 1954). Later, some aff liated with the independent Teamsters. These unions often competed with each other, and more significantly with local unions belonging to the CGT or other smaller organizations. U.S. unions were sometimes brought in by the companies themselves, or by the Commonwealth government to act as less-militant alternatives to Puerto Rican unions.

In the 1960's, the industries which were attracted to the island--mainly petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals--were increasingly capital-intensive. Although social services and rising wages increased the standard of living for many, thousands of Puerto Ricans were displaced from both agriculture and from the labor-intensive manufacturing that briefly flourished in the 1950s. The island's dependent industrialization simply could not absorb the island's displaced agricultural workers who were forced to leave the island in order to survive. Many subsequently found work in U.S. agriculture, as well as factories and services, mostly in New York and New Jersey.

Puerto Rican migration has produced a dividedrnation. Over a third of the Puerto Rican population now lives in the United States, mostly concentrated in a few mid-Atlantic States. New York State alone accounts for 40% of all Puerto Ricans on the mainland. Yet, while divided by geography, Puerto Rican workers in the United States and in Puerto Rico have maintained significant ties. Many workers have migrated back and forth between the mainland and the island, and labor unions have frequently maintained close ties either through membership in a common U.S. union, or through cooperative relations with counterparts representing workers emplopyed by common employers. These ties were not always friendly -- throughout the fifties and the 1960's the rivalry among AFL- CIO and Puerto Rican independent unions eventually resulted in a dual trade union structure that severely weakened the labor movement on the island, particularly within the private sector.

During the 1970s the United States and muchnof the global economy entered a severe recession. The recession was particularly harsh in Puerto Rico. Many of the manufacturing and chemical companies that had established operations on the island closed down or relocated in the lower-wage countries of Latin America, the Caribbean or Asia. This resulted in massive unemployment--as high as 25%--among Puerto Rican workers. In the process, many unionized facilities disappeared almost overnight, and unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) lost thousands of members in less than a decade. And while new tax incentives eventually attracted high-tech and pharmaceutical companies back to Puerto Rico, the labor movement found it increasingly difficult to organize private-sector workers. Many of the new companies were escaping unions in the United States, and they effectively opposed unionization on the island. Union density within the manufacturing sector in Puerto Rico eventually declined from 30% representation in 1970 to less than 5% by 1990.

While private-sector unioniso collapsed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, public-sector unionism became the focus of a renewed, albeit brief labor militancy. [See "Organizing Government Workers," p. 30.] Trade unions within the public- utility sector such as the Independent Electrical Workers Union (UTIER), associations within the public sector such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and public-service unions like the National Health Care Workers Union (UNTS) conducted significant union organizing or contract fights throughout the second half of the 1970s and into the 1980s. As in previous decades some of the most militant trade union activity was carried out by independent unions, often closely tied to the independence movement through the Independence Party or the Socialist Party, or through smaller left organizations. However, the lack of a collective bargaining law within the public sector, and the emergence of a large service, banking and commercial sector with little if any union representation severely limited the potential for the resurgence of Puerto Rico's labor movement.

Another obstacle to a resurgence of Puerto Rico's labor movement was--and remains--the lack of unity within organized labor in the island. While the seventies saw efforts to unite the island's divided labor movement, like the creation of the United Labor Movement (MOU), these efforts were short lived. It was not until the 1980s with the creation of the Council of Trade Union Organizations (COS) that AFL-CIO unions, as well as independent federations and unions began to conduct more unified trade union work.

The 1970s recession also undermined the gains made by the large number of Puerto Rican workers in New York City. The city's fiscal crisis was resolved with significant cuts in services, and austerity measures that last to this day. The crisis was partly the result of capital flight away from the city in search of low-wage, non-union labor in the U.S. South and Southwest, as well as overseas. As a result, Puerto Rican workers faced the prospect of permanent unemployment and a deteriorating city environment. The manufacturing sector, a principal source of employment for Puerto Ricans, declined dramatically in this period. The service sector grew, but offered professional white collar jobs which were by and large not available to Puerto Rican or black workers with insufficient formal education.

During the 1970s, radical Puerto Rican organizations like the Young Lords Party, El Comite MPI, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and others helped develop militant trade unionists who fought racism and poverty among Puerto Rican workers. More radical unions developed such like the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM). These unions were short lived but helped link the struggle of Puerto Rican workers to that of blacks and other minorities, and to the liberation and labor struggle in Puerto Rico. These efforts also were instrumental in the creation of the Hisp nic Labor Committee to address Latino labor issues in the city, as well as the creation of the Puerto Rican Labor Task Force of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights.

In the meantime, Puerto Rican workers managed to find employment in specific segments of the still-growing service sector. Over 25% of health care workers in New York City, for example, are Latinos. The hospital workers Local 1199 has become a leading union within the Puerto Rican community, and powerful municipal unions like the Transport Workers Union (TWU) have elected Puerto Ricans to the highest leadership levels. And while garment manufacturing has declined substantially, the fact that New York remains a world fashion center has kept a significant part of the industry in the city. Many Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have assumed positions of leadership within locals of the two major garment unions, the ILGWU and ACTWU, which recently merged to become UNITE. [See "Unions..." p. 22.]

Still, the transformation of the economy during the 1970s and later in the 1980s resulted in a declining union density, particularly for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who found themselves underrepresented in the largely unionized public sector. In addition, the fastest growing sectors of New York's economy--finance, insurance and real estate, as well as personal and business services--have been among the least unionized.

Outside of New York City, in the orchards and vegetable farms of New York State and northern New Jersey, efforts to organize Puerto Rican migrant workers have met with success. A union called the Committee in Support of Agricultural Workers (known by its Spanish initials, CATA) has organized about 5,000 workers, and is now recognized by the AFL-CIO and a number of local growers. CATA has been at work since 1979, and its efforts to unionize the hard-to-organize migrant population are finally beginning to pay off.

The challenges are clear, and as the interests of Puerto Ricans, all Latinos, all immigrantsand all workers come together, organizers schooled in years of hard experience will be in a position to meet them head on.