Following the success of local labor to have the memorandum of understanding amended through lobbying by the United Steelworkers of America, the territory’s teachers union is tapping its national organization to lobby for federal financial help.
Cecil Benjamin, president of the St. Croix chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the national AFT, an affiliate of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO, has formed a task force to lobby federal help for the territory. Benjamin said the focus will be on increasing federal aid, a return of excise taxes on petroleum products produced at HOVENSA and the forgiveness of Federal Emergency Management Agency loans.
"The AFT at the national level has been involved with the problems confronting the Virgin Islands . . . for quite a while now," Benjamin said.
He added that the national AFT is moving to connect with the AFL-CIO to discuss lobbying efforts. "They do have the clout and the power," he said.
Along with the V.I. government’s $1 billion debt, it owes government workers, including 2,000-plus public school teachers, approximately $200 million in salary increases dating back to 1993.
The AFT’s efforts to lobby the White House on issues concerning the territory does have some precedent. Last month, at the behest of the V.I. Central Labor Council, United Steelworkers of America President George Becker met with White House officials to discuss the territory’s problems and the memorandum of understanding.
That document was signed by Gov. Charles Turnbull and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in early October and contained provisions designed to help the territory regain financial soundness. The memorandum, however, infuriated local labor unions because it contained language that suggested the governor restructure the territory’s public labor relations laws by June 30, 2000.
The memorandum stated that the territory’s general fund deficits of recent years have been aggravated significantly by "collective bargaining agreements, whereby (government of the Virgin Islands) employees enjoy greater bargaining rights than those enjoyed by federal employees."
But after Becker’s visit at the White House, the wording in the memorandum was softened and encouraged "collective bargaining reform initiatives" between the unions and the government as a way to help with the financial problems.
During Becker and the CLC’s meeting with White House officials, financial issues aimed at increasing revenue to the territory were raised. Those included the need for the federal government to continue the current level of the rum-excise tax past December’s expiration date and the return of gasoline excise taxes from HOVENSA.
Benjamin said the AFT’s effort will touch on those and additional points, including more federal aid and the relief of FEMA loans. If the V.I.’s $200 million FEMA Community Disaster Loan isn’t forgiven, the territory will have to start making annual payments of $25 million beginning in 2001.
"And, of course, we’d like to see an outright grant coming from the federal government," Benjamin said.


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