On Jan. 21, dockworkers re-elected Ronald Blear to a fourth term as head of the Atlantic Port Authority’s (Japdeva) union, one of the strongest and most polemic unions in Costa Rica. Blear is widely seen as a thorn in the government’s side for his staunch opposition to government plans to privatize the management of Moín and Limón ports on the Caribbean coast.
In an interview with The Tico Times, Blear addressed one of the biggest criticisms of his administration of the union during the past six years: that under the current system, port management has become inefficient. He also acknowledged that the union’s contracts with workers needs changing.
TT: Government officials keep saying that a private concession is the best way to boost port productivity. President Laura Chinchilla said she would insist on it. Yet you are totally against privatization. So how should the ports be improved?
RB: In August 2006, we presented the government an improvement plan for the ports at Limón and Moín. Unfortunately, the people who want to privatize the docks didn’t take our plan seriously.
In general terms, the proposed project entails obtaining $80 million to buy equipment that would increase the speed of operations, including a tugboat and a new crane, which we urgently need. That’s one point.
We are also fighting for an increase in the fees charged for our services. Those fees haven’t been updated since 2003, and it’s about time they were.
We have also reached an agreement that the union’s contract be modified so we can face future [private] competition.
Regarding the $80 million investment, where would this money come from?
According to the study we presented the government, the money could easily be obtained through the national banking system. It is a perfect investment with no risk at all, and it would be fully repaid in three and a half years.
Although the banking system is the obvious option, we shouldn’t forget that the government could provide those resources from its annual budget, if true improvement is what authorities are really after.
We are also completely willing to review our union contract and adapt it for better management.
You just mentioned the union’s willingness to modify the collective contract. How significantly would it be changed? Would you decrease the benefits that advocates of privatization call “bloodsucking benefits?”
Bloodsucking, huh? Bloodsucking! Let me tell you something first. Our union contract has been demonized, and unfortunately we are unable to confront so much libel and abuse of power from the other media.
Listen carefully: those who say evil things about our contract are manipulating information by including every single benefit any public employee is entitled to in Costa Rica as part of our specific benefits. So it only looks like a lot of privileges.
Let me give you an example. All government workers across the country receive an annual back-to-school grant. In the case of our union, we include that benefit as part of the contract. So, if you include the cost of the grant and tell the public how much the contract costs, figures will look bigger than they really are.
Only 4 percent of the total Japdeva budget is actually spent on our benefits.
Do you plan to reduce those benefits?
They belong to the workers. I can’t change them alone. But we are willing to negotiate a new contract soon, and modifications will be encouraged. For example, we will be discussing a way to keep the port operating all year long.
Do you think the government will stop offering workers a deal with compensation in exchange for quitting their jobs?
[Government officials] should, because if they don’t, it’s going to result in an ugly clash that could get people killed.
That’s a strong thing to say.
When you’re against the ropes, what options are left?
I don’t know, you tell me.
Defend yourself! Again, what I can tell you is that we feel ambushed and persecuted, and ultimately we’ll have to fight in the streets for our jobs. We are prepared for self-defense in any forum. I think it will likely turn into an arm-wrestling match with strong support from the citizens. Costa Ricans are now fully aware that this union has exhausted every legal means to protect the workers’ interests, and government officials are the ones looking for conflict. It may end up costing one or two people their lives, unfortunately.
For some time now, major union leaders have claimed the government tried to bribe dockworkers by offering them a $137 million compensation package. But there are videos where you ask for $500,000 to buy out each person. Isn’t that a bribe too?
Well… look, this is a battle, and sometimes you have to protect your allies in certain ways.
What does that mean?
It was a strategy to keep our jobs. We know the government won’t pay that amount, and if it did, it wouldn’t be as far-fetched as some might think. If a dockworker is fired because of privatization, he wouldn’t just be losing his salary for the next few years; he would also lose all the benefits that were included in the union contract. Do the math. How much would that worker lose each year? In a lifetime? When you do the calculation, you find that $500,000 is a fair amount.
Last year, Costa Rican unions filed a complaint against the government before the International Labor Organization. They also called for sanctions outlined by the labor clauses of the Central America Free Trade Agreement. What happened with those complaints?
Any complaint process is complex and takes patience. I know everything is under investigation, and we will take this as far as possible. We would like to unmask the truth so that the entire world knows that in Costa Rica, labor rights are not respected. It is illegal for the government to interfere in union matters. But it happened last year when dockworkers were tempted with the $137 million bailout. We must ensure that legal responsibilities are complied with.
Many people would despise your actions if the country were to receive a sanction.
We live in a society of laws, and if one feels one’s rights are undermined, there is no other choice than requesting help from all the international ruling bodies to stop the abuse. It is one’s right, especially if you are representing the working class. We should take advantage of the international tools for legal protection. They were established and implemented for a reason.