The Central Labor Council called in its heavy guns Monday when national labor leaders lobbied White House officials at its behest for a grant to end the territory’s economic crisis.
The president of the United Steelworkers of America, George Becker, local USWA and CLC President Luis "Tito" Morales and others met with administration officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisors. The meeting was conducted by Karen Tramontano, counselor to President Clinton’s Chief of Staff.
"We represent 1,500 of the 10,000 public employees providing critical government services for the Virgin Islands’ citizens that all could collapse into economic chaos without the immediate relief of a federal grant," Becker said.
According to the USWA’s Washington, D.C. office, discussions centered around the territory’s financial problems, including the government’s $1 billion deficit, unfunded federal mandates not being paid, court-ordered infrastructure improvements and exhaustion of the V.I.’s borrowing ability.
Morales said the union also raised the need for the federal government to continue the current level of the rum excise tax past December’s expiration date and the need for the administration and Congress to determine whether the territory is entitled to a return of gasoline excise taxes from HOVENSA.
Morales said the meeting was successful in that it will lead to others, possibly within the next two weeks.
"We will have other meetings . . . to come to some solutions to the problems of the territory," Morales said.
In an interview prior to the White House meeting, Cecil Benjamin, president of the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and first vice president of the CLC, said Gov. Charles Turnbull was aware of the CLC’s plan to reach out to its national affiliates.
Benjamin said that in addition to the gas tax issue, discussions would include forgiveness of the V.I.’s $200 million FEMA Community Disaster Loan. If the loan isn’t forgiven, the territory will have to start making annual payments of $25 million beginning in 2001.
While the territory’s debt exceeds the $1 billion mark, Benjamin said union leaders wouldn’t expect that amount in a federal grant. They are, however, hoping to get a commitment on something.
"They (USWA) have a lot of power and lobbying ability," Benjamin said. "But you’re not going to get a billion dollars from the U.S. government to help in this bailout."
Morales said Becker also brought up provisions in the controversial memorandum of understanding between the V.I. government and the Department of Interior. Union leaders have decried provisions calling for 50-50 health and retirement contributions, the elimination of five paid government holidays and the revision of Act 4440 to match the Federal Labor Relations Act.
The CLC represents 18,000 unionized public and private sector workers in the territory. The local USWA union represents 1,500 government workers and about 4,500 workers at the HOVENSA refinery, the Virgin Islands Telephone Corp. and at various hotels throughout the territory.


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