Strike of sugar mill workers in 1947

Strike of sugar mill workers in 1947

The recognition of the rights of Puerto Rican workers is the product of many years of labor struggles, along with the development of the rule of law in Puerto Rico, and the adoption of US labor legislation. This process took shape through a series of social, political, and economic events, principally during the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The struggle resulted in the institutionalization of unions and the creation of a body of labor law in Puerto Rico.

The first signs of workers’ struggles for better working conditions on the island may be found in the demands that were made in The Ten Commandments of Free Men -written by Ramón Emeterio Betances, the principal instigator of the Grito de Lares. This document included demands for the abolition of slavery, the elimination of the system of the “day laborer’s book”, and others.

During Spanish colonial times, workers’ associations, the driving force for change in the world of labor, were considered to be conspiracies. There are, however, records of workers’ strikes dating from around 1895.

When the Americans arrived on the island, new labor legislation regarding workers’ rights was implemented. For example, the right to organize in unions and the right to strike were recognized. The Regional Federation of Workers, a Puerto Rican union, was immediately established, on October 20, 1898.

Shortly after that and following a demonstration, the Regional Federation of Workers held on May 1, 1899, International Labor Day. The military governor, General Guy V. Henry, issued General Order Number 54, recognizing the eight-hour work day for the first time in Puerto Rico. The proclamation established eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and study, and eight hours of rest. This was the seed for Public Law 379 of 1948, known as the Work Day Act, which is still in effect.

In spite of these advances, the struggles for the recognition of labor rights continued. In 1902, Santiago Iglesias Pantín, Eduardo Conde, Clemente Filomeno, Juan Guerra, and other Puerto Rican labor leaders were convicted and sentenced to prison and fines for “collusion to raise the price of labor.” However, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court reversed the sentence because they had been tried under the provisions of the Spanish Civil Code, although there had been US rule in Puerto Rico already for four years.

As the sugar industry boomed, confrontations between workers and plantation owners became more frequent. The workers demanded better wages and fewer hours. The Free Federation of Workers (FLT), a new labor organization created in 1899 by Santiago Iglesias Pantín and others after the Regional Federation of Workers had disbanded, led strikes against the sugar cane industry in 1905, 1915, 1934; the tobacco industry in 1919, and the docks in 1938. This union had been affiliated to the United States American Federation of Labor since 1901.

In addition to its ties to this organization, from the early years of the 20th century the labor movement was also involved in partisan politics. The Socialist Party, the political arm of the Free Federation of Workers (FLT), was founded in 1915, and its 1919 electoral platform included important measures related to labor rights. The demands included an eight-hour day, equal pay for men and women, and the absolute abolition of child labor, as well as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and the right of assembly.

Another important Puerto Rican organization, the General Confederation of Workers, was organized in the early 1940s. This organization had its origins in the early years of Operation Bootstrap and the mandate of Luis Muñoz Marín. Five years later, labor legislation on the island was further extended with Public Law 130, enacted in 1945, the Labor Relations Act of Puerto Rico. The act regulates labor relations and allows for the negotiation of wages, working conditions, and benefits or rights that should be recognized. This law also authorized the right to organize in unions in the private sector and in pubic corporations. A short while later the Taft-Harley Act of the United States Congress, also known as the Federal Labor Relations Act (1947), was passed and made extensive to the jurisdiction of Puerto Rico.

However, it was not until the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, which was ratified in 1952, that certain workers’ demands were recognized as inalienable rights, such as the right of Puerto Rican workers to organize unions, set forth in Sections 17 and 18. The Constitution also recognizes the right of association and the right to strike.

New strategy from workers struggles

New strategy from workers struggles

At the beginning of 21th century

Although under the rule of law in Puerto Rico, supported by federal legislation, the right to organize and to strike is recognized, a minority of workers are unionized. For example, after Public Law 45 was passed in 1998, authorizing the organization of state-level public employees, it is estimated that more than 80 percent of government workers are not unionized.

Furthermore, strikes in Puerto Rico in the public and the private sectors have decreased in terms of quantity, frequency, and duration. It is estimated, for example, that 98 percent of collective bargaining agreements are reached without strikes or major conflict.

Labor struggles and the broadening of labor rights are part of a continuous process that is influenced by the needs and historical perspective of workers at a given moment. In the case of Puerto Rico, the process has included additional legislation regarding the rights of working mothers, breast-feeding rights, and rights related to equal opportunity, minimum wages, and protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, the labor movement in Puerto Rico faces new challenges in the scenario of a globalized economy. The future will tell how the transnational labor movement will develop and how new strategies will be developed.


Author: Mario Roche
Published: September 11, 2014.

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