Head of Legal Services fires back at union, blames it for stalled talks

By The Star Staff

Legal Services of Puerto Rico Executive Director Hadassa Santini Colberg denied on Thursday remarks by the Independent Union of Legal Services Workers (UITSL) on the reasons for going on strike to demand the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement.

“It is the Union’s own actions that keep its membership without a collective agreement,” Santini Colberg said in a written communication. “For two and a half years we have been negotiating the agreement that expired in June 2019. We have been willing and available to continue the negotiation process all this time. Even during the pandemic, we maintained a calendar of virtual meetings that allowed the process to continue and move forward. However, in recent weeks the UITSL negotiating committee has been absent from the table, even after confirming its availability for five scheduled meetings. For this reason, since mid-June we have not been able to sit at the negotiating table.”

Santini Colberg noted that in August 2020, the UITSL filed an injunction appeal for not returning to work in person, which was unsuccessful as the court ruled against them. After returning to the negotiating table, the union changed its spokesperson several times, the last being Luis Pedraza Leduc, who served as such from August 2020 until May of this year, when he suddenly announced that he was no longer part of the union’s negotiating committee.

“Now the UITSL employees again intend, self-servingly, to affect services to the clientele by means of an intermittent stoppage, which is an illegal one,” she said. “The union once again intends to put its particular interests before the needs of the clients of this entity and thus negatively affect the services that we offer to the poor population of Puerto Rico. Our invitation to the union is that they return to the negotiating table so that we can continue the dialogue in order to reach agreements.”

UITSL groups about 60 employees in administrative support positions such as secretaries, paralegals and janitors. So far, agreements have been reached on 64% of the articles of the collective bargaining agreement.

“As is our custom, and as we have shown, we will continue to negotiate and present proposals at the table that allow us to protect the integrity of this organization and ensure efficient service to customers, who are our reason for being,” Santini Colberg said.

Workers at the Legal Services of Puerto Rico Central Office went on strike Thursday morning to demand that the employer negotiate a collective agreement, as well as the benefits acquired during four decades.

UITSL President Leticia Ortiz Matías charged in a written statement that the Puerto Rico Legal Services Corp. “has taken advantage of the pandemic to keep them [employees] without a collective agreement and lower their wages in order to force them to deliver benefits.”

Ortiz Matías said negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement began two years ago with the Legal Services Corp., led by Santini Colberg, but “the employer has shown an intransigent and hostile attitude at the negotiating table.”

She said the non-profit organization has delayed the process in an “attempt to reduce and eliminate benefits that date back 40 years without justified reason.”

“It is unusual that the so-called Law Firm of the Poor aims to impoverish its workers,” Ortiz Matías said. “During this state of emergency due to COVID-19, the employer has violated working conditions by not paying them bonuses that are part of their salaries, despite the fact that our workers kept working remotely and in person during this pandemic.”

She also insisted that the corporation has not experienced any reduction in its budget allocations and has received additional financial aid during the emergency caused by COVID-19.

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